By Julie Riddle, The Alpena News
This article is part of a collaboration between The Alpena News and Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television to bring audiences stories about the Great Lakes, especially Lake Huron and its watershed.
ROGERS CITY — Men lost at sea a half century ago finally found a voice, a family member said, as representatives of the Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum in Rogers City inducted 23 sailors from the SS Daniel J. Morrell into the museum’s hall of fame on Sunday.
The induction ceremony, held at the Rogers City Area Senior and Community Center, honored those lost in the tragedy and highlighted the lives — not just the deaths — of those men and all who sail, said Roger Hulett, the museum’s director.
The ship broke up in a storm on Lake Huron in late November of 1966 before it could reach the protection of Thunder Bay, killing 28 of the 29 men aboard.
Until recently, photos and biographies of only six of the ship’s crew hung on the museum’s walls.
Extensive research led to Sunday’s ceremony, honoring the remaining crew members, whose stories will now also grace the walls of the Rogers City museum.
“I feel like, now, their voice is being heard that was silenced on Nov. 29, 1966,” said Cathy Pruiett, of North Carolina, over lunch before the ceremony.
Pruiett and her sister, Daphne Rhodes, were 7 and 9 years old when they learned their father, Wilson E. Simpson, an oiler on the Morrell, would not come home again.
The researchers who tracked down their father’s story helped fill a void, the sisters said.
“It’s not an empty silence now,” Pruiett said, tears in her eyes. “It’s filled with memories.”
Great Lakes maritime historian John DeBeck — a friend of Dennis Hale, the Morrell’s lone survivor — tracked down family and friends of the remaining crew members over the past three years.
He heard, over and over, that those left behind felt overlooked, the stories of their loved ones overshadowed by the sinking of the SS Carl D. Bradley in 1958 that killed 33 sailors — many from Northeast Michigan — and the 1975 wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, immortalized in song.
To bring the stories of those lost on the Morrell to life — and to reconstruct the sinking — DeBeck and a team of researchers scoured libraries, dug through national archives, conducted interviews, and dove to the ship’s remains, he recounted.
The research revealed details DeBeck believes disprove the Coast Guard’s account of the wreck. More importantly, the work gave families much-needed closure, DeBeck said, voice trembling as he recalled families’ tears, laughter, and amazement at someone showing interest in the Morrell crew more than 50 years after their loss.
At the Sunday ceremony, Bruce Lynn, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point on Lake Superior, read the names and brief biographies of the men lost on the Morrell.
Ernest and Duncan, Norman and David — the men became more than numbers as Lynn told stories of a card shark, a dump truck driver, a vacuum cleaner salesman known for his tasty spaghetti.
A snappy dresser who drove a convertible. A teenager who treasured his motorcycle and worked on the family farm.
A third mate who planned to retire and move to Alpena as soon as the Morrell laid up for the season.
Several had survived other shipwrecks — some caused by enemy torpedoes — and some had performed heroic rescues.
With their photos on a museum wall — and artifacts from Hale’s rescue included in a new exhibit dedicated at the Whitefish Point museum on Saturday — the men of the Morrell will now have their stories told to thousands, DeBeck said.
The Rogers City museum — which bills itself as the only museum dedicated to sharing the lives of people making a living on Great Lakes ships — shares stories and photos of anyone who has sailed or sails still, from cooks to deckhands to bridge tenders, Hulett said.
In North Carolina, far from the Great Lakes, few people have heard even of the Fitzgerald wreck, much less the Morrell, Rhodes said as she prepared to ring a replica bell, engraved with the names of crew members, that will someday be placed on the wreck.
She and her sister have the comfort, now, of knowing their father won’t be forgotten, Rhodes said.
“It’s easier, now,” she said. “Because of this. Because of today.”
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Featured image: At the Rogers City Area Senior and Community Center on Sunday, the projected image of a sailor killed in the 1966 sinking of the SS Daniel J. Morrell hovers over family members and friends of those lost in the sinking as speaker John DeBeck shares stories about the ship’s crew. (Photo Credit: Julie Riddle/The Alpena News)