Sinking of the Carl D. Bradley stunned the community in November, 1958
The coming of mid-November has been a time to remember a day that will live on in the thoughts of area residents. The memory of those lost in the sinking of the Str. Carl D. Bradley, Nov. 18, 1958, is observed each year at the Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum in Rogers City with this year’s observance set for Saturday at 1 p.m.
This year there are no living survivors to remember the day firsthand, after the passing of Frank Mays in January. He, along with first mate Elmer Fleming, who died in 1969, were the only two of the crew of 35 to survive the sinking of the 638-foot, 9-inch freighter in northern Lake Michigan.
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At 5:28 p.m. Nov. 18, 1958, a distress call from the ill-fated steamer broke the air waves and was heard by the Charlevoix Coast Guard Station.
“The ship is breaking in half. We are going down. We are 12 miles southwest of Gull Island,” said the voice of Fleming over the radio. That was all.
Only minutes before, a routine message had been transmitted to the Bradley by Central Radio Telegraph at Rogers City. She was then possibly 50 miles north and east of Charlevoix in northern Lake Michigan and headed for home to dock alongside the Cedarville, already moored at the north dock.
Mays told a Coast Guard Board of Inquiry later that he was below deck in the conveyor room with deckhand Gary Price when the “loud thud” warned them of danger. They raced topside. Meanwhile, Capt. Roland Bryan, 52, and Fleming, on watch in the pilothouse, also heard the same sickening sound.
Fleming raced to his stateroom two decks below, picked up a life jacket and returned to the deck of the pilothouse where the life raft was located.
“When I returned from my room to the bridge, the front half of the ship was going under. I wasn’t 20 feet away when the stern disappeared straight down, followed by an explosion,” Fleming wrote in his journal. He estimated it took two minutes from the initial thud until the great ship would sink.
The winches on the main deck were awash when suddenly the ship lurched, throwing Fleming into the water. When he came up, the bow was gone; he was near the raft, and he saw the stern of the ship swing to port, and then, with the propeller high in the air, plunge to her grave, with lights burning. As the stern plunged, an explosion and flash of flame indicated that the water had reached the fire in the boilers.
Fleming, 43, and Mays, 27, reached the raft and climbed on as it tossed about. Two other men made it to the raft. They were Gary Strzelecki, 21, of Rogers City, a deck watchman, and Dennis Meredith, 25, deckhand, of Metz. After bravely holding on to the raft for hours, Meredith passed away first, a victim of hypothermia as he clung to the side of the raft during the night.
Author Michael Schumacher described what happened next in his 2008 book, “The Wreck of the Carl D.”
With grit, determination and by the grace of God, the pair survived the night, surviving some 15 hours on the rolling waters of Lake Michigan.
“Fleming and Mays work together in prodding Strzelecki to stay awake. They talk to him, encourage him to count along with them and use some of their waning strength to massage him.”
The men are fighting exhaustion, bitter cold and waves that will not quit. Schumacher describes it as an exercise in futility.
“Strzelecki breaks out of his stupor and begins talking nonsensically about making a swim for shore. The other two try to reason with him, but Strzelecki, his face void of expression, hears nothing. He drags himself across the surface of the raft, flailing his arms and legs as if he believes he is already swimming in the water. Mays and Fleming lunge at him… Strzelecki slides off the raft and starts swimming. Mays and Fleming shout at him, but lost in the waves sweeping him away, he quickly disappears from view,” Schumacher relates in his book.
The four became two.
With grit, determination and by the grace of God, the pair survived the night, surviving some 15 hours on the rolling waters of Lake Michigan. Mays and Fleming were picked up the next morning near High Island, some 20 miles in a northerly direction from the spot where the Bradley went down 14 hours before.
Reaction to the tragedy was heard around the United States, including an article in Life magazine. But certainly, most affected were the residents of Rogers City. Of the 33 who perished, 25 were residents of Rogers City, one from Metz and three from Onaway. Lights stayed on all night in homes around Rogers City, as people waited for word about which boat had sunk.
Schumacher, in his book, citing testimony from the U.S. Coast Guard inquiry, said many questions remained unanswered at the end of the inquiry.
“Rather than provide final, definitive answers to questions about the sinking of the Carl D. Bradley, the highly anticipated report from the Coast Guard’s Board of Inquiry only tweaks the controversy over whether the accident was the result of an unfavorable force of nature, human error and bad judgment, or a state of disrepair of the ship itself.”
The board of inquiry had harsh words for Bryan, saying his “decision to proceed across northern Lake Michigan from Cana Island toward Lansing Shoal exercised poor judgment. The decision was probably induced by a zealous desire to hold as closely to schedule as possible, and because of this, he gave less attention to the dangers of the existing weather than what might have been expected of a prudent mariner.”
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THE TWO survivors went on to live different types of lives. Fleming may have suffered from survivor’s guilt that haunted him the rest of his life.
“I’m convinced the sinking of the Bradley killed him,” said his nephew Curt White, Ph.D., an associate professor at DePaul University, who has Fleming’s writings. Fleming lived with White and his mother Mildred toward the end of his life.
The winds of November didn’t get Fleming, but the trials, the lawyers, the company’s handling of the wreck, as well as his eventual divorce and bout with alcoholism took their toll, White said in a 2008 interview with the Advance.
A few years after the tragedy, possibly around 1960, Fleming wrote of his struggles in writings that became the possession of White.
“I don’t know where I have sunk to. I only know I wished to God that someone else’s life had been spared and mine taken,” he wrote in a journal.
After the wreck of the Bradley, he became captain of the W.F. White.
In the spring of 1965, Fleming retired as captain of the Cedarville, several weeks before she collided with another ship in the Straits of Mackinac in May 1965 and sunk.
According to “Torn in Two,” a 2012 book written by former Advance reporter and current editor for M-Live in Grand Rapids, Eric Gaertner, Fleming suffered from severe depression that forced him to spend some time hospitalized. He took a job as a bartender in a German-themed restaurant in a Detroit suburb.
“Despite Fleming’s reputation in Rogers City as an introvert, he showed himself to be a generous and fun guy, especially around his family…however Fleming’s depression never totally subsided,” Gaertner wrote.
He died at the age of 53 in 1969.
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MAYS WENT on to tell his story many times over his life, even penning his story in his book “If We Make it ‘till Daylight.”
Mays never changed his story about the Bradley breaking up on the surface. He told the Presque Isle County Advance/Onaway Outlook that the biggest myth about the sinking is that it went down intact.
“No. It broke. Don’t even use the word supposedly, that gets me offended,” said Mays during a 2008 interview.
He vowed to never sail on the Great Lakes again and kept his promise. When he did not side with U.S. Steel attorneys about what happened Nov. 18, 1958, he ended up working in a storehouse. “I did that for one year. I never quit,” he said.
Mays went on to work for Bruski Lumber in Posen and then Medusa Cement in Charlevoix. From Charlevoix he transferred to York, Pennsylvania and later transferred again to a cement plant in Florida before retiring from the company, but did not stay retired, taking a job as head of maintenance at a nursing home in Brookville, Florida where his wife worked.
He retired for good at 68 and joined the Peace Corps traveling to 90 countries around the world.
Mays, who lived in Dade City, Florida, rang the Bradley bell at the 50th anniversary event conducted at Rogers City High School and again for the 60th anniversary at the Rogers City Theater. He was part of the dive that brought the bell back from the wreck site leading up to the 50th anniversary.
He passed away in Florida Jan. 7, 2021 at the age of 89.
(More on the Bradley and Carl D. Bradley the namesake of the vessel, is in “Rogers City at 150,” available for purchase at the Advance. Call us at (989( 734-2105 to order a copy. )