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U.S. Coast Guard Series The Fateful Call of the Mermaid

February 3, 2017

Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.

 

The Fateful Call of the Mermaid

Bert and Stanley Bergman knew that their situation was perilous. Without a rudder, there was little hope that they would be able to navigate the rough waters of the Columbia River Bar. There was only one option if they were to try and survive their plight. One of the brothers grabbed for the radio. With the push of his thumb, he began his may-day call. His voice crackled across the radio waves through the late-afternoon din. Across the water, atop the rocky shoreline, a speaker blared the request for assistance. The radio operator took down the information and called upon the senior officer aboard the station. First Class Boatswain’s Mate Darrell Murray raced to the radio room and listened to the information. The only hope for the men aboard the stricken thirty-eight foot crab boat was the diligence of the men stationed at the United States Coast Guard Lifeboat Station at Cape Disappointment. Murray alerted his crew to prepare to get two of their small boats underway. After requesting an updated weather report, Murray ordered his men to head out to render assistance. The Mermaid had made her call. The Coastguardsmen were answering.  

 

The first boat clear of the docks was the CG-40564, a forty-foot patrol boat, under the command of Murray with his crew of Seaman Acie Maxwell and engineer Terrance Lowe aboard. Within a few minutes, the CG-36454, a thirty-six motor life boat, got underway under the command of Larry Edwards along with crewmen Brian Johnson and James Croker. The two boats worked their way toward the swirling swells and mounting waves of the cape. Radios crackled with additional information as the boats began to maneuver their way over the swells that rose to nearly twenty-feet in height. The Mermaid, the station personnel had learned, had radioed that she was anchored between buoys twelve and fourteen but the anchor was not holding to the bottom. With each passing wave, the Mermaid was being pushed closer and closer to the dangerous bar. The two Coast Guard boats arrived between the two buoys. The Coastguardsmen scanned the scene. The Mermaid was nowhere in sight. 

 

Finally, the stricken crab boat was spotted. Murray engaged the engines and worked his way toward the rudderless craft. After passing instructions to his crewmen, he maneuvered his boat to pass a line in an effort to take the crab boat in tow. Pulling the Mermaid clear of the clutches of the dangerous bar was the only way to avoid disaster. The Coastguardsmen passed the line and within minutes, the Mermaid was secured to the forty-foot patrol boat’s tow bit. As the thirty-six foot motor lifeboat arrived on scene to offer assistance, Murray realized that the weather conditions were worsening with waves towering over thirty feet and winds gusting at gale-force. Murray’s chief priorities were towing the Mermaid to safety with his ability to safely cross through the mounting swell, all the while ensuring the safety of the station’s other craft. Murray radioed ashore to discuss the mission’s evolution with his Officer in Charge.  

 

The station’s Officer in Charge, Doyle Porter, having learned of the rescue operation, had arrived at the station a few minutes earlier. He and Murray discussed the worsening weather conditions.1 Porter, though confident of his station’s personnel, knew that the situation required a stronger boat to weather the conditions that faced Murray and the crew of his other boat. A radio call was issued to the United States Coast Guard Station at Port Adams. Their response was immediate. The station’s personnel readied to get their life boat, the CG-52301, underway to assist her fellow Coast Guard boats and the Mermaid.2 Murray would maintain the tow of the Mermaid and the thirty-six foot motor lifeboat would stand on station until both were relieved by the larger and more powerful lifeboat. 

 

At five minutes past five, fifty minutes after the first may-day call from the Mermaid, the CG-52301 named Triumph, cleared her lines and set out to rendezvous with the CG-40564, with the Mermaid in tow, and the CG-36454. Aboard the Triumph, under the command of Coxswain John Culp, a Boatswain’s Mate First Class, were Boatswain’s Mate Second Class John S. Hoban, Seaman Boatswain’s Mate Ralph E. Mace, Engineer Third Class Joseph E. Petrin, Seaman Gordon F. Sussez and Engineer Gordon Huggins. As darkness fell upon the watery maelstrom of the Columbia River Bar, all aboard the fifty-two footer would be tested almost beyond their combined maritime experiences. 

 

The breakers, by the time the Triumph had reached inside the river’s mouth, were ranging in height from between twenty to thirty-five feet. The massive walls of seawater blotted out the horizon. The fifty-two foot motor life boat’s engine thrummed as Culp decided upon his approach to the massive swells. An order was passed for all crew aboard to don their lifejackets. Culp then engaged the engines as he pushed the Triumph’s bow up the sheer saltwater crest to its white foaming precipice. Clear of the crest, the Triumph slid down the backside of the massive wall of swirling water. The boat plunged forward. The Coastguardsmen, holding tight to the rails focused not on the danger of their personal situation, but rather on the mission that they were tasked to accomplish. The same scenario played out again and again as the Triumph battered through the mountains of waves toward the Mermaid and her fellow Coast Guard craft. 

 

Two hours later, the Triumph finally arrived on scene. Culp passed word to Murray aboard the CG-40564 that he and his crew would take over the tow. With the towing evolution now in the hands of the crew of the Triumph, Murray and Edwards received orders to return to their station. The forty-foot patrol boat and the thirty-six foot motor lifeboat began their harrowing return through the bar to the safety of their station. As the two boats worked their way toward shore, the weather conditions limited visibility. The two boats lost sight of one another. Both of the boats would be on their own as they crossed the bar to safety.  

As Murray maneuvered closer to buoy seven he masterfully maneuvered between two large mountainous waves. Clear of the two waves, he turned and suddenly saw a sheer face of water careening toward the stern of the patrol boat. Murray could not maneuver clear of the break wave. The wave broke and forced the stern of the patrol boat forward. The patrol boat, despite Murray’s efforts, was now controlled by the power of the massive breaking surf. The bow of the patrol boat surged forward and plunged into the back of another wave. The force of the wave on the patrol boat’s stern forced the bow downward and it plunged into the darkness as her stern lifted upward.  Corkscrewing into the water, the patrol boat violently capsized. Murray and Lowe were imprisoned inside the overturned boat. Maxwell, who had been on deck, was tossed into the seas and wallowed amidst the tumultuous swells.

 

Lowe was able to escape. As he took in a deep breath of air upon reaching the surface, he heard Maxwell yelling for help. The two men swam toward the stern of the patrol boat and grabbed onto the propeller shafts. Murray fought for his survival. Two of his unstrapped leg straps had been hooked on the coxswain’s flat. Using his knife, Murray was able to free himself from the two leg straps. He then had to find a way out of the overturned hull. Though his lifejacket would be his savior it was now serving as a significant hindrance to his ability to safely maneuver free from the boat. Murray pulled off the lifejacket and held it in one hand. Finally, Murray was able to escape the capsized boat. Grabbing onto the life raft of the patrol boat, Murray looked around and saw his two crewmen clinging to the overturned hull of the patrol craft. Waves continued to pound the capsized boat. The men held on for dear life. 

 

Suddenly, the white hull of the thirty-six foot motor lifeboat appeared amidst the tempest. A crewman aboard the lifeboat spotted the men and Larry Edwards did his best to maneuver toward his fellow Coastguardsmen. Despite his efforts, the motor lifeboat careened into the overturned hull of the patrol boat. As the two boats collided, Lowe, seconds before clutching the propeller shaft, leapt onto the lifeboat. The motor lifeboat maneuvered clear of the patrol boat. Maxwell, still holding onto the propeller shaft saw Murray floating near the stern. He reached out and pulled him toward his position. Edwards, finally able to get his boat under control, maneuvered closer so that his crew could take Murray and Maxwell aboard. 

There was no way that they could try and cross the bar. Murray, after consultation with Edwards, decided to power through the swells to the Columbia River Lightship. Approximately five miles from their location, the lightship would offer them respite from their current situation. The beaten motor lifeboat slowly trudged clear of the breakers toward the lightship as the men aboard the Triumph worked their way to safety. It would not bode well for the men aboard the Triumph or the two crabbers aboard the Mermaid. 

The initial tow line between the Triumph and the Mermaid had snapped under the terrible strain of the seas. After re-attaching a second tow line, the two boats continued their way toward safety. At ten minutes past eight o’clock, the second towline snapped. As the bitter end slithered into the black abyss of the swirling seas, the Mermaid was tossed to and fro toward the swirling seas of Peacock Spit. Mountains of water slammed into the Mermaid. The Triumph’s crew readied her gear on deck. Culp’s wet hand clutched his radio and called his station. The Triumph was going to send over another tow line to the Mermaid. It would be a fateful decision. 

 

As the Triumph maneuvered into position to assist, a massive wall of water slammed into her. The fifty-two footer rolled violently. One of the crew, having gone below earlier in the voyage, clamored to escape from the survivor’s compartment. The life boat rolled over and righted itself in the trough of the wave. He exited the compartment and stood upon its sodden decks. Not a soul was aboard. Huggins, having gone aboard the rescue to gain experience, was now the only man left aboard. Waves continued to buffet against the Triumph. Huggins believed one of his fellow crewmen was in the forward compartment. He went to the hatch and attempted to open it. The door knob to the hatch was missing. He banged on the door to elicit a response. There was none. Suddenly another wave slammed into the Triumph. The motor lifeboat careened over. Huggins was tossed into the water. 

 

Meanwhile, one of the Triumph’s crewmen had been pulled from the water by the brothers aboard the Mermaid. Once pulled aboard, the Coastguardsman asked for the crab boat’s radio. He sent a message to his station. “Chief, a big breaker hit us and the 52-footer went down. I am the only one left.” The horrific message crossed through the night as if a lightning bolt. The chief of the United States Coast Guard Station at Point Adams immediately sent two thirty-six foot motor lifeboats, the CG-36554 and CG-36535, to the scene to render assistance. 

 

As the two additional motor lifeboats raced to the scene, at twenty minutes past nine o’clock, the CG-36454 arrived at the Columbia River Lightship. The battered and almost sinking motor lifeboat was tied off to the stern of the lightship as the men were helped aboard to nurse their wounds.  

The two thirty-six foot motor lifeboats were able to arrive on scene and within minutes of their arrival took the Mermaid in tow. The plan was to pull the Mermaid, with the two men and Petrin, survivor of the Triumph, in tow to the Columbia River Lightship. Despite their efforts, the tow line parted and the Mermaid was sucked into the breakers. The Coastguardsmen watched as the stricken crab boat somersaulted amidst the waves and disappeared into the darkness. The Mermaid was no more.  

 

Huggins, one of the crewmen from the Triumph, was tossed violently and wantonly amidst the waves. Despite the horrific ordeal, he was finally cast into the shallows of the shore break where he was found by Coastguardsmen who had been dispatched to patrol the shoreline. Battered and beaten by the onslaught, Huggins was pulled ashore. He would be the only survivor of the Triumph’s crew. His fellow Coastguardsmen had all drowned when the lifeboat had capsized and when Petrin, the only other survivor of the capsized lifeboat, had perished when the Mermaid was broken apart amidst the breakers. 

The attempted rescue of the Mermaid would serve as a stark reminder to the service and to the nation of the harrowing and dangerous duty that faced the men of the United States Coast Guard. Posthumously, Boatswain’s Mate First Class John L. Culp would be awarded the service’s highest honor, the Gold Lifesaving Medal, for his efforts. His fellow lost crewmen, Hoban, Mace, Petrin and Sussex would receive the service’s second highest honor, the Silver Lifesaving Medal. Those who survived would only be haunted by the horrific memories of their efforts to try and save the brothers of the Mermaid who called through the darkening afternoon hours to receive assistance. 

 

The attempted rescue of the Mermaid and the loss of the Triumph on January 11, 1961 will forever serve as a stark reminder in the annals of United States Coast Guard history as a day where the bell to mark the passage of human life was tolled seven times.  Five dedicated and brave United States Coast Guardsmen and two crabbers who were attempting to make a living on the sea had been lost despite the heroic efforts of the lifesavers bound by their solemn oath of service to others.  In the wake of this terrible night and other rescue attempts that ended in death, the men and women of the United States Coast Guard continue to answer the call when those in peril radio for assistance. It is a long tradition of self-sacrifice that will forever continue as the those in need know that in their most dire of times, there are those who will stop at nothing to fight through the worst of Mother Nature’s wrath to try and save them even if they themselves face the ultimate sacrifice. It is this dedication to their service and to their duty that the men and women of the United States Coast Guard honor the sacrifices of those who have served before them, many of whom who have made the ultimate sacrifice, to ensure that despite the risks, they are prepared and ready to answer the call to action as sentinels and saviors of the seas. 

 

1 Porter, the OINC or Officer in Charge, had left the station to be aside his wife who was in the hospital. Mrs. Porter was in labor giving birth to the family’s second child at the time of the initial call. Learning of the situation, Porter immediately returned to the Coast Guard Station at Cape Disappointment, to lead his men. 

 

2 The Triumph was one of two fifty-two foot lifeboats built for the United States Coast Guard. Designated as “Type-F” crafts, the lifeboats were an experimental design and would be one of only two craft under one hundred feet in length to be named within the service with CG-52300 or Invincible, serving as the other.  The Triumph was designed to provide an improved “cruising radius over the standard 36-foot class of motor lifeboats, a more powerful engine, and accommodations for crew and for rescued survivors.” Though based on the 36-foot lifeboat class, the fifty-two’s were not meant to replace the storied lifeboats. Rather, the fifty-two’s were designed for use at locations where extreme weather conditions could arise.

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