Editor’s note: This article was first published in the January/February 2009 issue of Michigan History magazine.
“A Deafening Thud”
Abandon ship! Abandon ship! The whistle squawked seven short blasts, then one long blast. It was a signal twenty-six year old deck watchman Frank Mays knew well, but never expected to hear. Just minutes earlier, he had been having a smoke with Gary Price in the dunnage room, deep in the bow, when they heard a deafening thud. “We hightailed it out of there to find out what had happened,” Mays recalls. “When I reached the upper deck, I looked aft and saw the stern flapping up and down like a dog’s tail.” The Carl D. Bradley‘s back had broken, and it would be only a matter of minutes before water filled the tunnels and cargo holds of the 639-foot vessel. It was 5:30 p.m. on November 18, 1958.
The Bradley had departed Gary, Indiana the day prior, running in ballast in building southwest seas along Lake Michigan’s western shore. On the season’s final voyage, the veteran boat was scheduled to head to Manitowoc, Wisconsin for repairs during its winter lay-up. The rusting cargo had been due for an $800,000 replacement for over a year, but its owner, Bradley Transportation Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, pushed the work back until the end of the season. A radio call from headquarters ordering an additional stone delivery before lay-up proved to be the demise of the Bradley. Despite reports of gale-force winds and thirty-foot seas that compelled other freighter captains to take shelter along Wisconsin’s shore, Captain Roland Bryan, known as a “heavy weather man,” headed northeast across the lake from the Door County peninsula toward the Straits of Mackinac and back to Rogers City. At 5:35 p.m., the Bradley sank twelve miles southwest of Gull Island.
“The Worst Night of His Life”
Even today, survivor Mays recalls that horrific night with clarity. Hunkered down on the life raft just aft of the pilothouse, he trembled realizing the sinking beneath him. His eyes were drawn aft toward the flying sparks as the huge steel deck plates began to tear apart. In the growing darkness and mayhem, he could make out second mate John Fogelsonger running toward the stern and leaping over the break. Before his eyes, his friend disappeared as the Bradley ripped apart. The next thing Mays recalls was being pitched into the air, landing in the icy, angry water and then struggling onto the raft where he fought to hold on through the worst night of his life.
“A Painful Memory”
By morning, only Mays and first mate Elmer Fleming were alive. After fifteen bone-numbing hours in the icy waters, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Sundew rescued them. All thirty-three of their mates, including Gary Strelecki and Dennis Meredith, who shared the raft for most of the night, as well as two of Frank’s own cousins, perished. These men left behind twenty-five widows and fifty-four fatherless children. Considering twenty-three of the crew hailed from Rogers City, the home port of the Bradley, the loss personally affected nearly everyone in the small community. Fifty years later, the sinking is still a painful memory.