1958: Carl D Bradley Sinks in Lake Michigan

November 18, 2021 all-day

The Carl D. Bradley, traveling light departed Buffington, Indiana around 9:30 pm, Monday, November 17, and headed up Lake Michigan bound for the Port of Calcite. Roland Bryan, a sailor since age fourteen, was the master. This trip was the last for the season and the steamer was going home. The Bradley never made it. In less than 24 hours the Carl D. Bradley was on the bottom of Lake Michigan and 33 of the 35-man crew were dead or missing.

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When the vessel left Buffington, the winds were blowing up to 35 miles per hour from the south. The storm that was about to engulf the Bradley was developing over the plains when a cold front from the north met a warm front over the plains. The temperature in Chicago had dropped about 20 degrees that day. The forecast warned of gale winds. The crew prepared for severe weather by securing the unloading boom and the hatches. The steamer followed the route up the Wisconsin shore to Cana Island then changed course and cut across Lake Michigan toward Lansing Shoal. As the wind velocity increased, the crew filled the ballast tanks to maximum practical condition. By 4:00 pm of the next day, the 18th, the winds had reached 65 miles per hour. Even though the lake was rough and the winds high, the boat rode the heavy seas with no hint of the laboring.

Captain Bryan had asked the cooks to serve an early dinner. He knew the turn from Lake Michigan toward Lake Huron would put heavy weather broadside of the vessel. He wanted to give the mess crew the opportunity to clean up and secure before turning. The mess room was full of crewmembers anticipating going home.

About 5:30 pm First Mate Elmer Flemming radioed Calcite that the Bradley would arrive at 2:00 am. Then a “loud thud” was heard. In the pilothouse Captain Bryan and Flemming looked aft and saw the stern sag. Flemming immediately sent a distress signal over the radio. “Mayday! Mayday! This is the Carl D. Bradley. Our position is approximately twelve miles southwest of Gull Island. We are in serious trouble! We’re breaking up!” Captain Bryan sounded the general alarm, signaled the engine room to stop the ship, and blew the whistle to abandon ship. The power system failed and the lights in the bow section went out. The Bradley heaved upward near amidships and broke in two. The forward section rolled over and sank. The stern end plunged to the bottom. Within a few minutes the Carl D. Bradley was gone.

In those first minutes Elmer Flemming realized he did not have a life jacket. He went to his stateroom two decks below to get the life jacket and returned to the deck of the pilothouse where the life raft was located. He saw Captain Bryan and other crewmembers pulling themselves along the boat’s railing to the high side of the bow. The forward section was listing (leaning) to the port side. Suddenly the bow lurched and he was thrown into the water. When he came to surface, the forward section was gone and he saw the after section swing to the port side. With the propeller high in the air, the stern plunged to the bottom with lights burning. As the stern section plunged there was an explosion and a flash of flame – the water had reached the boilers.

Four men made it to one of the life rafts: Flemming and deckhands Frank Mayes, Dennis Meredith and Gary Strzelecki. They clung for dear life as the raft was tossed about by the waves. The night was long, filled with terror, mountainous waves, howling wind and bone-numbing cold water. Some of the men had very little or light clothing. Dennis Meredith had no shoes, only pants and sweat shirt. The raft was upset several times. Flemming could not remember how many times he was washed off. He and Frank Mayes hung on. Dennis Meredith and Gary Strzelecki did not survive. Frank Mayes remembered thinking that someone would find them if they could last through the night. He also remembered ice forming in his hair and ice encrusted on his life jacket. He laid face down on the raft and gripped the sides of the raft to hold on.

The Coast Guard Radio Station WAD, Port Washington, Wisconsin, heard the Bradley’s Mayday. Radio silence was ordered except for emergency messages, and rescue operations were begun. Lieutenant Commander Harold Muth, commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter Sundew, got the cutter under way and into Lake Michigan. The weather was fierce. Captain Muth in a video recording said the waves were twenty feet high, and the winds were out of the south-southwest 50-55 miles per hour with gusts up to 65 miles per hour. Visibility was about 75-100 feet. The forecast indicated the storm would be strengthening. The cutter Sundew arrived at the scene of the last reported location of the Bradley around 10:45 pm and began the search using the searchlight. As the search continued the seas increased to 25 feet with the winds increasing to 65 miles per hour rolling in the heavy seas.

One of the vessels joining the search was the German cargo ship Christian Sartori. This vessel had recently passed the Bradley and was four miles away when the distress signal was sounded. Despite the raging storm, Captain Paul Mueller, master of the Christian Sartori, changed course and headed back to join in the search. The turning around and returning to the scene took an hour. The crew of the German ship searched for survivors using flares. Captain Mueller signaled that they spotted only a tank and a raincoat. Mayes and Flemming later indicated that the Christian Sartori passed by them about one half mile away. That tank may have been their raft. Flemming tried desperately to light the last flare as the Sartori neared. The wet flare would not ignite. The Sartori at the request of Captain Muth assisted in the search until about 1:30 am. Sometime after the German ship left the scene, the steamer Robert C. Stanley had joined in the search. The Coast Guard cutter Hollyhock had also joined in the search operation. Coast guard aircraft were dropping flares, but the flares were not effective because of the poor visibility.

Around 8:00 am a lookout on the Sundew told Captain Muth that he saw something ahead on the water. That something turned out to be a raft with two men on it. When the cutter pulled alongside the raft, two crewmen jumped to the raft to assist Mayes and Flemming onto the cutter. The survivors were stiff and cold, unable to stand and needed assistance to get aboard the Sundew. Warren Toussaint, the cutter’s corpsman, said the survivors had icicles in their hair. The men were taken to the Chief’s quarters on the cutter, wrapped in blankets and their vital signs checked. The corpsman fed them a little beef broth every half hour. The rescue party continued to search for survivors. Mayes and Flemming requested to stay on board the cutter Sundew during the search for shipmates. Around noon the cutter Hollyhock found bodies. In late afternoon, the cutter returned to Charlevoix with the two survivors and eight bodies covered with a tarp. In the early evening the Hollyhock arrived in Charlevoix with nine bodies. Corpsman Toussaint remembered that the atmosphere in Charlevoix was silence. People waited silently with expectation in Charlevoix. The 17 bodies were taken to the Charlevoix High School where a temporary morgue was set up. The body of Gary Strzelecki was recovered by the freighter Transontario and taken to Milwaukee. His body was later flown to Rogers City. The Coast Guard continued to search for survivors or bodies until November 21. Search parties went ashore on the islands looking for survivors. There were none.

Sources :

November 18, 1958: The Wreck of the Carl D Bradley, Michigan in Pictures, November 18, 2015.

Steamer Carl D. Bradley (April 9, 1927 – November 18th, 1958) : Never Forgotten

SS Carl D. Bradley wikipedia entry.

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