JM Hobby Supply & Railroad Artifacts



3rd Largest Shipwreck in the Great Lakes??


John DeBeck-Director, Daniel J. Morrell Research Group


DeBeck tells the story of his close friend of 33 years,
lone survivor of the DANIEL J. MORRELL, Dennis Hale,
and his research team's story of rewriting history 
as to the cause of the MORRELL wreck!


            The DANIEL J MORRELL was a 603' long ore freighter that was built in 1906 in Bay City, MI, Sixty years later, the ship broke in two during a fierce storm on Lake Huron on November 29, 1966. Of the 29 crewmen, only one man, watchman Dennis Hale, survived the wreck, spending 38 hours on a life raft before being rescued, wearing only his Navy peacoat and underwear! The MORRELL is the third largest wreck on the Lakes, only behind the 729' EDMUND FITZGERALD and the 640' CARL D. BRADLEY.

            Hale was a recluse for 16 years after the wreck. A chance encounter in 1982 with the divers that rediscovered the MORRELL in 1979 steered him towards a 33 year career as a speaker about the ship, its men, and his ordeal. Upon his passing from cancer in 2015, friends and family wondered if this was where the story would end. DeBeck and Hale's widow, Barb, helped facilitate a new MORRELL exhibit at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, MI, which opened in 2021, with Mrs. Hale donating hundred of artifacts Dennis has collected for 49 years. From 2018-2020, DeBeck and his research team relocated all 29 surviving MORRELL families, uniting them for the first time ever, gathering clues and doing research which led to stunning new proof as to what caused the MORRELL to founder!

In his presentation, DeBeck will discuss the following topics:

*A recap of the original determination of the cause of the wreck.

*Dennis Hale's survival and rescue.

*What led to the formation of the research team following Hale's passing.

*Stories about the 29 crewmen and their families.

*The new proof as to the cause of the wreck, and why the stern sailed five miles before finally sinking!

*The monetary settlement with the families.

*Clues from the sister ship, EDWARD Y TOWNSEND, in the same storm, and the truth about this ship!

*Debunking of the myths surrounding the wreck.

He also offers a question and answer session at the end of each presentation!

For speaking engagements in a church setting:

DeBeck shares Hale's story of faith, including not only what helped him to survive, but how Hale coped after the wreck, and the highs and lows of the 49 years that followed. DeBeck and Hale shared many personal moments discussing faith, world affairs, family, society, and more. Tailoring the presentation to those in a religious setting is a special situation, and DeBeck wants to make sure to share messages that Hale took with him upon his passing, but also still apply today.


Contact us at 920-857-9670. You may also email us at In tradition with Dennis Hale's former events and goals, we try to keep any costs as low as possible for you! We will discuss the needs for your event and if you have any specific parts of the presentation that you would like Mr. DeBeck to emphasize.

Mailing address:

John DeBeck
Daniel J. Morrell Research Group
PO Box 25
Luxemburg, WI 54217

Groups are welcome to use Mr. DeBeck as a speaker during fundraising events as well. He has often been featured as a dinner or luncheon speaker for groups needing to raise money for various charitable causes, library and museum fundraisers, church fundraisers, and much more!

He has spoken at events in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, and beyond! Schedule your event today!


DeBeck always brings a supply of the team's new Morrell book, "The DANIEL J. MORRELL, Lost, But No Longer Forgotten," for sale at your event. Proceeds from the book benefit several museum foundations. The book is 404 pages, in both color/black and white, with over 500 photos, charts, and diagrams, many which have never been published previously!

Those who purchase a book also get a FREE DVD that shows footage of the Morrell Research Team's divers to the MORRELL bow and stern in 2019 and 2020, along with footage recently discovered of Dennis Hale's rescue by helicopter! DeBeck will autograph books for people or provide a personal message in them at no charge. 

Barb Hale and Dennis Hale (photo from the Dennis Hale Collection)


            John DeBeck was a long time women's basketball coach, who won over 1,000 games as head coach of the Wisconsin Streamliners Varsity Women's basketball team from 1989 to 2005. Having coached at schools in both Wisconsin and Illinois, he was also the head coach of the U-19 TEAM USA women's national team from 1995-1998, during which the team won four straight world championships. Over 125 of his players went on to college scholarships, and he coached over two dozen women who played professionally either in the WNBA or overseas. A long-time business owner of North American Youth Sports, which ran youth basketball tournaments in 100 locations throughout the USA from 1991-2017, he sold the company, along with his hobby manufacturing firm, JMD Plastics and Hobby, in 2017, due to having to deal with a plethora of personal health issues that were the result of his many years in athletics. However, this later allowed him to pursue some of his other interests that had been "put on the back burner" for many years while he criss-crossed the globe during his coaching career. A long-time vintage motorcycle enthusiast, he has directed the Motorcycle and Model Railroad Museum Foundation, and has been a writer and editor for the best-selling "Comprehensive Vintage Motorcycle Price Guide," which is the "bible" for vintage motorcycle values. He now spends time restoring and riding motorcycles, writing, collecting railroad artifacts, and doing public speaking on the MORRELL and other railroad or shipping topics.

            "I was really humbled, honored, and blessed to be a part of the MORRELL project," DeBeck states in many of his presentations. "After retiring from my firms in 2017, and having to deal with some personal health issues, the MORRELL project just seemed to come at the right time. To be able to give closure to these families and honest answers, which they never received 55 years ago, is certainly the highlight of my life."

            DeBeck's team includes famed shipwreck diver and explorer David Trotter, who discovered the MORRELL in 1979, along with Trotter's Undersea Research Associates dive team. Bruce Halverson, a vintage ship expert and marine engineer with Fincantieri Marine Group in Sturgeon Bay, WI, along with his colleagues, make up another part of the team. Private investigators Lori and Kevin Rogers of Magnum Investigations in Shawano, WI, are also valued members of the team, who help locate families from the MORRELL and other details. Trotter and Halverson also speak about the MORRELL.

           Currently, at the request of former members of the Coast Guard and others important people, DeBeck and his team are working with them, along with surviving families, on unlocking the unknown secrets of the EDMUND FITZGERALD. DeBeck will mention this project in his speaking engagements as well.

            "I had never thought of doing anything with the FITZ," DeBeck stated. "I kind of thought the story of the wreck had been 'beaten to death,' but in the wake of the contact I received from a former Coast Guard official, and the ensuing discussions, contacts, and research, there is more to the story than what people know, and I think a 'rewrite of history' is in the offing."

John DeBeck, at the opening of the new DANIEL J. MORRELL exhibit, August 2021, at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, MI


The story Behind the Great Lakes' Third Largest Shipwreck

A Recent Exhibit and Book Re-examine the 1966 Sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell.

Duluth News-Tribune

March 9, 2022

DULUTH — Great Lakes historian and transportation buff John DeBeck visited the city Friday night to talk about an event that has become a bit of a personal fascination or obsession: the sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell.

Sole Survivor

DeBeck was just 15 years old when he first met Dennis Hale and heard his tale as the sole survivor of the Morrell’s 29-member crew after a wicked Lake Huron gale broke the laker in two. Following years of painful silence, Hale was finally beginning to publicly share his harrowing story, and many people were eager to hear it, including DeBeck.

At around 2 a.m. Nov. 29, 1966, Hale was awakened from his sleep by a thunderous bang, followed by the sound of the ship’s alarm system. The watchman knew something was seriously wrong. With no time to dress, he grabbed his peacoat and a life jacket. When he climbed up top without shoes, Hale saw the deck of the 603-foot-long ship heaving and bending.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Hale said: “You could see sparks. You could hear it ripping. Real slow like a piece of paper. The noise. The noise was just unbelievable.”

Soon, the ship had broken in two, with Hale on the bow section only to be swept overboard by a large wave. Between the waves, he caught sight of a life raft and swam to it, where he was joined by three other crew members.

As the bow of the laker quickly sank, the stern section, still under power, pushed ahead and continued its journey for about another 5 miles before also going under.

Meanwhile, Hale and his shipmates on the raft were beset by 60-70 mph winds, tossing them amid up to 30-foot waves. The men tried to cheer one another with thoughts of home, but one by one, Hale watched his colleagues freeze to death. Wearing nothing but a pair of J.C. Penney boxer shorts, a life jacket and his peacoat, Hale somehow managed to hang on for 38 hours until a helicopter finally spotted him and plucked him from the life raft, still clinging to life.

"It wasn't a pleasant moment from the time the alarm sounded to the time I was picked up. But the worst thing were those waves," Hale told the News Tribune in a 2002 interview. "It was dark. They seemed to carry us forever. We could never catch our breath. And then the winds hit us and it felt like your skin was being peeled off. It was horrible."

'You have no idea how emotional it was'

Following his first meeting with DeBeck, Hale began to share his story more widely, and the two became fast friends, until cancer finally claimed the mariner’s life in 2015.

In visiting with Hale’s bereaved widow, Barb, DeBeck recalled how she asked: “What am I going to do with all his stuff now?”

DeBeck explained that Hale had saved his life jacket, a flare gun from the raft and numerous other artifacts.

“When you walked into their house, it was almost like a mini-Morrell museum,” he said.

As they talked it over and considered what Hale would have wanted, the two agreed donating his collection to a marine museum would be the best way to keep the memory of the Morrell alive.

But both believed Hale wouldn’t want an exhibit centered on his ordeal. Rather, he would have wanted it to pay tribute to his lost shipmates.

Over the next few years, DeBeck reached out to the families of the Morrell’s crew members, gathering photos and stories of the deceased from around the nation and Canada. These materials were assembled into an exhibit that opened at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan, in August 2021 — more than a year later than first anticipated — due to the pandemic.

At first, DeBeck didn’t know how his inquiries would be received.

“Here I am, Joe Nobody that they’ve never met, cold-calling them. So, it was amazing to me how I very quickly gained 28 new friends and still have those friends today, because I showed an interest in something that was near and dear to their hearts," DeBeck said.

One of his more memorable visits was with the family of 2nd Engineer Al Norkunas, of Superior. DeBeck was passing through the Twin Ports and arranged to meet them for dinner at Barker’s Island, where about two dozen relatives gathered to learn more about the project.

“Probably the most emotional part of this whole study was when one of the Norkunas men walked up to me and asked me for my hand. I thought he wanted to shake it, but he put a watch in my hand,” DeBeck said.

Tom Norkunas told him the watch had been found on the lifeless body of his uncle, Al, recovered several months after the shipwreck.

DeBeck thought the watch might reveal exactly when the Morrell’s stern sank, as that’s where the engineer had been at the time the ship broke in two. But Tom shook his head and said it would offer no such clue because the watch was still working.

He asked DeBeck to please include the watch in the exhibit, as a way to honor his Uncle Al.

Of course, Debeck obliged, but said: “What really threw me for a loop was this was a 1958 14-karat gold Omega Seamaster waterproof watch, which if you or I took it and sold it today is a $2,500 watch, and it’s worth many times more than that as a shipwreck artifact.”

DeBeck is still moved by the memory of the exchange.

“For someone who had never met me or talked to me, to come up to me and put that watch in my hand and ask me to do that," he said. "Even today, you have no idea how emotional it was, and how it told me, we’re doing the right thing for these families.”

Tom Norkunas said his father, Daniel, his Uncle Ted and his Uncle Al all worked on the Great Lakes, and the watch carries a lot of family meaning.

He recalls he was 7 years old when news of the Morrell’s disappearance reached Superior, and the whole family was glued to the news.

“The atmosphere in our house was just … I don’t know. You could cut it with a knife,” Norkunas said.

The watch was passed down to Norkunas’ father and then to himself. With no clear heir next in line to receive it, he had worried about where it might end up when he dies.

“I think this took a weight off of my mind about what would become of the watch,” Norkunas said. “I don’t think there’s a better place for it,”

The exhibit has generated a lot of interest, according to Bruce Lynn, director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

"It's been received very well," he said. "There have been a lot of good comments, and I think people have been particularly happy about the focus on the crew."

Of course, the most famous Great Lakes shipwreck was that of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, with none of the 29 members of its crew surviving the waters of Lake Superior. And the most deadly event was the 1958 sinking of the Carl Bradley in Lake Michigan, claiming the lives of all but two of 35 shipmates onboard.

But Lynn said people often seem inclined to forget just how dangerous a job it was to work the lakes and how many lives have been lost.

"There's theoretically more than 6,000 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and some statistics say as many as 10,000," he said. "Each one of them had a crew. Each one had its own story. That's a lot like the Morrell in that sense, that these are stories that to a degree, unless you're a shipwreck enthusiast, have kind of been forgotten about."

Coast Guard Theory 'Doesn't hold water'

DeBeck said the exhibit brought together many of the far-flung families of the Morrell’s crew members for the first time in 55 years.

“So we’re trying to find all these families, and they’re telling me stories that are contrary to what was reported at the time, and they’re giving us clues. And that was kind of the start of us thinking: Something’s not right,” he said.

A Coast Guard investigation immediately after the wreck of the Morrell implicated the high-sulfur steel that had been used to construct the 60-year-old ship. This type of steel can become brittle in cold conditions, making it more susceptible to stress damage.

But DeBeck wasn’t buying that as the sole reason for the laker’s demise, referring to the initial report as “a sloppy excuse answer.”

He said if the properties of that type of steel in cold weather were to blame, many other Great Lakes vessels would have suffered a similar fate.

“So, pardon the pun, but the brittle-steel theory just doesn’t hold water,” DeBeck said.

To get to the bottom of what really caused the ship to sink, DeBeck assembled a team, including diver David Trotter, working in concert with Undersea Research Associates, and Bruce Halverson, a lead vintage ship marine engineer with Fincantieri Marine Group in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

“Now, fortunately, because of the research that our team did over a period of three years — from 2018 to 2020 — we uncovered a lot of the things that had been hidden for a long time and were able to determine the true cause of the wreck and give some closure to these families, DeBeck said.

“We were able to determine, without a doubt, that the ship was taking on water because the waves that were hitting the ship, going from starboard to port, actually bent a lot of the hatch clamps that were holding the telescoping hatches down,” DeBeck said.

By law, the hatches of the Morrell should have been battened down at that time of year, but DeBeck noted that “a lot of captains didn’t do that when they were empty, because they didn’t feel the need.”

The Morrell had left Buffalo under ballast, bound for Taconite Harbor to supply Bethlehem Steel with its final load of pellets for the season.

“If you study the striations where clamps have broken off, you can see that they’ve broken off or bent from right to left, as opposed to popping straight forward and the hatch covers flying off. There are still hatch covers remaining on the Morrell on both the stern and the bow that are still in place, but they’re shuffled. And you can see the shuffling action occurred because of the waves,” DeBeck said.

“She was definitely was taking on water. But at 2 a.m. in the middle of the blackness, if you’re losing freeboard, you don’t necessarily see this or recognize it,” he said.

DeBeck also noted that the Morrell’s sister ship, the Edward Y. Townsend, which pulled off course and took shelter from the same storm behind Cove Island, was found to have taken on 6-8 feet of water in all three cargo holds. That vessel also had a cracked deck.

“It’s about the same equivalent as what they would have moved in ore. But 10,000 tons of water moves around,” he said, noting that that quantity of liquid sloshing around would cause a tremendous deal of racking and structural stress in rough seas.

DeBeck and his research team have compiled their findings and theories into a book called "The Daniel J. Morrell: Lost But No Longer Forgotten," published by Halfcourt Press.

Five Northland Casualties

Among the 28 men killed in the loss of the Morrell were five from the Northland: George A. Dahl, 38, and Joseph A. Mahsem, 59, both of Duluth; Alfred G. Norkunas, 39, of Superior; Albert P. Wieme, 51, of Knife River; and Phillip E. Kapets, 51, of Ironwood, Michigan.

There was nearly a sixth victim from the area, the ship’s porter.

Hjalmer Edwards, 61, of Ashland, came down with pneumonia when the ship was downbound and was transferred from the ship to a Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, hospital. He was still in the hospital when the Morrell sank.

"He never did want to talk about it," said Edwards’ daughter, Kristin Connell, who was then 13. "One thing he did say to me was that he would have been a goner for sure" had he been aboard the ship, she told the News Tribune in 2012.


COPY the link, PASTE in your browser, and CLICK on the start arrow to view either video:

The History of the Daniel J Morrell-by the Duluth News-Tribune-3/9/22

Remembering Dennis Hale, Lone Survivor of the Morrell-by the Duluth News Tribune-3/9/2022