Every so often as people travel through time and space, the stars align to put them right where they need to be. Such is the case with a gentleman by the name of Richard Selissen. In November of 1958, Dick was a cook on the Coast Guard cutter Sundew, which was stationed in Charlevoix, Michigan. Back then, as is the case today, large cargo freighters steamed up and down Lake Michigan carrying goods between various ports in the region.
Just last week, I photographed the Wilfred Sykes as it steamed north through the Manitou Passage and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This particular vessel was built in 1950. Eight years after the Sykes went into service, the steamer Carl Bradley was steaming north on November 18, 1958, from Chicago to its winter lay-up port of Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
The 639-foot Bradley had been on the lakes since 1927, and had recently been hauling limestone between Rogers City, Michigan, and Chicago. Two hours out of Manitowoc, U.S. Steel (the ship’s owner) sent orders for the vessel to make one last run to Rogers City to pick up another load of stone.
On many days, Lake Michigan looks like the photo above. But this inland sea has been known to change in an instant. On that day in 1958, a fierce gale was building as a storm system moved across the Great Plains of the central U.S.
When these storms kick up, its not uncommon for the freighters to experience conditions as are shown in the photo above. On November 18, the captain of the Bradley hugged the coast of Wisconsin to shield it from the sixty-five mile an hour wind that was coming from the southwest. At some point, he knew he was going to have to turn northeast towards the Straits of Mackinac. He did that just prior to the entrance to Green Bay. The ship was moving with the wind with following seas and seemed to be doing well. Suddenly, the crew heard a loud thud. The great ship had snapped in two in the middle. A mayday was sent out and the thirty-five men abandoned ship into the relentless seas.
The Bradley’s final resting place is shown in red on the map above at a depth of 360 feet. The Coast Guard sent out several vessels to search for survivors, one being the Sundew, with a quickly assembled skeleton crew. As the cutter left Charlevoix, local residents gathered to watch them head into the gale, fearing it would be the last time they would ever see the vessel. The Coast Guard motto of ‘You have to go out…you don’t have to come back’ was surely on everyone’s minds that day. The captain of the cutter Hollyhock, which assisted in the search, described the trip as a “visit to hell”.
As the Sundew reached the Bradley’s last known position, Dick Selissen took up a position in the pilot house to assist in the search for survivors. He spotted something unusual in the waves and notified the captain of it’s position. It was a raft containing the only two survivors, Frank Mays and Elmer Fleming. They had somehow managed to hang on through the night in the fierce gale and freezing temperatures. Before they headed back to Charlevoix, the crew managed to pull 8 bodies of the Bradley’s crew out of the lake who hadn’t survived the ordeal.
Rogers City, where 23 of the Bradley’s men were from, lies 80 miles east by land of Charlevoix on Lake Huron. Many of the crew’s families headed west across Michigan to await the Sundew’s arrival. It was a somber sight as the ship came into port, her flags shredded from the storm. The Bradley’s sinking hit Rogers City hard, as many families lost their sole breadwinner that day.
Fast forward many years later to a Walmart in Zepherhills, Florida. Dick Selissen struck up a conversation with a gentleman who was very familiar with Dick’s summer home of Charlevoix. It turns out that the man was Frank Mays, the seaman that Selisson had spotted in the raft so many years before. Once again, the stars aligned. What are the odds of that encounter happening?
This past Wednesday, Mr. Selissen visited our lifesaving museum at Sleeping Bear Dunes. He struck up a conversation with fellow volunteer Lucy about the 36-foot motor lifeboats that he also had crewed on while in the Coast Guard. I showed up in the middle of the conversation at our shift change, when he mentioned he had been stationed in Minnesota at the time. I asked him “where in Minnesota?” and he said “Duluth…on the CG-36527.” I told him “Sir, your motor lifeboat is a half mile up the street in the red Cannery building”.
He had no idea it was there. He was thrilled! Again, the stars aligned for this hero of the storm.
What an honor it was to be able to speak with this gentleman. Thank you for stopping by Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Mr. Selissen!
Be sure to stay tuned for more about our summer in Leelanau in next Saturday morning’s post. Until then, safe and happy travels to all!