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Commemorating a catastrophe: Rogers City event featured lone survivor of Carl D. Bradley sinking

Jeffrey D. Brasie • Nov 19, 2018 at 3:00 PM

LAKE MICHIGAN — Fewer than 45 miles northwest of Northport and 16 miles southwest of Gull Island lie the remains of the Great Lakes freighter the Carl D. Bradley. The freighter broke apart in 40-foot waves 60 years ago Nov. 18.

The Bradley’s sinking resulted in the most significant Great Lakes crew loss in 70 years, with 33 lives. The 1975 sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald claimed 29 lives.

Launched in 1927, the 638-foot Bradley was then the largest and most sophisticated freighter on the Lakes. The ship’s home port was Rogers City; its owner Michigan Limestone and Chemical Company.

On Nov. 17, 1958, after depositing a limestone load, the Bradley departed Gary, Indiana en route to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The freighter was to undergo winter season upgrades and repairs. In mid-route the captain was directed to return to Rogers City for one last load.

A sudden, "100-year storm" blew in over Lake Michigan, causing the empty Bradley to twist and heave between the massive waves. Reports revealed crew could literally hear the rivets popping from the hull.

As it neared 5:30 p.m. Frank May, the sole living Bradley survivor, heard a loud thud and then a second thud, he would later report. From the pilot house an urgent rescue call was given: “This is the Carl D. Bradley. Mayday! We are going down.”

The Bradley’s final voyage was coming to an end. With a separated bow and stern, the ship plunged 375 feet to Lake Michigan’s bottom.

The sinking is estimated to have occurred in less than 15 minutes. Crew members in the pilot house, on deck and below decks scrambled for their lives. Mays and Elmer Fleming were able to make it to an 8-by-10-foot life raft. Two other crew members joined them, but through the night the massive waves and 36-degree water claimed the pair.

Mays and Fleming literally held onto the raft’s wooden floor with fingers in between each slat.

As radio and television stations broadcast the Bradley news through the night, dozens of emotional Rogers City residents drove their vehicles from their Lake Huron coast to the Lake Michigan shoreline and shined their vehicle headlights on the roaring lake.

The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched an Albatross search and rescue plane and the cutter Sundew. As the morning’s sun rays broke, the Sundew’s crew spotted the two survivors on the life raft.

The rescue was tricky in the 20- to 25-foot waves and frigid winds. Once Mays and Fleming were rescued and the life raft retrieved, the Sundew headed to Charlevoix, which had the nearest hospital.

Eighteen crew member bodies were recovered and 15 bodies were never found. In Rogers City, 23 women became widows, 54 children fatherless. The Rogers City High School and various houses of worship would soon honor the Bradley’s crew.

The crew and freighter became a national news story, even warranting a feature in Life magazine.

Fleming died in 1969.

In recent years several deep-water dives with video and still cameras descended on the Bradley. Mays accompanied diving teams on several of the missions. Most impactful was when a diving team removed the ship’s bell, which is now on display in Rogers City. The bell was later replaced with a new bell engraved with the captain and crew’s names and placed back on the Bradley.

Bradley anniversary

Carl D. Bradley survivor Frank Mays, along with Bradley family members, dignitaries, and guests, commemorated the 60th anniversary of the freighter's sinking with a Nov. 18 event at Roger City’s Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum. The ship's bell tolled 33 times.

The ceremony was followed by a presentation of the Emmy Award-winning Bradley film, "November Requiem," at the Rogers City Theater.

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