“The Finest Hours” depicts the events of Feb. 18, 1952, when a horrendous winter storm broke two large tankers in half. Coast Guardsmen operating out of the Chatham, Massachusetts lifeboat station managed to save 70 of the men from death by hypothermia or drowning.
The two tankers, both 520 feet long and carrying kerosene and heating oil, were called the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer. The Pendleton broke first, cracking in half near dawn in the middle of a nor’easter that created 60-foot waves and 70-knot winds.
The way the Pendleton broke resulted in a circuit tripping, cutting electricity to the front of the ship where the captain could have sent out an S.O.S. signal. The captain and seven other men in the front of the ship would die before anyone knew to rescue them.
In the bow of the Pendleton, 33 men were fighting for their survival. They struggled to keep their ship afloat and sound alarms while knowing they had only hours to live.
A short time later, the Fort Mercer was broken in half by the same storm. The Coast Guard first learned about the Fort Mercer and dispatched a motor boat from Chatham and a number of Coast Guard cutters and aircraft responded.
The rescue of the Fort Mercer crew was dramatic. Crew members tried to climb on ropes from their sinking vessel to a cutter, but were thrown around by the wind and waves. A particularly brave cutter captain ordered his vessel to make runs beneath the stern, allowing survivors to jump from one ship to another as the waves tried to crash them together.
38 men were eventually rescued from the Mercer. It was during this that a Coast Guard aircraft spotted a floating section of the Pendleton and reported that there were two broken ships out there.
So, a second motorboat was dispatched from Chatham station. It is this one that “The Finest Hours” seems to focus on. A small crew of 3 volunteers led by a young boatswain’s mate, Bernard Webber, set out into the storm to attempt the rescue.
En route, their 36-foot lifeboat was twice swamped by the waves. The first simply flipped the self-righting ship, while the second flipped it and broke out the windshield, threw Webber against the deck, and broke the small vessels compass. Webber and his men would complete the rest of the rescue without being sure of where they were going at any time.
When they made it to the Pendleton, the survivors lined the deck and waved their arms to get the Coast Guardsmen’s attention. A nearby cutter had also come to the aid of the Pendleton, but was unable to assist because the Pendleton stern section was crashing against an underwater bar that would destroy the cutter.
So the small motorboat, designed to hold just a few people, began taking on the crew of the Pendleton. It took twenty passes of the motorboat for the entire crew to make it off. For each man that jumped onto the motorboat, the vessel became harder to maneuver and more sluggish, a potentially lethal problem in the turbulent storm.
Finally, on the last pass, the Coast Guardsmen had taken on 32 of the 33 survivors from the Pendleton. But the final survivor dropped too early, crashing into the water between the ship’s stern and the Coast Guard boat. When he floated back to the surface, a wave pushed the vessels together and the man was crushed between them.
Though Webber was hurt by the loss of the man, he began the challenging process of getting his crew and the 32 remaining survivors back to safety. With no compass for guidance, he radioed the shore for help. As Chatham Lifeboat Station and a Coast Guard cutter argued about the best course of action, Webber got fed up and shut off his radio.
He headed in a direction that he thought would let him beach the craft, allowing men to scramble ashore. As he moved forward though, he spotted a navigational buoy and alerted Chatham Station that he was coming up to the pier with his survivors.
Other Coast Guardsmen and civilians from Chatham came out to meet the heroes and help the survivors. The next day, Coast Guard Rear Admiral H. G. Bradbury wrote a letter thanking the men for their heroism. Each member of the crew later received Gold Lifesaving Medals from the Treasury Department for their efforts.
(h/t to the U.S. Coast Guard for their articles “The Fort Mercer and Pendleton Rescues” and “The Pendleton Rescue,” which provided most of the information for this article. Click on the linked articles for even more information and additional photos from the rescues.)
Disney’s “The Finest Hours” hits theaters on Jan. 29.