"My Escape From A Sea Monster!"

The Pensacola Sea Serpent Encouter Of 1962

Survivor Brian McCleary

In May, 1962, five teenagers entered the waters of Pensacola Bay in Florida, looking forward to an exciting day of exploring a sunken wreck. What they got instead was a day of horror, with at least three of them being allegedly eaten by a plesiosaurus-like creature which methodically hunted them down. The body of one teenager eventually washed up on shore, and only teen Brian McCleary survived to tell the hair-raising tale.

His eyewitness account was later described in the May, 1965 issue of Fate Magazine. In later years, the memories of the event were so traumatic that he refused to talk about the incident to anyone for any reason. He passed away in 2016 without ever retelling his story.

My Escape From A Sea Monster

Edward Brian McCleary
May 1965

In back of us we could hear whatever it was, splashing and making that hissing sound.

March 24, 1962, was a warm, beautiful Saturday. I was having my morning coffee when the telephone rang. It was Eric Ruyle, a skin diving companion, calling to ask me to go with them and some friends on a skin diving expedition off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. I agreed to go after checking the morning paper for information on the day’s tides and weather.

I had been living in Florida for about two years and I enjoyed the diving most of all. Now, for the first time, I had a chance to dive around a sunken ship. Eric had said we would drive at a sunken ship near Pensacola Bay. I had not seen the boat before but I pictured its open passages with fish swimming in and out, with moss-like growth hanging from its decks, and the whole ship covered by the blue-green Gulf of Mexico.

I collected my gear and walking out the front door smelled the fresh, clear air of spring mixed with the salt spray from the ocean. There was not a cloud in the sky. The white sand ran for miles down the beach, reflecting the morning sun like a mirror. As I stood there with the sun warming my back and heating the morning I knew this was a perfect day for skin diving.

A dilapidated Ford pulled into my driveway. It was Eric, Warren Sullay, Brad Rice, and Larry Bill. We drove off toward Pensacola and a sunken ship called the Massachusetts. The boys told me it was on a sandbar about two miles off the coast.

We had a seven-foot Air Force life raft tied to the top of the car. It had a drift anchor, pockets for provisions, and oars. We planned to use it to get us back and forth to the ship.

In a little over half an hour we arrived at Ft. Pickens State Park. The park is right across the bay from Pensacola and was a gun installation during the Civil War. The Massachusetts lay just off the coast. We climbed the three stories of the main embattlement, a long rectangular structure with a square brick tower on top of which is mounted a telescope. Through the telescope I scanned the horizon and saw an object sticking out of the water, just off the coast – the Massachusetts.

We changed into our suits, loaded all our equipment into the raft and carried it down to the beach. I waded into the water but came out quickly. It was very cold. We thrust the raft into the foam and cleared the small waves with ease. The water was calm.

On the way out to the ship we took turns paddling so no one would be tired for the diving. When I was relieved I sat back and lit a cigarette. A small wind was coming down from the north, cooling the air. Down in the water I could see the beams of sunlight piercing the surface to plunge below and become lost in the green depths. I guessed the visibility at about forty feet underwater. I thought I would stand the cold to get into that fascinating world My daydream was interrupted by Larry. ‘Hey, we’re not going any place. When we took off the ship was on our right, now it’s on the left.”

“So paddle the other way,” Eric said. “You gotta make up for the drifts and tides.”

“Somebody relieve me,” Warren huffed, “this water’s rough. My arm’s killing me.”

The water had, in fact, become topped with small white-caps which lapped against the side of our raft. I shifted my attention from the water to the sky. The blue was overshadowed by some gray clouds which hid the sun and gave the water a dull blue color. The seagulls were skimming across the top of the waves toward shore. The salty breeze seemed stronger by the minute.

“Looks like we won’t do much diving today. Storm’s coming up. Looks like it anyhow. We’d better get back to shore,” Warren said.

We spun the raft around and started paddling back to shore, which by now was a think green strip in the north, harder to see each passing minute. Because of the wind the waves were washing us into the bay channel, which extended out into the open sea.

In an attempt to keep from being dragged into the open water Eric, Warren, and I jumped into the icy water and began kicking behind the raft. Larry and Brad took the oars. But the tide was too strong for us. We climbed back into the raft, shivering and cramped from the numbing cold. The waves were so high by this time we had to hold onto the sides of the raft to stay upright.

As the sky grew darker the small craft in the area began to desert the open water for safety in port. Just entering the channel was a small Chris Craft. We thought it would be our last chance to get to shore safely so we all stood up and yelled “Mayday.” It was difficult to yell, wave, and keep our balance at the same time. On the deck of the boat was an elderly woman. At first she didn’t notice us. Then she glanced in our direction and waved.

“We’re saved! She’s seen us. Hey, over here. Mayday! Mayday!” we yelled. The boat did not veer from its course.

Brad grabbed the shark gun, tied his red shirt around the tip, unhooked the line, and fired it directly at the boat. The kick from the gun knocked him over and the raft almost overturned. The spear hurled through the damp air and landed about fifty feet short of the boat. It was impossible for anybody to miss the distress signal. But the boat creased into the channel, heading back into port.

“We’re lost. Damn those fools. We’re lost. We’ll drown,” Larry wailed.

“Look, we’re not lost yet. There’s a buoy over there.” I pointed out into the channel, a mile distant. “We’ll tie onto it with the drag anchor as we go by. We’ll be okay. No reason to get shook up.”

We tried to paddle to the buoy. The waves were beginning to swamp the raft. Only the inflatable sides kept us afloat. The five of us were sitting, numb from the cold, in a pool of icy brine. At last we came close to the buoy. We were in for a shock. A massive edifice of steel loomed above us like an angry giant. Its worn, chipped, red paint contrasted with the black sky. It was covered with seaweed from top to bottom.

As the waves lifted it from its mooring a great riptide was formed at the bottom. The water foamed, gurgled, and was sucked underneath the metal monster. All twenty feet of it looked down on us. I stood up and hurled the anchor at the buoy like a lasso. But before the line had a chance to reach the buoy, the raft was aught in the undertow and dragged right for the bottom of the buoy. It was like going down hill in a roller coaster.

“Jump!” I yelled, and just in time. As the last man hit the water the whole thing came down full force on the raft, dragging it under. I surfaced, spitting water and gasping for breath.

“Over here. The raft came up over here,” Warren yelled. Eric and I were the first to reach it. We got everything out and threw it overboard. We turned the raft over and managed to get most of the water out. The rest climbed back in; we clung to the sides. The rain began to lash down like icy needles. The sky was black as night. Just as we left the channel we were dragged past the ship where we had intended to dive.

The wheelhouse which stuck out of the water was being battered by the waves. The winds roared through the open windows of the bridge, making a noise like the wail of sirens. Back and forth, the cabin lunged, rocked by the mighty sea.

Sometime later, I don’t know how long, the sheets of rain became a fine mist. The sea subsided, tapering off finally to the calmness of a mountain lake. Out of nowhere a thick fog rolled across the water blanketing us in the stuffy, moist atmosphere of an undiscovered tomb. Not a wave rippled, not a fish broke water, not a seagull called. Silence hung on the fog.

For the first time in my life I was really scared. While I was sitting there I felt a big, icy hand grab me around the chest and squeeze. My stomach froze; my hart skipped and cold chills ran down my legs. We wre exhausted from fighting the storm and the present atmosphere made matters worse.

Brad began to whimper, “We’re dead. We died in that storm. Oh God, why did it happen to me?”

“No, no, we’re fine; nothing to worry about; calm down. We’ll be back to land in a few hours,’ Eric tried to calm Brad.

After quieting Brad we tried to think what we could do. We decided we were helpless until the fog cleared and we could see where we were. Until then we could only wait. The fog showed no signs of lifting. Visibility was limited to twenty-five feet. There wasn’t a whisper of wind.

I tried some small talk to break the tension. “Eric, see if the cigarettes got wet, will you?”

“No. There are two packs, nice and dry. The lighter works too. We’re in luck.”

We passed the cigarettes around and the tension seemed to subside. For some reason though, we all spoke softly.

“We better get back soon. I’ve got a date tonight,” Brad said, grinning widely.

We all chuckled and felt a lot easier. But the conversation died down again and everyone was lost in his own thoughts.

The water was unusually warm beneath us, warm even for summer and this was March.

Larry bolted upright, saying, “Shhh, I hear a boat or something.”

We all listened for the noise he had heard. The misty air became filled with the odor of dead fish. My stomach heaved and I gasped for breath. Just then, about forty feet away, we heard a tremendous splash. The waves reached the raft and broke over the side.

“What in the hell was that?” Larry asked.

“Whatever it was, it wasn’t any boat. That’s for sure,” Eric said.

Again we heard the splash and now, through the fog we could make out what looked like a telephone pole. It was about ten feet high, with a bulb on the top. It stood erect for a moment and then bent in the middle and dove under. The sickening odor filled the air.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. What do you think it was?” I whispered.

‘Maybe it was an oarfish. I’ve heard that they look like snakes,” Warren answered.

“Oarfish don’t stand straight up,” Brad said.

“Maybe it’s a sea monster,” I suggested.

Everyone looked at me in silence. We all had been thinking the same thing. I was just the first to say it.

The silence was broken once again by something out in the fog. I can only describe it as a high-pitched whine. We panicked. All five of us put on our fins and dove into the water. Patches of brown, crusty slime lay all over the surface. I began to swim and kick spasmodically. I felt a small current under the surface and I hoped it would carry me in the direction of the shore.

“Keep together. Stay behind me and try for the ship,” I yelled. Eric and I were swimming together. The rest were together behind us. We made pretty good time at first. Our fear was indescribable.

In back of us we could hear whatever it was, splashing and making that hissing sound. The fog was clearing some and the water was becoming a bit rougher. Darkness was closing in. The rain began once more and the water was losing its warmth. I began to take long, slow mechanical strokes to keep me afloat, for I was becoming cramped. Eric was still nearby. Every so often we would call back to make sure the group was all right.

I don’t know how long it was before we heard a scream. It lasted maybe half a minute. Then I heard Warren call, “Hey Help me! It’s got Brad! It got Brad! I’ve got to get outta here…” His voice was cut off abruptly by a short cry.

“Brad, Warren. Hey! Where is everybody?” I yelled back at the top of my lungs. Larry now swam with Eric and me. Warren and Brad were nowhere in sight.

The only sounds now were those of the sea and the lightning. I had an eerie feeling – swimming in a storm, not knowing how many feet of ocean were beneath me, what was down there waiting for me. I wanted to sink into the green silence. I felt all alone, peaceful and quiet. It would have been so easy to just surrender to the sea, but something inside me kept going. The pain in my legs was like fire but I kept up the mechanical strokes. I knew I had to keep going.

When at last I realized where I was again Larry was gone.

“Eric, what happened to Larry? He was here a minute ago.”

“I don’t know. He was just here.”

Both of us dove for him, tried to see if we couldn’t get him not the surface but there was no trace of him. After a while we had to give up. Then Eric grimaced and sank. I swam over and wrapped his arm around my neck. “Cramps,” he said.

We swam like this for what must have been a couple of hours. I hoped we were going in the right direction. It was pitch dark. The waves were breaking on my head. My lungs [felt like they] were filled with salt water. I was ready to give up. Eric was becoming heavier by the minute and I had no hope. Just as I was going under the lightning flashed and I saw the silhouette of the Massachusetts. I began to take stronger strokes. We were saved.

“Come on, Eric,” I said, “We’ll be okay, boy. The ship’s just over the next wave. I’ve got to keep up. Come on, boy, let’s go.”

I was close to the ship when a giant wave pulled me under and yanked Eric’s arm from around my neck. I came up and couldn’t see him anywhere. Then lightning flashed and I saw him ahead of me. He was afloat and swimming for the ship.

Right next to Eric that telephone pole-like figure broke water. I could see the long neck and two small eyes. The mouth opened and it bent over. It dove on top of Eric, dragging him under. I screamed and began to swim past the ship. My insides were shaking uncontrollably.

I do  not know what happened after that. The Massachusetts is two miles from shore but I do not remember swimming this distance after Eric was killed. I thought I went down, down. I thought I rested on the soft sandy bottom. Voices talked to me. I felt warm and secure. I was at peace. I knew I was dead.

I couldn’t believe it when I felt sand under my feet and the silence of my peaceful “death” was shattered by pounding surf. I was flung forward on my face and got a mouthful of sand. I tried to walk but kept falling to my knees. Then I remembered I had my fins on. I threw them back into the water and headed up the beach. I tried to find help. I could see the lights of Pensacola in the distance but I didn’t know where I was. The cold night wind was making me shiver so I looked for a warm place. I finally came to a tower of some sort. I climbed all the way up the ladder and passed out on the floor of the little cabin. I must have slept about two hours but it seemed like two years. All night long I kept hearing voices.

I was awakened by the Sunday morning sun hitting my face through a window of the tower. I ached all over from the long swim. I got up and looked out the window, across the white beach, across the calm Gulf. The events of the previous day seemed like a bad dream. I headed for the ladder. My legs wouldn’t support me and I fell down the ladder to land face down in the sand below. I was crawling across the sand when a group of boys came up to me.

“Say, Mister, you must be one of the divers lost yesterday.”

“Yeah. I’ve got to get help. How did you know about the accident?”

“The coast guard found the raft this morning and began a search.”

“I’ve got to get help…please.”

The next thing I remember was waking up in the Pensacola Naval Base hospital. Breakfast was in front of me but I couldn’t eat because my throat was sore from the salt water.

The director of the Search and Rescue units came in to see me that morning. Director E. E. McGovern was a mild-mannered, friendly Southerner. I remember him well because of this kind face. I told him exactly what happened, what had witnessed.

“Did they find any of the others?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied. “We’ve had planes out all morinin’ and we’ve been combin’ the beaches but we haven’t found nothin’ yet.”

“Do you believe me about what happened and all?” I asked.

“You know, son,” he drawled, “the sea has a lot of secrets. There a lot of things we don’t know about. People don’t believe these things because they’re afraid to. Yes, I believe you. But there’s not much else I can do.”

He asked me some more questions and then he left.

Some reporters interviewed me later that day. After they had gone I wondered if I really believed what had happened. I thought it must have happened because the boys were dead. And I knew that thing that got them was real.

It is true. The sea has some terrible secrets, and now I know how she manages to keep them.

Both the Pensacola Journal and Playground News of Ft. Walton carried stories of this tragedy. These stories do not match Brian McCleary’s account of what the doctors at the Naval hospital had to say. One report says Brain “drifted and swam more than two miles” but Coast Guard an Navy rescue units estimated he swam five miles. Doctors at the Naval Base said he was in the water over twelve hours.

The interviewing reporters told Brian their stories would not mention the sea serpent as it was “better left unmentioned for all concerned.”

The bodies of Eric Ruyle, Warren Sullay, and Larry Stuart Bill were never recovered. One body washed ashore a week after the accident and Brain says, “To the best of my knowledge, I identified the body as that of Brad Rice.”

The raft was found ten miles from where Brian came out of the water. He was picked up near Fort McRae about 7:45 a.m. Sunday, March 5, 1962, by a helicopter from the Naval Air Station. He had spent the early morning hours in an old gun emplacement.

The clipping further stated Brian was suffering from shock and exposure but was released to his parents after brief treatment in the Naval hospital.

Brian writes us that after the accident he had a nervous breakdown but recovered and was able to resume his life in about three months.


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