Fighting against 40-footers, Frank Mays recalls surviving the sinking of the Carl D. Bradley

Four men were left in complete and total darkness, riding 40-foot waves, and realizing their survival was at the mercy of whatever happened next.

Surviving a shipwreck isn’t something many sailors who have sailed the Great Lakes have been able to live to tell about.

In the last 200 years of commercial shipping on Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario, it’s estimated that some 12,000 sailors have lost their lives in upwards of 6,000 shipwrecks.

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That includes the S.S. Carl D. Bradley, which foundered in a gale when it was traveling in northern Lake Michigan, towards the Straits of Mackinac, on Nov. 18, 1958.

The Carl D. Bradley was the largest ship sailing the Great Lakes, before it sank November 18, 1958. It was 639 feet long. It was built in 1927, and was specifically designed to haul limestone from Rogers City, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois.

Thirty-three of the 35 sailors who were aboard the Bradley that fateful night perished when she sank.

Fifty-nine years later, the only survivor, 85-year-old Frank Mays is able to recall the frigid and frightening details as though the tragedy happened yesterday.

Read: Remembering the S.S. Carl D. Bradley – 58 years later

“The Carl D. Bradley was built in 1927 and for many years was considered the ‘Queen of the Great Lakes',” said Mays, during a recent visit to Michigan. “She was designed to carry limestone on the Great Lakes from the calcite plant near Rogers City [Michigan] to steel mills and different cement plants around the Great Lakes.”

Frank Mays was 26 years old when he joined the crew of the Carl D. Bradley. The ship needed an able-bodied deck-watch, and he jumped at the opportunity to become a sailor.

For more than two decades, the Bradley was the largest and fastest freighter on the Great Lakes. She spanned 639 feet in length.

“They needed an able-bodied deck-watch, so I joined the Bradley’s crew in 1958,” said Mays. “That also happened to be the year that the Bradley was ripe for repairs.”

The ship needed serious upgrades and refurbishing from stem to stern, including a complete overhaul of the cargo hold, new liners, and the replacement of several rivets.

“On November 18th, 1958, we dropped off our last load of the season in Gary, Indiana,” said Mays. “Our orders were to then transit up Lake Michigan to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where the Bradley would finally undergo the many repairs it needed.

The Carl D. Bradley was the largest ship sailing the Great Lakes, before it sank November 18, 1958. It was 639 feet long. It was built in 1927, and was specifically designed to haul limestone from Rogers City, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois.

“We calculated being in Manitowoc around 3 o’clock in the afternoon that day, but as we were sailing along, we soon recognized we were moving further and further away from the shoreline.”

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“I went back to the galley and I was told that we were going back to Rogers City for one more load,” Mays said.

The owner of the Bradley, U.S. Steel, decided to squeeze one more paycheck out of the ailing freighter, forcing the ship to make one more run, despite knowing it was in drastic need of repairs.

U.S. Steel was the company who owned the Carl D. Bradley. U.S. Steel knew that the freighter was in dire need of repairs, but they wanted to make one last buck in the 1958 season, but that decision would prove costly.

That decision would prove to be costly.

As the Bradley was traveling in northern Lake Michigan, making its way toward the Straits of Mackinac, the seas began to churn, and strong winds began to build from the southwest.

“If we could have made it a bit further north than we did, we would have made that turn toward the Straits, and we would have had the protection from all the islands up there, but that wasn’t to be,” added Mays.

The winds increased and the waves kept getting bigger and bigger. The storm was giving the Bradley a serious beating. It had battled weather like this before, but in the broken-down condition she was in, Frank and the crew had cause for concern.

“It was late in the afternoon,” Mays recalls. “I remember checking the coal bunker, and everything there seemed fine. I remember walking up the tunnel and hearing rivets popping; you’d hear a ‘ping’, and knew immediately that it was another rivet.”

The waves were now over 30 feet high. The Bradley began twisting, turning and bending in the rough waters.

“I managed to get up to the dunnage room where we kept ladders, shovels and ropes,” said Mays. “Suddenly, there was this huge ‘bang,’ followed immediately by another very loud ‘bang.’”

The Bradley started to violently shake.

“My crew members and I looked at each other, then raced up the ladder on the port side and, as we looked aft, we couldn’t see any of the cabins; they weren’t there anymore.

“We ran to our rooms to grab our life jackets because we knew we were in trouble.”

Frank knew he and his fellow sailors would have to head back out on the deck because all the Bradley’s lifeboats were aft, and a life raft was located topside behind the pilot house.

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“We didn’t go portside, so we crossed over to the starboard side and looked, then realized we couldn’t get back aft,” Mays recalls.

At some point after 5 o’clock that evening, Elmer Fleming, who was one of Frank’s crew mates on the Bradley, was able to get on the radio and make a mayday call, hoping somebody would hear and a rescue attempt could be made.

Elmer picked up the phone and said, “Mayday! Mayday! This is the Carl D. Bradley. We are 12 miles southwest of Gull Island. We are breaking in two and sinking. Any ship in the area, please come to our aid!”

Many ham radio operators in the area heard the mayday message, and so did the United States Coast Guard stationed in Charlevoix, Michigan, but, due to the deteriorating weather conditions, no immediate rescue effort could be made.

Meantime, the waves had built to as high as 40 feet, and the Bradley was breaking in two.

“You could see all the electrical cables breaking,” recalled Mays. “Once we lost all power, Elmer stopped his mayday call, and just left the phone hanging. We were in two pieces, and going down.”

Frank managed to locate one of the life rafts and started to untie the ropes that were keeping it attached to the Bradley’s deck.

“I had gotten on top of the life raft when I felt the ship start to list to the portside,” said Mays. “Suddenly, this huge wave came along, tipping the ship.

“The raft and I went flying off the Bradley and into the water. When I came to the surface, it was chaos. Huge waves all around me, and I could see nothing. I was reaching for the life raft, hoping it was still somewhere nearby, and luckily it was.”

Frank was completely soaked, and numb from the frigid water, but managed enough strength to climb aboard the raft. Instinctually, trying to locate and save his crew mates became paramount.

“I saw one man on a wave with his arms up, but when the wave went by, I never saw him again,” said Mays. “Even if I had seen him again, I wouldn’t have been able to get to him. Then I saw Elmer Fleming floating near me. He was able to swim to the raft, and I helped him get on board.

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“The next person we saw was Gary Strzelecki, and we were able to help him get onto the raft. Then we located Dennis Meredith, and got him on board.”

Once Frank Mays climbed aboard the raft, he was able to locate three of his ship-mates. Elmer Fleming (R), Gary Strzelecki (C) and Dennis Meredith (L). Meredith and Strzelecki would lose their lives.

The four men started hollering out, hoping to locate and save more of their shipmates, but it wasn’t to be.

“The wind and the waves were just too loud,” recalls Mays. “Nobody could hear anything.”

The aft end of the Bradley was the only portion of the freighter that was still afloat. The four men huddled and watched as it began to descend to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

“The aft end was on even keel, and all the lights were still on,” Mays remembers. “We watched it tip, wheel up; you could see the propeller, then she started to go down.

“When the part of the aft cabin hit the water, there was an implosion, causing a big ball of red flame and black smoke.

Frank Mays, and the other three men, rode 40-foot waves, and fought off strong winds, while watching the Carl D. Bradley snap in half then sink to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

“We watched the rest of the Bradley disappear beneath the lake’s surface. Everything was black, and now the four of us were at the mercy of the rough waters on this tiny raft.”

A German ship named the Christian Sartori happened to be five miles away from where the Bradley had gone down. Crew members aboard the Sartori saw the implosion, turned around and started to come back to check it out.

“The four of us started to calm down,” said Mays. “Suddenly, off in the distance, we saw some lights of another ship, which I later learned was the Sartori.

Soon after the Bradley sank, a German ship called the Christian Sartori happened to be 5 miles away.

“Elmer Fleming opened a compartment that was in the center of the raft,” Mays recalled. “Inside, there were three flares and a sea anchor. Elmer took out the three flares, and ignited one of them. Elmer held it up, hoping somebody aboard the Sartori could see it, but the flare burned out.

“It looked like the green and red lights of the Sartori were getting closer to us, so Elmer ignited another flare. We could now see the mast light on the Sartori. Elmer pulled out the last flare, and tried to ignite it, but it wouldn’t ignite.

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“Meantime, one of the lights on the Sartori got brighter and the other got dimmer. We quickly realized that the Sartori had turned away from us, and was no longer heading in our direction.”

Their only possible rescue attempt would float away and disappear. The four men were left in complete and total darkness, riding 40-foot waves, and realizing their survival was at the mercy of whatever happened next.

Frozen and frightened, the four men hunkered down and just rode the massive waves. They had no idea where they were on the lake, or what direction they were going. Over and over again, their raft would ride up a wave, and flip over, tossing the men into the freezing waters. Each time that happened, they had to muster up enough strength to get back onto the raft.

This is a similar life raft that Frank Mays, Elmer Fleming, Gary Strzelecki and Dennis Meredith floated on, for several hours, after the Carl D. Bradley sank.

“I remember Elmer had discovered that sea anchor in the raft’s compartment,” said Mays. “I took it out and tied it onto the raft, and threw it over the side. The sea anchor created drag, so when we went up the big waves, we could go through them, and kept us from flipping.

“I kept telling Elmer and the other two guys to ‘keep talking, keep talking, don’t go to sleep.’”

There was really nothing to hang onto on the raft, which made their ordeal even more difficult to endure.

“The life raft had these small slats where we could stick our fingers down, so we could hold onto the boards,” Mays said.

The huge waves weren’t subsiding. Another big one came along. The sea anchor couldn't do its job, and the raft flipped, tossing the four men back into the freezing and churning water.

“Three of us got back onto the raft, but Dennis Meredith could not,” remembered Mays. “Gary [Strzelecki] and I each took one of Dennis’ arms and held on. He no longer had the strength to help himself get back onto the raft, and we didn’t have the strength to pull him up.

“Every once in a while, when we were in between huge waves, I’d look down and ask Dennis if he was okay. After a while, I looked down at him again, and his head was in the water, face down. I picked him up by the hair and looked at him and his eyes were open but they were all white.

“I remember Gary and I looking at each other, then just releasing him. His body was never recovered.”

Only three men remained, and their chance for survival was lessening by the minute. Their bodies were beginning to shut down.

“Our urine was black because we had begun condensing internally,” recalled Mays. “I remember telling both Elmer and Gary, ‘if we make it ‘til daylight, we’ll be found.’”

A little while later, the waves and the wind began to subside a bit. The storm seemed to be passing, but that gave little relief to the three remaining men. They continued to huddle in fetal positions aboard the raft, hoping somehow, some way, somebody would find them.

“Suddenly, Gary started to move and crawl across the top of the raft,” remembered Mays. “He must’ve fallen asleep; he was foaming at the mouth. Elmer and I couldn’t move to stop him. We kept saying ‘stop, stop, stop, but Gary kept going.

“He crawled off the raft, plunged into the water, and began to swim away from us.”

When Gary Strzelecki was eventually found, he was barely alive, and would die soon after.

Daylight started to break. Elmer and Frank were covered in ice and huddling aboard the raft. They had made it ‘til daylight, but they both knew they didn’t have much time left.

Once daylight broke, search crews were dispatched out on Lake Michigan with the hopes of finding Carl D. Bradley survivors. The Coast Guard Cutter Sundew located Frank Mays and Elmer Fleming floating on the raft near Gull Island.

“That’s when Elmer looked over at me and said, ‘I see something on the horizon,’” recalled Mays. “I looked and saw what appeared to be a Coast Guard cutter heading in our direction.”

The USCG Cutter Sundew had located the raft that the two men were on, and raced to their aid.

“When the Sundew reached us, they took both Elmer and me off the raft,” Mays recalled. “I remember going on a stretcher and I could see bodies of my crewmates laying everywhere.”

Elmer Fleming and Frank Mays were immediately transported to a hospital in Charlevoix where they remained for several days while they recovered.

For many years after the Bradley’s sinking, it was debated whether she sank in one piece or two pieces. Frank Mays saw it break in two, and sink in two separate pieces, but U.S. Steel – the company who owned the Bradley – refused to believe Mays’ account.

U.S. Steel hired a diver in the summer of 1959 to perform a secret dive on the Bradley. Nobody knew the dive had taken place until several years later. U.S. Steel claimed the Bradley sank in one piece, meaning they didn’t have to pay out as much in insurance claims to the families of the deceased sailors.

Story continues below article, courtesy of Valerie van Heest from the book “Lost and Found: Legendary lake Michigan Shipwrecks"

It wasn’t until 1997 when Frank Mays was proven correct about the Bradley’s sinking. Marine explorers went down in a submersible to get a closer look at the wreck. Frank Mays accompanied them. The divers saw two sections of the Bradley, both in upright positions, approximately 90 feet apart.

Unfortunately, nearly 40 years later, this confirmation did little to help the families who felt abandoned by U.S. Steel soon after the sinking.

Thirty-three men died that day. Fifteen of their bodies were never recovered.

Fleming lived a decade after the Bradley’s sinking. He passed away unexpectedly in 1969, leaving Frank Mays as the sole survivor.

At 85 years old, Mays has lived a long and prosperous life since that fateful night in November 1958. He thinks about the Bradley often, and still travels to occasionally speak about it. He now resides in Dade City, Florida, but on every November 18th, he pauses at 5:30 p.m. and remembers the S.S. Carl D. Bradley and his crew mates who died.

“I pour myself a bourbon and soda, look north, and toast the Bradley,” said Mays.

Frank Mays wrote a book about surviving the sinking of the S.S. Carl D. Bradley. It’s called “If we Make it ‘til Daylight.” If you’re interested in getting a copy of the book, click here.

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