On Monday November 17th, 1958, the freighter S.S. Carl D. Bradley finished unloading its cargo of limestone at Buffington Harbor in Gary, Indiana, and prepared to return to its home port of Rogers City, Michigan. It was the 46th and final voyage of the 1958 shipping season for the ship. Rogers City is located in the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula on Lake Huron. Not only was Rogers City home to the S.S. Carl D. Bradley, it was also the hometown of 25 of the 35 man crew of the ship.
The Carl D. Bradley was built by the American Ship Building Yard in Lorain, Ohio and launched April 9, 1927. It was 639 feet long, at the time the longest ship on the Great Lakes. The Carl D. Bradley was one of nine ships in the Bradley Transportation Company. These ships hauled crushed limestone from the huge limestone quarry at Rogers City to various ports on the Great Lakes. In the 1950’s, Bradley Transportation became a part of the U.S. Steel Corporation.
The Final Voyage Begins
Bradley left port in Indiana on the night of November 17th. At the time, much of the West and Midwest was experiencing a huge storm, and it was moving into the Great Lakes region. Winds up to 65 miles per hour were predicted for Lake Michigan. Captain Roland Bryan and First Mate Elmer Fleming charted a course along the Wisconsin shoreline, a course that would give the ship some protection from the high winds and waves. The ship carried 9000 tons of water as ballast to stabilize it in heavy seas.
Late on the afternoon of November 18th, as the Bradley neared Cana Island at Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, the vessel turned east. The ship was now traveling across northern Lake Michigan, headed towards the Beaver Island Chain and beyond that, the Straits of Mackinac. From there, it would be on to Lake Huron and Rogers City. The wind was blowing at 65 miles per hour, and waves were 20 to 30 feet high. But the Bradley was handling it well, and was approaching the Beaver Island chain. Once there, the ship would be in safer waters, with the islands offering a wind and wave break from the worst of the storm. At 5:15 P.M. Captain Bryan radioed to Rogers City that he expected to be home about 2:00 A.M. on November 19th.
Then at about 5:30, the crew heard a loud thud sound coming from the ship’s stern, followed by the clanging of an alarm bell. In the Pilot House, Captain Bryan and First Mate Fleming turned around and looked towards the stern. Something was seriously wrong.
The Sinking of the S.S. Carl D. Bradley
Looking aft, the two men saw that the stern of the ship was sagging. The Carl D. Bradley was splitting in two. A large crack was developing on the portside of the ship, and the stern was sagging about eight feet lower than the rest of the ship. Bryan and Fleming knew the vessel would sink quickly. The captain ordered the ship’s engines stopped and blasted the abandon ship signal on the ship’s whistle. Fleming got on the radio and put out a distress call that the Bradley was sinking and gave its position as 12 miles southwest of Gull Island. He managed to get the distress call out just before the ship broke in half, severing the communication cables.
The two halves were still afloat, but were drifting away from each other and sinking. One man unsuccessfully tried to jump between the bow and stern, and plunged to his death. Crewmen franticly tried to launch the life rafts. The bow was sinking more rapidly than the stern and listing to port, exposing the starboard side. Then a huge wave struck the starboard side rolling it sideways and plunging the crewmen and life raft on the bow into the water. The bow sank beneath the waves.
The life raft was an eight by ten foot platform of wooden slats mounted on steel drums. It floated on impact with the water. Many of the crew had been able to put on lifejackets, but were battling 65 miles per hour winds, huge waves, and 40 degree lake water. They could not survive long in the water. Watchman Frank Mays, who had been working to launch the raft, was the first to climb aboard. Mays then grabbed Elmer Fleming and helped him on board. Mays and Fleming could hear cries for help, but the raft’s oars had been lost, so those in the water would have to swim to the raft. Watchman Gary Strzelecki was able to swim to the raft, and the men pulled deckhand Dennis Meredith on board. But the four could only watch helplessly as other men disappeared behind the giant waves and the cries for help were silenced.
Meanwhile, the stern was still afloat. The aft life raft was tangled in the steel cable that held it in place and could not be launched. The four men on the life raft watched as the front of the stern section turned downward, raising the back in the air. The stern was in a vertical position when it plunged downward into the depths. As the hot ship’s boiler contacted the water, there was a huge explosion, and the stern of the Carl D. Bradley sank 365 feet to the bottom of Lake Michigan.
The Search for Survivors
Four miles away, officers on the German freighter Christian Sartori witnessed the boiler explosion, and immediately headed for the scene of the disaster. But due to the high winds and waves, it took two hours to cover the distance. Elmer Fleming’s distress call had been heard, and Coast Guard cutters were dispatched. Helicopters were standing by, but could not join in the search until weather conditions improved.
About 7:30, the Christian Sartori reached the scene. The life raft was equipped with three signal flares. Two had been used, and Fleming had saved the last one for when a ship approached. As the Sartori closed in, Fleming tried to light the flare, but it was wet and would not ignite. The ship passed to within 50 yards of the raft, but the searchers could not see the survivors due to the high waves and poor visibility. The captain of the Sartori reported seeing only debris in the water and no lifeboats.
The waves and wind carried the raft away. The four men tried to hold on till daybreak when rescuers could spot them easier. The men were thrown off the raft three or four times. One time, Dennis Meredith could not climb back on. The others held onto him until they realized he had died. Around 7:30 in the morning of November 19th, Gary Strzelecki, delirious and suffering from hypothermia, got into the water and swam away. Only Frank Mays and Elmer Fleming were left.
At 8:25 A.M. searchers on board the Coast Guard Cutter Sundew spotted the raft in the water some 20 miles from where Bradley had gone down and at 8:37, Mays and Fleming were brought safely aboard. Suffering from shock and exposure, they had nonetheless survived in generally good condition. They were the only survivors. Incredibly, Gary Strzelecki had been picked up by a freighter, apparently clinging to life, but he died before he could get medical attention.
Thirty- three lives were lost in the sinking of the S.S. Carl D. Bradley, and only 18 bodies were recovered. The town of Rogers City, Michigan lost 23 of these men, leaving 23 widows and 53 fatherless children in this sad chapter of Great Lakes maritime history.
Kantar, Andrew. Black November: The Carl D. Bradley Tragedy. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2006.
“‘No Lifeboats Visible’ 35 Missing as Ship Splits in Two, Sinks” Los Angeles Times, November 19, 1958.
Ratigan, William. Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivors. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977.
“Sailors Shipwreck Story” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 20, 1958.