PENOBSCOT, Maine — A chance meeting in November in a New Jersey rest stop parking lot between two Mainers — one a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and the other a shipwreck buff — led them to bond over an Italian liner that sank 55 years ago.
Bob Wallace, 75, of Penobscot, who retired in 1973 after a 20-year Coast Guard career, saw another driver getting out of a car with a Maine license plate. The two struck up a conversation.
The other Mainer, Richard Glueck of Winterport, noticed a Coast Guard decal on Wallace’s truck, which led to a discussion of Wallace’s career.
One of Wallace’s most important memories, he said Thursday, was the morning of July 26, 1956, when the 80-foot Coast Guard cutter he was on, the Evergreen, responded to calls that the Andrea Doria of the Italian Line had been rammed by the Swedish liner Stockholm late the previous night off Nantucket, Mass.
“[Glueck] happened to be an Andrea Doria buff who was just 6 years old when it happened,” Wallace said.
When the Evergreen, which had been pulled from oceanographic research to help with the rescue effort, arrived at the wreck site, Wallace grabbed a camera and snapped pictures as the Andrea Doria slipped beneath the waves.
Wallace had never heard of the Andrea Doria before that day.
“My first glimpse of her when I saw her — what a magnificent ship,” he said. “Graceful, beautiful sleek lines. It was heartbreaking to know she was sinking.”
The crew heard a rumor that movie actress Ruth Roman was on board the Andrea Doria.
“We were all saying, ‘I’m gonna go save Ruth Roman,’” Wallace said. “We all fancied ourselves rescuers of a Hollywood starlet.”
Roman was, in fact, on the ship, which carried many other 1950s celebrities, but Wallace said his cutter wasn’t the one to rescue her.
The Andrea Doria was built for luxury, according to Robert D. Ballard and Rick Archbold, authors of “Lost Liners.” It was the first cruise ship to feature three outdoor swimming pools. Like the Titanic, the Andrea Doria’s builders assumed it was unsinkable.
“It was kind of eerie hearing her go down,” Wallace said. “It was the moaning sound she made, this deep, deep moan. It’s like a death moan.”
Wallace took photographs of the Andrea Doria until his cutter left the scene in the early afternoon after the liner sank to the bottom.
Rescuers pulled 1,660 passengers and crew from lifeboats, but 46 were killed by the two ships’ collision.
Coast Guard officials took Wallace’s film when he reached shore, but he had managed to develop around a dozen of the pictures in the cutter’s darkroom, which he kept for himself.
“Unfortunately, over the years and different addresses, I got down to just one photo,” Wallace said.
More than half a century later, he met Glueck in the New Jersey parking lot and they swapped contact information. Wallace has since given the last remaining photograph to Glueck for safekeeping and preservation.
Glueck said he is an Andrea Doria shipwreck buff, and meeting someone who was there to see the liner go down was “a crazy coincidence.”
“When I was a child, I listened to New York broadcaster John Tillman describing the sinking of the ship, live from an airplane, on my parents’ bedroom radio,” Glueck said.
He has studied the deterioration of the wreck and history of the ship. A diver gave Glueck a saucer he pulled from the debris on the ocean floor.
“I am certain [Wallace and I] were destined to have met at that moment,” Glueck said.
Wallace and Glueck continue to talk, and even attended the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland together this summer.
Wallace said he’s proud of his Coast Guard career and has more stories than he’ll ever be able to tell.
“I did some crazy stuff in my day,” he said. “Like crawling on an iceberg, drilling a hole, planting explosives and seeing what it took to destroy it.”
That was part of the Coast Guard’s research off the coast of Newfoundland into how best to get rid of icebergs that crept into shipping lanes. He also tried painting the icebergs black to see whether they would melt faster in the sun.
“I enjoyed my Coast Guard career and my service to my country,” Wallace said. “I’d do it all over if I could. And I’d stay 35 if I could, too.”