Until Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias book, The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue, came out in 2009, very few people were aware of this incredible event that occurred 60+ years earlier. The reason for this varies. Some of the men who did the rescue didn’t see the event as anything special. They were just doing their job. But this was no routine job.
On February 18, 1952 a terrible winter storm hit a New England coastline. Small towns were hit extra hard. Out in the ocean, two 500-foot oil tankers, The SS Pendleton (which was headed to Boston, Massachusetts) and the SS Fort Mercer (headed toward Portland, Maine) were tossed around like beach balls atop of the 60-foot waves. Ironically both we hit so hard that they both were split in half.
Recently released to theaters from Disney, The Finest Hours chronicles the events that happened aboard the SS Pendleton. The filmography is amazing and so well done. It is being presented in Digital 3D, Real 3D and IMAX 3D to really bring its audience into the adventure with the four Guardsmen who risked their lives in order to save others.
Directed by Craig Gillespie, The Finest Hours stars Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro and Eric Bana. Though Pine plays the lead role as Bernie Webber, Kyle Gallner may have had a better experience playing the role of Andy Fitzgerald as the real Fitzgerald was brought to the set during filming of the movie. Now in his 80s, Fitzgerald is the last of the four still alive and able to see this incredible tribute to him and his fellow guardsmen. Gallner got a chance to meet Fitzgerald face to face and reportedly was impressed with the elder’s modest attitude about the whole event. In fact, Fitzgerald thanked him for spending so much time in the cold and wet, yet indoor, soundstage in order to film the movie.
In the movie version, the story, like the tanker ships, is broken in two. Aboard the Pendleton, it soon becomes apparent to senior officer Raymond Sybert (Casey Affleck) that he and his crew are in trouble. Some members of the crew start to panic. Some want to lower down the lifeboat and get the heck out of there, but Sybert knew better. He knew that if they did jump in the lifeboat, it wouldn’t last more than a few seconds as it would be no match for the strong waves hitting the ship. Their only hope would be to do a few quick patch jobs on the ship, that would only hold for a short period of time, and wait for the guardsmen.
Meanwhile, at the Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts, crews were already sent out to help helping local residents with their own vessels when Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) received a call telling him that the Fort Mercer was in need of help. He sent out all of the men he could. Shortly after, he received the fateful second call from the Pendleton basically telling him the same story about the ship being ripped into two. He send Bernie Webber to grab three others and take out a 36-foot motorized boat to see how they could help, if at all. However, the motto then was “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” Hardly a confidence booster.
The small crew didn’t far when their little wooden boat was hit hard by waves that broke the windshield of the boat and took out its compass. Through the hurricane-like force winds, the continued to press on. It was almost a miracle that they even found the ship. Once there, they realized that that the ship had 33 men who needed to be rescued all the crew had available was a boat that held 12. The crew agreed that either that they would all live or die together, but no one was going to be left behind.
Balancing the small boat so that it didn’t smash into the large one was hard enough. The men on the ship had to climb down a rope ladder, many of them falling off and into the water, in order to reach the boat. Sadly, one crew member, George “Tiny” Myers fell off the ladder, landed in the water and became smashed between the big ship and little boat.
The rescue was far from over as Bernie and his crew now had to find a way to get the 36 of them back to the shore without a workable compass in pitch black night and wild waves to boot. In what seems like an impossible task, Bernie tried to wade back the same way that they had come without really knowing if they were headed in the right direction or not.
Miraculously, it was. 32 men were saved that night and lived to tell about it. Though, apparently only a few did. Thankfully, we get to share in the experience.