Longform

The Gallows and the Deep

Page 3 of 7

Cmdr. Beckwith Jordan, chief of Fort Lauderdale's Base 6, writes in a memorandum to the commandant of the Coast Guard, trying to describe the indescribable mess he encountered at 3:10 p.m. on the afternoon of August 7, 1927. Jordan had pulled alongside patrol boat 249 in the Gulf Stream:

An estimate of the situation found that Boatswain S[idney] C. Sanderlin had been shot and killed instantly; that Secret Service agent Robert K. Webster had been shot and killed; that Victor A. Lamby, Motor Machinist's Mate First Class, had been seriously wounded, which later proved to be fatal; and that Jodie L. Hollingsworth, Seaman Second Class, had been seriously wounded.

The patrol boat lay drifting and in a helpless condition, with the distress flag flying at the masthead and the rum boat tied astern. The two prisoners, Horace Alderman and Robert Weech, were secured by lines and handcuffs to the one-pounder mount, Alderman being in a semiconscious [state], having been battered and stabbed.

Had he been more inclined toward clinical description or purple prose, Jordan might have written that Sanderlin, the patrol boat's commanding officer, had left some of the contents of his chest cavity inside the pilothouse, which now looked more like a slaughterhouse; that Webster, the Secret Service agent, had a ragged hole blown through his torso; that the boat's acting cook, Hollingsworth, though intermittently conscious, was missing not only his right eye, but most of the right side of his face; that the ship's chief engineer, Lamby, was covered with blood and paralyzed from a .45 slug lodged next to his spine.

Jordan might also have noted that the man named Weech was bruised and covered with blood; and that the man named Horace Alderman showed every sign of having been stabbed half a dozen times with an ice pick, repeatedly kicked in the ribs, and beaten in the head with a pistol butt, a dinghy oar, a two-foot-long steel barnacle-scraper, and more than one fist.

The deck of the 75-foot patrol boat was smeared with blood. So was the cockpit of the 30-foot motorboat tethered behind her. The cockpit of the smaller boat also contained twenty and a half cases of contraband liquor, some of the bottles broken open to reveal the odor of cut-rate Scotch.

Instead of taking notes, Jordan made arrangements to get the dead, the half-dead, and the four comparatively uninjured members of the crew back to land and to start figuring out what had happened.

At 7 p.m., less than four hours later, Jordan convened a board of investigation at the Bahia Mar Coast Guard base.

At first things seemed to come into focus. The story that emerged was "the most dramatic sea fight in the history of the service," one Coast Guard officer later remarked -- an episode rivaling Joseph Conrad's goriest yarns.

The surviving Coast Guard witnesses gave the following account:
Horace Alderman and Robert Weech were coming back from Bimini with a load of liquor. Around 1:30 p.m. the patrol spotted their boat. From a distance of half a mile, Sidney Sanderlin shot three rounds of tracer fire from a Springfield rifle across Alderman's bow. The motorboat hove to, and CG 249 pulled alongside.

Sanderlin, the Coast Guard commander, hopped down onto Alderman's boat, pulled open a hatch, and discovered the contraband liquor. He ordered part of his crew to start loading it aboard the 249. Then he escorted Alderman to the pilothouse of the patrol vessel and radioed Fort Lauderdale for instructions.

At this point, the Coast Guardsmen said, Alderman produced a .45 automatic and shot Sanderlin in the back. Next he shot the second-in-command, Lamby, who managed to fall down the engine-room hatch and lay paralyzed for the duration of the affair.

Alderman was suddenly in control of the whole situation, because, astonishingly, none of the government crew was armed.

Next, the Coast Guardsmen claimed, Alderman ordered the liquor loaded back on his boat. Then he ordered the remaining six men to the stern of his own vessel. At this point he supposedly announced he would burn the Coast Guard boat and shoot all the men.

Virtually all the survivors said they remember Alderman making an odd comment. Johnny Robinson remembers: "He said that he was not Charlie Waite or Red Shannon nor any of his kinfolk, and that he had taken enough off the Coast Guard."

The young Coast Guardsmen claimed that Alderman then instructed his accomplice, Weech, to break open the gas lines in the engine room of the 249, fill the bilges with fuel, and set the patrol boat alight. Two problems arose: No one could find any matches, and neither Alderman nor Weech could get their own boat engine started.

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Sean Rowe