Bernie Webber tied a long leather belt around his waist and fastened himself to the wheelman’s shelter. He glanced at the three young Coast Guard sailors who had volunteered to accompany him on this rescue mission. What lay ahead for each of them? Would they be successful? Would they come back alive?
The sky was turning from slate gray to black in the heavy storm. Visibility decreased as thick snow continued to fall and darkness settled in. As the four men looked across the bar through which their small boat must pass, they caught a glimpse of the seas ahead of them and could not believe the height of the waves. The monstrous storm of 1952 was churning the ocean into waves 60–75 feet high. Webber was now forced to make a decision that could likely cost the lives of himself and his crewmen. No one would criticize him for returning to the safety of the Cape Cod pier. He cleared his head of the dangers ahead and thought of the men he was attempting to save. He could picture them trapped inside the stern portion of the Pendleton, a giant tanker vessel which had been split in half by the vicious storm and was now being tossed about in the waves and wind off the northeastern shore of the United States. Webber, his crew of three young men, and their small rescue boat were the doomed sailors’ only hope for survival.
As he peered out at the threatening scene before him, Webber wondered if Providence had placed him in this time and in this place. While their rescue boat tossed and turned along a canyon of waves, Webber and his crew began to sing. They sang with fear but also with determination through the snow and freezing sea spray.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
As the men sang the verses of the hymn, they braced themselves for the collision they knew was coming. As they crossed the bar into the Atlantic Ocean, they were hit by gigantic waves. A mountain of bitterly cold water lifted their vessel and tossed it into the air. All the men were temporarily airborne. They came crashing back down just as another huge wave struck. The violent waters shattered the boat’s windshield and broke the compass. As the waves continued to pound the tiny ship, Webber struggled to keep it upright and straightened. With snow now blowing fully in his face and saltwater spray stinging the cuts on his face from the glass of the shattered windshield, Webber peered into the darkness and guided the boat deeper into the teeth of the storm. He attempted to make radio contact with headquarters at the Chatham Station, but there was no answer. He put the radio down and stared into the desperate eyes of his battered crew. He knew none of them would suggest quitting, but they were facing insurmountable odds against the fierce storm, the darkness, and the loss of their compass.
They continued their battle against the elements for several hours until, through the broken glass of the windshield, they became aware of a mysterious dark shape rising out of the surf; using the small beam of light from the rescue boat, they were amazed to find it was the steel hulk of the Pendleton. As they circled the shipwreck, they saw no sign of life and feared they had arrived too late. But then they saw a tiny figure high up on the ship’s deck—a lone man waving his arms wildly. They had not come in vain! As the crew contemplated how to rescue the sailor, more figures appeared—32 men in all.1
The story of this rescue is an amazing account of bravery, self-sacrifice, and the loss of one life. The tiny rescue boat, originally designed to carry 12 men, filled up quickly as 31 sailors struggled onboard and crawled into the survivors’ shelter. As captain of the boat, Webber had to make a critical decision. Realizing that a second rescue attempt would be impossible, he decided that no man would be left behind. They would either all make it together or all die together.
With the men pinned together in very close quarters, Webber struggled to keep the tiny overweight rescue vessel upright as the fight against the elements continued. He hoped and prayed they were headed in the right direction and would arrive safely to shore somewhere.
Gradually the seas began to change. The waves were not as heavy, and the boat moved through shallower waters, and suddenly Webber saw a blinking red light. He quickly realized it was coming from atop the buoy inside the Chatham Bar leading to the entrance of the bay and their home base. Webber looked at the blinking light once more in disbelief and then turned his eyes to the stormy skies above. He knew their perilous journey had been accomplished in safety solely because of heaven’s help.
FEAR IS ALL AROUND US
Throughout our lives we are periodically faced with fearful situations. Perhaps you remember how nervous and frightened you were as a child on your first day in a new school. Or maybe you remember being scared the first time you sang in public or performed in a musical recital. How about when you took your first driving test? Did your knees shake? Did your stomach feel upset?
Now that we are adults, we can still sometimes feel afraid. For some, getting up in front of a congregation to give a talk or special music can cause fear of stress. Starting a new career or dealing with a job change can also be very scary. Other situations can include buying a new car or house; taking care of a sick, elderly family member; facing an unpleasant confrontation situation; moving to a new location or country; going to the dentist; taking a long trip alone—all can cause fearful anticipation.
Few of us will ever have to participate in a monumental event like Webber’s sea rescue. What is so profound about the story is that the four seamen, knowing full well how dangerous the journey would be, made the decision to venture out into that historic storm anyway. Uppermost in their minds was the thought of the 32 sailors aboard the shipwreck, out in the fearful elements with no other hope of rescue. Yes, the rescuers were fearful, but because something else was more important, none of them suggested turning back and giving up.
Courage is the ability to deal with difficult, challenging, and sometimes seemingly impossible circumstances. It is the ability to face fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, and other threats in view of the larger, more important picture.
COURAGE IS NO GUARANTEE OF SUCCESS
A quotation from an unknown source says, “Courage is not defined by those who fought and did not fall, but by those who fought, fell, and rose again.”
Two years before the historic rescue of 1952, Bernie Webber led another rescue attempt in equally hazardous conditions. Like the Pendleton crew, the sailors onboard the New Bedford-based scalloper William J. Landry also found themselves trapped on a sinking ship off the same coast. Webber and his crew tried four times to reach the doomed vessel, but each attempt ended with their boat capsizing in the waves and wind. Each time the group made it safely back to shore, swimming through frigid, stormy waters. In spite of their wet clothes and aching muscles, the rescuers bailed out their boat, climbed back in, and headed back out into the storm.
After the fourth attempt, with the elements intensifying and their physical reserves completely used up, they could only stand on shore and in profound grief watch as the scalloper gradually sank beneath the waves—all lives onboard lost. In spite of that bitter memory, Webber, with a heart of compassion for the desperate sailors of the Pendleton, felt he could do nothing but respond to the need. Influenced strongly by his minister-father, Webber had a faith which drew strength from God and kept him on track in his life of service.
LESSON FROM WEBBER’S STORY
- When faced with a fearful decision, look at the big picture. What’s really important?
- Follow your heart when compassion, love, and conviction are calling you to act.
- Build your courage resources by studying and reading about lives of courage, dedication, and commitment.
- Utilize reliable sources of strength—hymns of comfort, prayer, Bible promises—during stressful, uncertain events.
- When acts of courage result in failure, pick yourself up and find comfort in having made the effort. If necessary try again—and again.
- Give praise and thanks to God for any and all successes.
1 Story taken from Tougias, Michael J., and Sherman, Casey, The Finest Hours (Scribner, 2009).