In a retelling of one of the greatest moments in U.S. Coast Guard’s history, The Finest Hours is a feel-good movie of true heroism. When sitting down to write the film, screenwriters Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson had the chance to do something not everyone does: interview the actual people who lived the story. Since they had the chance to talk to the survivors, does that mean the story was historically accurate? Let’s find out as we learn about the true story of The Finest Hours.

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Transcript

Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

The movie starts off by introducing us to the two main characters as they meet each other for the first time. They are Bernie Webber, played by Chris Pine, and Miriam Pentinen, played by Holliday Grainger. Right away, they hit it off. It’s love at first sight.

And right away, we’re hit with the first inaccuracy in the movie. You see, the movie starts off by putting a date and a place to the events. Wellfleet, Massachusetts, December 1951. According to marriage records of the time, Bernard Challen Webber and Mabel Miriam Pentlnen were married in Wellfleet in 1950. So while there was a loving connection between Bernie and Miriam, it wasn’t because of love at first sight just before the rescue.

So because of this, we know the next scene where Bernie asks Miriam to marry him is also untrue. In truth, they were already married. Still, when Miriam says she’ll stick with him no matter what—that is true. The two were head over heels for each other.

In the movie, there’s a few mentions of the Landry. While the movie doesn’t really talk about this much, it’s obviously a cause for tension between Richard Livesey, played by Ben Foster, and Bernie.

What they’re referring to was a rescue attempt that actually happened. This was about a couple years earlier, on April 7th, 1950. The William J. Landry was a shipping boat that was caught in a storm about a mile off Cape Cod. There were actually two ships that were caught in this storm. The Landry and another ship named Four Sisters. The latter ship made its way to a point on the coast where it beached and waited out the storm. The entire crew survived, along with its cargo.

The Landry, however, decided to try and make its way about fifty miles up the coast to New Bedford. It was found by a Coast Guard ship, which offered a tow line. The Coast Guard ship was larger, a cutter, and proceeded to tow the Landry. With the strength of the storm, the tow line was lost and rather than try to do what Four Sisters did and hit the coast to wait out the storm, the Landry continued on its own. It sank somewhere off the coast, and the next day the wreckage was discovered. Everyone on board perished in something that most considered to be a needless risk.

Since this happened when Bernie Webber was working at the Coast Guard in Massachusetts, it’s very likely he was on board. But in truth it was the Captain Hansen on the Landry who made the risky call that ended up in taking the lives of the ship’s crew.

The bulk of the story in the film takes place late one evening. As viewers, we’re on board the SS Pendleton during a nor’easter when the unthinkable happens. If you’re like me, you’re probably not familiar with the term nor’easter. It’s a term used mostly around the New England coast to refer to a cyclone.

It’s during this storm that the hull breaks in two, separating the front of the ship from the back. Then we’re taken back to the Coast Guard station where we find out the SS Pendleton isn’t the only one. There’s another ship, the SS Fort Mercer who has fallen to the same issue—two ships, each broken in two.

This amazing turn of events is true.

The date was February 18th, 1952. The nor’easter was blasting winds at 70 knots. That’s about 80 mph or 130 kilometer/hour. The ocean itself was heaving with 60 foot waves, that’s 18 meters, of uneasy waters thrashing and throwing itself against the ship’s hull.

The Pendleton was coming from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and heading to Boston with a load of 122,000 barrels of kerosene and heating oil. Similarly, the Fort Mercer was the same type of tanker, a T-2, and was also carrying a load of kerosene. But the Fort Mercer was headed up to Maine.

At about 8:00 in the morning, the Fort Mercer was the first to report in that their ship was breaking apart due to the storm. But the movie doesn’t really mention the rescue operation for the Fort Mercer. It only mentions Bernie taking out a small rescue boat, named the CG36500, to the Pendleton. And in truth, the crew of the CG36500, was assigned to rescue the Pendleton. But there was a massive rescue operation underway for the Fort Mercer.

And Bernie wasn’t ordered out to sea first, as the movie makes it seem. Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff, played by Eric Bana, first ordered Donald Bangs and his crew to take the CG36383 out to the Fort Mercer. According to the Coast Guard’s official account of the incident, Bernie thought:

“My God, do they really think a lifeboat and its crew could actually make it that far out to sea in this storm and find the broken ship amid the blinding snow and raging seas with only a compass to guide them? If the crew of the lifeboat didn’t freeze to death first, how would they be able to get the men off the storm-tossed sections of the broken tanker?”

In all, the Coast Guard responded to the distress calls of the two tankers with five 65 foot cutter ships, the Eastwind, Unimak, Yakutat, Achushnet, and the McCulloch. Along with these five cutters, two 36 foot rescue boats and a handful of aircraft and other vessels were sent. But out of all of these rescue ships, only one, the CG36500, was sent to the Pendleton. So you can get the sense that a majority of the rescue operation went to the Fort Mercer. The reason for this is simply because the Coast Guard found out about the Fort Mercer first. So they sent everything they had, and by the time they found out about the Pendleton, no one was left to help. No one, that is, except the CG36500. Which is probably why the movie focuses mostly on the Pendleton.

After the rescue operation for Fort Mercer was under way, it was Bernie’s turn. He wasn’t ordered to the Pendleton, though, as the movie indicates. At first he was ordered to help local fishermen anchor their boats. This is why the CG36500 wasn’t involved in the rescue operation for the Fort Mercer.

So while this massive rescue operation was going on for the Fort Mercer, no one knew the Pendleton‘s condition. That all changed at 2:55 p.m., when a Coast Guard aircraft happened to spot the Pendleton split in two. In the movie, it’s Eric Bana’s version of Chief Cluff who mentions the news. And that is true. They had no idea about the Pendleton until hearing the aircraft’s report. This was the Coast Guard’s first indication that there were two tankers split in half.

Because of the bad weather conditions, it took about an hour for the aircraft to identify the ship as the Pendleton.

As the movie focuses on the Pendleton, so will we today. There were 41 people on board the Pendleton when she left Baton Rouge six days earlier. The storm was battering the ship about, but for the most part she was making good time considering. Then, at about 5:50 a.m. on February 18th, the crew heard a series of cracking noises. After a heavy lurching, the ship broke in two.

The movie really focuses on the stern of the ship and there’s only a few small mentions of the bow. In truth, when the bow broke off it lost all power. So we don’t really know the specifics. Sadly, what we do know is the Captain and seven crewmen perished in the bow of the ship. And because they lost power, they could never radio in for help.

In the stern, though, the movie accurately depicts 33 men on board. And just like in the movie, it was Chief Engineer Raymond Sybert, played by Casey Affleck in the film, who took charge and started doling out duties to the rest of the crew. We don’t know the specifics of the conversations that took place, but it’s safe to assume there was a lot of confusion. Yes, these were experienced seamen, but no one had encountered a ship breaking in two like this. It was a new situation for all.

In the movie, when Bernie is ordered to head out into the storm to try to save the Pendleton, it seems as if there’s only one small rescue boat to send out, and Bernie doesn’t already have a crew. He has a hard time convincing people to go.

In truth, it was because Bernie was helping fishermen by himself that he didn’t have anyone else assigned to his small boat. After Bernie was ordered to head out the Pendleton, he had to pick a crew. Unfortunately, almost all of the Coast Guard’s resources had already been deployed to the Fort Mercer. The movie makes it seem like no one wanted to go with Bernie. And this is true. No one expected the CG36500 to make it over the bar. The bar is another nautical term which refers to a large mass of earth beneath the water. This causes a surge in the sea, and make it very difficult to get out to open ocean. Especially in 80 mph winds and 60 foot waves.

In the end, only three men were available. Everyone else had magically disappeared when they heard the CG36500 was going out to sea. That meant a total of four men on board. They were Chris Pine’s Bernie Webber, of course, along with Andrew Fitzgerald, who is played by Kyle Gallner, Irving Maske, played by John Magaro, and Ben Foster’s version of Richard Livesey.

According to the movie, Miriam is calling just as Bernie walks out the door. While we don’t know if this missed call actually happened, it’s not likely. The reason it’s not likely is because in truth Miriam had been at home sick for the past couple of days. So it was about 5:30 p.m., as Bernie and his crew prepared the CG36500 that Bernie asked a local fisherman by the name of John Stello to call Miriam and let her know about the mission. John is portrayed by Alexander Cook in the movie.

 

Bernie, Andrew, Irving and Richard left the dock at 5:55 p.m. on February 18th, 1952.

Back on board the Pendleton, in the movie we learn of a strategy Chief Engineer Sybert has to try and run the engine on the ship and force the stern of the ship on the shore. In truth, the stranded crew used the engines to try to keep the tanker off the bar, something that would be certain disaster. But their attempts to run the engines caused more problems than it helped as this caused the ship to tilt too much. Fortunately, although the ship didn’t have a radio some of the crew had personal radios on which they heard of a rescue attempt. When they heard this, they stopped trying to run the engines.

As the movie indicates, navigating the CG36500 over the bar was easier said than done. This is very much true. Fortunately, the CG36500 had been designed to right itself if it tipped over. And it did. Many times. Each time it’d flip over from the force of the waves, the 90 horsepower engine would die. Andrew, the ship’s engineer, would have to make his way into the small engine compartment. Each time, it was a moment’s pause as the crew hoped the engine would start up again. And each time, the trusty engine would eventually sputter to life. Not before Andrew earned his fair share of bruises and severe burns from the engine as he tried to restart the engine while the ship was tossed this way and that.

In the movie, you’ll notice all of the men on board the CG36500 were wearing life vests. While that makes perfect sense, it’s not really true. In truth, Bernie decided not to wear a life vest. Instead, he opted for better mobility in steering the vessel amid the 40 to 60 foot waves that crashed around them. Besides, if he were fall off the 36 foot boat, he probably wouldn’t have much chance at survival.

By this point the wind was whipping sleet and seawater sideways, so visibility was next to nothing. After an hour of navigating the frigid waters, Bernie and his crew sensed they were near something big. They turned on the CG36500‘s small searchlight and saw before them a massive wreck of twisted, groaning metal. They made their way around the ship and that’s when they saw the word Pendleton on the side. They’d found it! They’d found the stern of the Pendleton!

In the movie, the crew of the Pendleton climb down a ladder and jump into the sea one at a time. As each one splashes down, the CG36500 picks them up.

 

This is what happened. After rounding the stern, the CG36500 had to wonder how they’d get a hold of the men on board. But they didn’t have to wonder for long. As their light bounced across the stern of the ship, they saw him. There was a man! He was on the deck, waving his arms frantically at the rescue boat. Then he disappeared, only to reappear moments later surrounded by the rest of the Pendleton‘s crew.

Then a ladder was thrown over the side, and the men started climbing down from the Pendleton. Without any word from Bernie or the Coast Guard’s rescue boat, the men started jumping off. One by one, they splashed into the frigid waters. One by one, they were tossed to and fro by the 60 foot waves. Bernie navigated the CG36500 around the massive waves, trying to find the bobbing men in the water. One by one, the crew of the CG36500 grew as they adopted the men from the Pendleton.

In the movie, you see the men on the ladder get slammed against the side of the ship. This causes the men to lose their grip on the slippery, frozen ladder. Men were falling off the ladder. Some landing directly on the CG36500 and some into the water. All of this happened.

As the waves crashed against the Pendleton, it’d cause the ship to twist and turn. This, in turn, would cause the ladder to fly out and then whip back. The men on the ladder could only hold on for so long before they’d fall either into the water or, if they were fortunate, into the arms of their crewmates on the CG36500.

If you’re like me, when you were watching the heroic rescue depicted in The Finest Hours, you couldn’t help but notice the number of men on board the CG36500 start growing. More and more men. How many can the small rescue boat hold?

In truth, this was an issue. By the time they had about 20 men on board, Bernie’s job navigating became that much more difficult as the boat started to handle more sluggishly under the added load. Remember, the CG36500 only had a 90 horsepower engine and was already battling 60 foot waves, 80 mph winds and frigid conditions.

In the movie, there’s two key moments in the rescue operation. The first happens when George Myers, whose nickname was “Tiny” and was portrayed by Abraham Benrubi, drops off the ladder. Sadly, Tiny perishes beneath the depths. Then there’s another moment when last person to leave the ship was Casey Affleck’s version of Chief Engineer Sybert. He’s awarded the honor of being the last to leave as a nod to his leadership.

The details were a bit different. In truth, it was Tiny who was the last to leave. According to the Coast Guard’s website, Tiny was a “300-pound giant of a man” and was the inspiration for the Pendleton crew. With 32 men safely on board the CG36500, Tiny was the last to leave the ship. He had personally helped as each man tried to make their way down the ladder, either by helping them on the shaking ladder or by offering moral support from above. Finally, it was his turn.

As he made his way down the ladder, the ship continued to turn and bang the ladder against the hull. Tiny jumped, and was swallowed up by the sea. After a few breathless moments, the crew on the CG36500 saw him. He was clutched on one of the Pendleton‘s 11-foot propeller blades.

Bernie had just one more rescue to make. He slowly inched the CG36500 toward the Pendleton‘s propeller, being careful not to get too close. If he did, the sea could dash the entire boat against the hull and kill everyone.

Just as the boat was nearing Tiny, a huge wave crashed into the CG36500, forcing it toward the propeller at breakneck speed. Bernie put the boat in full reverse, but it was too late. Tiny Myers was crushed between the two boats as the CG36500 was pinned under the Pendleton. Then, a few seconds later, another huge wave pushed the CG36500 back. In true Hollywood fashion, this wave proved to be the final straw for the Pendleton. In one fluid motion, the wave had both freed the CG36500 from the Pendleton and rolled over the Pendleton one last time, causing it to sink.

Sinking with the Pendleton was Tiny Myers. Without a chance to mourn Tiny’s loss yet, Bernie had to get the 36 men on his boat home.

In the movie, after Bernie reports they have 32 survivors on board, Chief Cluff orders Bernie to head a little further out to sea to meet up with the Coast Guard’s cutter McCulloch. Then they’d have to transfer the survivors yet again in the midst of writhing seas. In the movie, Bernie shuts off the radio. He’s not going to meet with the McCulloch.

This happened. Although they had a radio, they didn’t have a compass and were essentially lost at sea. There’s no way to know which way is back to shore and which way is pushing them further to sea. But Bernie knew they’d have a better chance of beaching the boat on shore than they did finding a cutter in the middle of the ocean. Everyone on board the CG36500 cheered at Bernie’s decision. Understandably, they wanted to get back to solid land as soon as they could.

In the movie, back on the pier it’s Miriam who parks her car facing toward the ocean. The town has lost power, so she flips on her headlights in hopes it helps guide her love back home.

As touching a moment as this is, that’s not what happened.

After what must’ve seemed like hours of navigating the waters in pitch black conditions, Bernie did finally notice a light. It was the flashing red light of a buoy. Bernie, who had worked the area for most of his life, knew this buoy meant the entrance to the harbor. Following the path in his head, he navigated his way back to safety.

In the early morning hours of February 19th, 1952, the CG36500 that had left the day before with four men came back with a total of 36. As soon as he returned, Bernie’s first action was to seek out the fisherman John Stello. He asked John what Miriam had said when he told her about the rescue. John’s reply was that he told her Bernie was a hero, but she was too sick to know what was going on.

Despite living just five minutes from the Coast Guard’s station, due to the severity of the storm, Bernie couldn’t make it home until the storm subsided days later.

In the end, the Coast Guard was called on to rescue a total of 84 crew members from four broken hulls that belonged to two tankers. They were able to rescue an astonishing 70 of those men from what would’ve otherwise been certain death! Although the movie doesn’t mention the Fort Mercer, the combined rescues of the two tankers are considered to this day to be the greatest rescue in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.

From the Coast Guard’s website:

“Webber and his crew of three, EN3 Andrew Fitzgerald; SN Richard Livesey; and SN Irving Maske, saved 32 of the 33 Pendleton’s crewmen who were on the stern section of the ship.  All four Coast Guardsmen were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for their heroic actions.  Their successful rescue operation has been noted as one of the greatest in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.

 

Webber joined the Coast Guard in 1946 and rose to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer during a distinguished 20 year military career that included a tour in Vietnam.

He was also a veteran of the Merchant Marine during World War II.

He crossed the bar in 2009.”

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