Clyde Cross - An All American Hero


By James Donahue


The 17 survivors of the shipwreck Novadoc would have told you without reservation that Pentwater fisherman Clyde Cross was an all-American hero.


But when Cross and his helpers, Gustave Fisher and Joe Fountain were steering their old fish tug The Three Brothers into mountain high seas to reach the stranded freighter, their critics were calling them fearless daredevils.


That’s because Cross was going where the Coast Guard feared to go. He put the lives of himself and his crew in jeopardy to try to save men who had been trapped and battered aboard the Novadoc at Juniper Beach for nearly 36 hours and were in danger of waiting at least another day before help could reach them.


There was no doubt that the danger was high. Two men had already been washed overboard and the ship’s mate, Capt. R. A. Simpell, wrote in the logbook that he believed others would be dead if they weren’t rescued before nightfall.


The Novadoc was one of three large lake carriers wrecked in the same area of Lake Michigan during the Armistice Day Storm of Nov. 11, 1940. The others, the William B. Davock and Anna C. Minch, disappeared with all hands. Two fishing tugs foundered off South Haven and several other vessels were driven aground in the gale which claimed an estimated 159 lives.


The Novadoc was a Canadian ship under the command of Capt. Donald Steip. She was on her way from Chicago to Montreal with a load of carbon coke when the northwesterly gale drove the vessel into the Michigan shore.


“We ordered all our boys to put on lifebelts and come to the bridge as we could see that nothing could save the ship,” Simpel said. “The captain thought if he put the engines in reverse, perhaps we could keep clear. . . but we were getting closer to the beach. Then all at once the ship was in the backwash from the shore and of her own accord, she turned around, heading out into the lake.


“The captain put the engines full speed ahead. Then things happened so quickly one could scarcely follow them,” Simpell said the ship was struck by a series of powerful seas that broke out the five pilot house windows and knocked everybody to the deck. “The captain stopped the engines,” he said. “Just then the ship struck the shoals with a shock that shook her from one end to the other, keeping it up until she was finally banging up against the bank about 500 feet from shore and about one and one quarter miles from Little Sable Light."


Crew members were forced off the bridge into the captain’s quarters to get out of the water. There, everybody laughed and joked about their situation and waited for help to arrive.


Seven other sailors, the engine room crew and the cooks, didn’t fare as well. They were caught in the after end of the ship where the seas continued to flood their quarters. Everybody stood knee-deep in ice cold water, bailing for their lives with pails. The men tossed water out of the broken port holes while the waves dumped it back in again. They had enough by Wednesday morning on the second day. That was when everybody from the after part of the ship tried to crawl across the ice-coated and storm swept deck to reach the pilot house at the ship’s bow.


All but the cooks, identified as Joseph Deshaw of Toronto and Phillip Falvin, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, made it. Deshaw and Falvin disappeared during the perilous trip. If they could have waited a few more hours, rescue was on the way.


Clyde Cross saved the day. After Cross brought the survivors smartly into port, something happened that may be remembered even more than the man’s daring rescue. It made the story a legend in lakes lore. After stepping safely ashore, Captain Steip gratefully reached in his breast pocket and produced a roll of bills, which he offered to Cross.


Nobody will ever know how much the roll contained. That’s because Cross leaned back against the bulkhead of his tired old tug, while the automobile engine that drove it still clanked noisily beneath his feet, and said: “Hell no, captain. Glad to be of service.”




The Mind of James Donahue

Great And Lost Ships Of The World