John C. Punger, Jr., 25, apprentice ship’s pilot, helped to save 39 crewmen from drowning, Highlands, New Jersey, January 23, 1966. In near-freezing temperature an oil tanker went aground in the Atlantic Ocean two miles from shore and began to break apart in winds up to 40 miles an hour and waves 10 to 20 feet high. Learning of the tanker’s situation, the captain of a pilot station ship contacted Punger and Robert Allyn Deane aboard their pilotboat and asked if they thought it would be possible in the very rough seas to remove the men from the grounded ship. Punger and Deane said they were willing to try. The station ship and the pilotboat proceeded to within 300 feet of the tanker, relying on electronic sounders to indicate depths because buoys marking safe channels had been blown away. Despite warnings by the Coast Guard, the captain of the station ship completed a rescue plan with Punger, Deane, and the captain of the tanker. Punger then moved the pilotboat, which was 47 feet long, to the lee side of the tanker in the area where it was breaking up because there the deckhouse provided some shelter from as much as 10 feet of water washing over the grounded ship. Holding to a railing 30 inches from the edge of the deck, Deane made his way almost to the bow of the pilotboat. Intermittent snow made footing precarious. As each wave washed over the tanker, the pilotboat rose and fell. Punger maneuvered the boat to a ladder suspended over the side of the tanker. A crewman took a position on the ladder. Holding to the railing, Deane leaned over and encircled the man’s waist just as the pilotboat was at the right height and distance. As the waves separated the two vessels, the crewman was jerked from the ladder onto the deck of the pilotboat. During an hour 17 crewmen were removed from the tanker. At times the waves were so high that Punger had to take great care to keep the boat from capsizing. With the extra men aboard, the pilotboat was difficult to maneuver. Punger and Deane took the rescued men to the station ship. Robert D. B. Rice relieved Deane, who was fatigued, on the pilotboat. Punger then repeated his earlier tactics of approaching the tanker and falling away after each man was snatched from the ladder by Rice. They removed 22 more men. Surf and weather conditions remained severe. The officers chose to remain aboard the tanker. The pilotboat had engine trouble as it took the 22 men to the station ship, but adjustments quickly were made. Shortly after the men were aboard, the station ship’s machinery stopped. Until the fault was corrected within 10 minutes, the ship drifted and was in danger of going aground. The station ship and the pilotboat proceeded to shore with the rescued men. The tanker later was freed and repaired.
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