Friday, July 29, 2005


History Channel film crew here to shoot TV show on shipwrecks


Muskegon Chronicle
By Terry Judd
July 27, 2005

The S.S. Milwaukee.

Filmmakers from the History Channel's "Deep Sea Detectives" show are coming to Muskegon and Grand Haven Thursday to shoot footage on the loss of two Coast Guard cutters in 1944 and the sinking of the car ferry S.S. Milwaukee and its 52 sailors 76 years ago.

The History Channel crew -- including executive production Kirk Wolfinger, and hosts Richie Kohler and John Chatterton of the "Deep Sea Detectives" show -- will be aboard the retired Coast Guard Cutter McLane Thursday as it is being towed from Muskegon to Grand Haven for the upcoming Coast Guard Festival.

Later, crews will be at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum to take advantage of the museum's extensive collection of photographs and artifacts related to the S.S. Milwaukee.

The footage will be used next year for two separate shows of Deep Sea Detectives, a popular History Channel program that explores shipwrecks and the stories behind the sinking.

Dave Warfield, a writer and producer with the Lone Wolf documentary group, said the McLane will be used as a backdrop while two survivors of the sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Jackson are interviewed on board.

The Jackson, along with the Cutter Bedloe, sank Sept. 14, 1944, off the North Carolina coast when they were hit by a huge storm dubbed "The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944." Like the McLane, both cutters were known as "buck and a quarters" because they were 125 feet in length.

Warfield said the two cutters, along with two tow vessels, were dispatched to assist the liberty ship freighter George Ade, which was disabled after its rudder was torpedoed by a German submarine. The vessels intercepted the liberty ship and were towing it to Norfolk, Va., when the storm struck.

The tow lines broke and all five ships were separated. The Jackson, with a crew of 41, sank at 10:30 a.m.; the Bedloe, with a crew of 38 sank at 1:30 p.m.

Most of the crew made it to life rafts but had to endure two days on the ocean under hurricane conditions. In all, 26 of the Bedloe's crew and 22 of the Jackson's crew died before being rescued Sept. 16.

Ironically, the disabled liberty ship and the two tow vessels, all larger than the two cutters, survived the storm.

For Thursday taping, Jackson survivors Jessie Maddix of Oregon and Bernard Sternsher of Ohio will be placed aboard the McLane and interviewed.

The video crew also will visit both sites of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum to record images of the S.S. Milwaukee, a Grand Trunk Railroad car ferry that operated out of Grand Haven.

The car ferry sank Oct. 22, 1929, about 3 miles northeast of Milwaukee in a raging Lake Michigan storm. The entire crew of 52 aboard, more than half residents Grand Haven, died.

"Bodies from 'Milwaukee' are picked off Racine," Chronicle headlines bannered two days later as the magnitude of the sinking unfolded.

The exact location of the sinking was not known until 1972 when the wreck was discovered. The ship lies upright in about 122 feet of water and its bow is pointed toward Milwaukee, a sign that its captain had decided to turn back because of the storm.

Although the location of the ship was a mystery for 43 years, the cause of sinking was known because of a hastily written note discovered in an empty lifeboat near Grand Haven five days after the sinking.

Purser A.R. Sadon wrote, "Pumps working but sea gate is bent and can't keep water out. Thing look bad."

The Milwaukee originally was built in Cleveland in 1903 and measured 338 feet in length and 56 feet in width. The ship was sold five years later to the Grand Trunk Milwaukee Car Ferry Co. and renamed the Milwaukee.

The ship had an uneventful 23-year career and in its final years was piloted by Capt. Robert McKay, whose nickname was "Heavy Weather Bob" and had a reputation of being a skilled navigator in storms. On the morning of Oct. 22, 1929, McKay sailed the Milwaukee through a raging storm from Grand Haven to Milwaukee.

Despite the storm, the ship arrived without incident and was loaded with 25 railroad cars.

Although several crew members were so convinced the day's return trip to Grand Haven would be canceled that they went to a movie, McKay steamed out of Milwaukee at 2:30 p.m. that day.

When the ferry failed to arrive in Grand Haven, it was believed that McKay simply had taken refuge from the storm. Concern mounted when the weather cleared Oct. 24 and the Milwaukee remained missing.

Worst fears were confirmed the next day when the wreckage and two bodies clad in "S.S. Milwaukee" lift preservers were picked up off Kenosha.

The sinking of the Milwaukee spawned several safety moves. Sea gate heights on ferries were increased and wireless radios installed.

The History Channel crew also will travel to Lake Huron for another program being taped on the 1875 sinking of the Cornelia B. Windiat.

The SS Milwaukee

* Launched: Dec. 6, 1902.

* Sank: Oct. 22, 1929.

* Lost: The ferry left Milwaukee in a storm bound for Grand Haven. A theory is that its cargo of 27 loaded railroad cars and 30 vehicles came loose in the gale and crashed through the ship's seagate, allowing water to pour in over the stern. The captain turned the ship back to Milwaukee, but never made it. All 52 hands perished.

* Found: The shipwreck was discovered in 1972 three miles offshore and seven miles northeast of Milwaukee.

Source: Pirate's Cove Diving Inc.


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