DENNIS HALE: A survivor of shipwreck and life...
By Rose Moore
(Rose's column Printed Nov. 23, 2012 in Gazette Newspapers of Ohio)
(EDITORS NOTE: A few weeks ago, Rose wrote about November's history of notable shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, including the sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell. Soon afterward, she met Dennis Hale, the sole survivor of the Morrell, and she shares some of that meeting through this column).
"I realize that throughout life we have friends that come and go... However, losing 28 of them at one time is hard to overcome. I don't know if I think of them because I want to, or if their faces just appear in my mind and I have to think about them. I'll tell you this much; it's nice to never be alone because they are always with me."---Dennis Hale from "Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor."
THE GREAT LAKE Erie was calm and sun-splashed when I drove to Madison Public Library on the eve of Veterans Day. Ironically, I would spend that brilliant Indian Summer afternoon inside the library, reliving the break-up and sinking of a 603-foot freighter, the Daniel J. Morrell, in a vicious storm on the Great Lake Huron in November 1966.
As a long-time Great Lakes maritime history buff, I had specifically come to the library to meet the keynote speaker Dennis Hale, the sole survivor of the Morrell disaster. My timing couldn't have been luckier. I walked into the door in time to become part of a conversation between Hale and another Great Lakes sailor, Geri "Don" Slater, who had sailed the Lakes in the 1950s. Slater had brought photographs and memories, and the two men were comparing notes.
Hale explained to me that, "Once you have sailed the Lakes, a permanent bond is formed with other Great Lakes sailors." In his speaking engagements throughout the region, he told me, he has enjoyed knowing that at least one Great Lakes sailor will be in every audience.
He noted that he still keeps in touch with a survivor of the Carl D. Bradley, the great ship whose November 1958 sinking instilled in me a deep interest in Great Lakes maritime history. He also often attends bi-monthly meetings of a group which calls itself "The Royal Order of Ancient Mariners"---Great Lakes sailors all.
HALE LAUNCHED HIS presentation at the library with a brief, compelling film of a deep-water exploration of the sunken Morrell. I was personally struck by the footage from the pilot house, which has become a haven for fresh-water fish. The fish seemed to be performing a ballet for the divers' cameras, and I had the sensation that the Morrell, which had died in violence, was now at utter peace. The thought was made more poignant by the knowledge that we were watching the film with the lone survivor who, in that one night in 1966, had lost all his crew mates---friends who had seemed like family to him.
The film ended, and Hale began to speak---not theatrically, but plainly and in quiet tones, without notes. Connecting eye-to-eye to the audience, his great talent was that he could make us feel we were with him on the night of the shipwreck.
The Morrell was owned by Cambria Steamship Company of Cleveland, a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel Corporation. It was 60 years old when it set out on its "last trip forever"---leaving out of Lackawanna, N.Y.---and Hale was a six-foot-tall, 26-year-old husband and father of four. He was a watchman in the pilot house the night the storm took down the ship.
"We had just picked up taconite for Bethlehem Steel," Hale recalled. "A day out of port, we received word that we would have to make one more trip in what had already been a very long season. Most of the men were bummed out over that, and I was too." (As fate would have it, the boat originally scheduled to make that trip had developed serious engine trouble.)
Hale kept a car at Lackawanna, and with 24 hours on shore before the Morrell would set out again, he dropped a fellow crew member off in Erie and rushed home to Ashtabula to visit his own family. By the time he got back to Lackawanna, he saw the lights of the Morrell moving out in the lake; he had missed the boat!
"I was risking the loss of $7,000 in forfeited vacation pay, extended vacation pay, and my annual bonus," he said. "It was money that would provide for my family and give us a good Christmas too... I contacted the ship, and they allowed me to meet it at the next stop a day later."
ABOARD THE MORRELL as it moved into Lake Huron, Hale was happy to find he would serve his normal watch in the warmth of the pilot house. "The weather reports were not severe enough to cause alarm," he recalled. "I did talk with the first mate about the proverbial 'last trip forever' omen, but no one expected dangerous weather ahead...
"After my watch, I went to my bunk to read and then went to sleep... I was awakened by a big bang---actually an explosion---and then another, and the books fell off my shelf. That had never happened before. The lights went out and the general alarm sounded, and I opened the door of my room, wearing only my shorts.
A crew man had run to the spar deck to investigate, and he yelled, "Oh my God!" The ship was breaking in two! Clad only in his shorts, a pea coat and a life jacket, Hale felt his way to the deck through complete darkness, and he could feel the ice and snow and slush between his bare toes.
Soon he was on a life boat with others, who were either inside the raft or hanging onto the sides. As the Morrell was separating, the men were planning to launch when their half of the ship sank to water level.
Conversation was impossible above the noise, which Hale would never forget... "the crunching of metal... the scream and sparks of one-inch steel plate, tearing like paper... the wailing wind that tore at our clothes and stung our skin like needles... the sound and sight of escaping steam and puffs of dust as rivets were pulled away...
"Then," he said, "we saw the separated stern, still under power, with the cargo hold still lit, as it headed toward us... "
IT SEEMED THAT we in the audience were submerged with Hale into the walls of waves and the fiercely bitter cold, as the men were tossed from the raft and into the teeth of the storm. Hale and three others---Art Stojek, John Cleary and Charles Fosbender---were able to find the raft again and move toward it, fighting the weight of life preservers that had become soaked with water and ice. They never saw the others again; never heard their voices; their crew mates had permanently disappeared into the storm...
That was merely the beginning. Hale said he is often asked, "What was the worst part of it?" He said he always answers, "There was no GOOD part; probably the most memorable part was going through the monstrous, endless waves and not seeing them coming and not being able to do anything about it... and the power of the wind and waves sucking the breath from our bodies..."
In the early hours, two of the men died. Charles Fosbender (known to the men as Fuzzy) hung on longer than the others, Hale said. "He and I spent a lot of time in prayer, each of us in our own way making peace with our Maker...We talked about our families and Christmas and being home... Later Fuzz began to cough; he said his lungs felt full... He died with my arm around him... His lungs had frozen... I couldn't talk about that for a long time."
Now essentially alone among three dead friends, Hale was in for many more hours of cold, pain and despair. He was sure his own life would soon be over too. "In a situation like that," he reflected, "you go through a loss-of-faith syndrome. You don't care if you live or die. I reached that point, and it became my constant companion. I felt irritated that I was still alive; I just wanted it over with; I was desperate to end this thing..." Hale even contemplated suicide.
Soon it started snowing, and he figured, "This will be my last day for sure... I was really thirsty, and I began eating ice off my coat and hair. I felt someone looking at me. I turned and looked into the pale face of a man with thick, white hair and forceful eyes... He ordered me not to eat the ice; it would make me even colder and lower my body temperature even more... "
When Hale stopped eating the ice, the man disappeared, only to return when Hale began to eat the ice again.
Then Hale began what he later would recognize as an after-life experience... surrounded by light being pulled backward and upward, away from the raft... He looked down at the raft and saw himself and his dead friends, and soon he was in a different place where he saw members of his family who were no longer alive...
"I felt so happy, so completely surrounded by love," he said. "It was the most beautiful feeling I have ever experienced... I was in a green field filled with flowers in so many colors... I was sent across a footbridge... My mother, who died when I was born, was there; she put her arms around me and told me she had waited forever for me... I asked, 'Where are my shipmates?'... They were downhill with our boat, and soon we were laughing and happy together again; the best reunion you could imagine... "
Suddenly Hale was sternly told he shouldn't be there; it was not yet his own time to die. "I didn't want to leave; didn't want to go back," he said, "but I was pulled away and slammed back down into my life boat...
"When I was rescued by the Coast Guard and transported to a hospital, they said my body temperature was too cold for life, and yet here I was, and I was talking!... A priest gave me the last rites, and I didn't think I needed them... I wanted to talk, but when I told the priest about my after-life experience, he told me I should not talk about that again." That was when a peculiar sense of shame came over Hale, and he never discussed it or the sinking again. Not for 26 years.
He asked the veterans in the audience if they had ever talked about their war experiences, and he cautioned them, "You HAVE to talk about it; it's the only way to get over it." Trying to bury his own experiences complicated his life for many years, he said.
THROUGH THE YEARS, Dennis Hale carried the emotional pain of the shipwreck and the loss of his friends, along with the physical pain of the surgeries and the after-effects of freezing. Eventually, however, he found the strength to speak about the Morrell. With the help of a psychologist and hypnosis, he launched a new journey, to find himself and find new purpose. In the process, he became a survivor once again, but in a different way.
His motivational and inspirational speeches began from there, talking openly about the sinking, discussing his after-life experience, and sharing memories of his shipmates. "I intend to continue doing that for as long as life will let me do it," he told me.
He addresses many people in many places, including children, and I asked him how he tailors his talks for children. "With the kids," he said, "I always focus on the message, 'Don't ever quit; don't ever give up.' "
His self-published "Shipwrecked" autobiography was completed and published several years ago and is still selling well. Not surprisingly, the dedication page contains the words: "To my 28 shipmates and friends who lost their lives in the sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell on Lake Huron, November 29, 1966. You are forever in my mind and heart."
Of course I purchased an autographed copy; it was part of my reason for attending the program. I went home and spent the rest of that day, well into the night, absorbed in Hale's written words. When it was done, and I reluctantly set the book aside, it dawned on me that, without the lone survivor Dennis Hale---and his book and his appearances---the story of what happened to the Daniel J. Morrell and the good men of its crew could not have been completely told.
For Dennis Hale, I think this had become his new mission, and he is doing it well. I'm glad he didn't quit.
(Hale's book can be ordered direct at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Attached photo by Rose Moore:
Keynote speaker Dennis Hale (right) happily greets a fellow Great Lakes sailor, Geri "Don" Slater, at the Madison Public Library's annual Veterans Day reception. Hale, the lone survivor of the sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell in 1966, was keynote speaker at the event.