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The True Story Behind Disney’s ‘The Finest Hours’

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Disney’s new film, “The Finest Hours”, is a modern retelling of a real life rescue mission that took place on a dangerously dark and stormy February night in 1952 at Chatham, Massachusetts. Based on Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman’s 2010 book The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue, the story tells of four brave Coast Guardsmen who boarded a 36-foot wooden boat and motored defiantly against 80-mile-an-hour winds and 60-foot swells on an attempt to rescue the crew of a sunken oil tanker. Be warned: spoilers ahead.

On that blustery February day, no one at the Chatham Lifeboat Station could have anticipated what was taking place out at sea. Not one but two separate giant T2 tankers had been literally torn apart by the nor’easter-driven seas off the coast of Cape Cod, leaving four separate hulls floating in the North Atlantic Ocean. The first being the T/V Fort Mercer, and the other ship, the 503-foot Pendleton with its cargo of 122,000 barrels of kerosene and crew of 40 men. Call for help first came from the Mercer at around noon where the Station dispatched most of its assets 20 miles off shore. With only a skeletal force of four men left at the station who volunteered for the mission to rescue the trapped crew of the Pendleton – Boatswain’s First Class Bernie Webber, Engineman Second Class Andy Fitzgerald, and servicemen Richard Livesey, and Irving Maske – they braved the brutal waves of Cape Cod Bay, known to most sailors at the “graveyard of the Atlantic”. With 7 of their men already perished including their Captain, the remaining Pendleton survivors were desperately in need of rescuing.

By the Station Captain’s behest, the four-man rescue crew was assigned with the only remaining lifeboat at hand suitable for the task: a 36-foot wooden motor lifeboat named as CG36500, with ‘CG’ standing for Coast Guard, ‘36’ for its actual length of 36 feet, and ‘500’ for its serial number. With only a maximum capacity allotted for 12 people, little does Bernie know that the ship will carry back 32 survivors on that tragic evening. They just braced themselves for the battering waves ahead.

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The bow of the Pendleton as seen floating across Cape Cod Bay. Courtesy of Kelly Kennard.

Fitzgerald remembers the moment well, remembering clearly how the sea lifted and tossed their small utilitarian vessel. “I watched a huge wave come over the bow, it blew out the windshield and threw Bernie off the wheel, knocking him on his back. When he stood back up he had a piece of glass in his cheek, but he kept on steering.” Thanks to his competent hand on the controls, they made it past the bar. But the feat would not have been possible without Fitzgerald’s quick action with the motor. The engine stalled several times and Andy crawled into the compartment for a re-priming, severely burning himself against the hot metal.

At the sight of their rescuers, the crew of the Pendleton started to frantically climb down a rope ladder with some jumping off the deck about 70 feet into the sea. Skilfully, Webber picked up all of them amidst the raging waters with only one of the 33 members perishing – their part-time chef, George ‘Tiny’ Myers – after slipping off the jacob’s ladder into the sea. They desperately tried to pull him aboard but his weight was so great that they began slipping into the water and lost their grip on him. Webber navigated the lifeboat toward him, but a wave made the boat lose control, slamming into tiny.

Webber and the rest of his crew didn’t feel comfortable being called as heroes. For them, they are just grateful to have the opportunity to work and to come back to their families alive, together with the people that they have rescued. The photo below shows the 36500 crew after their rescue, courtesy of Kelsey Kennard.

What probably attracted Walt Disney Studios to come up with the movie version is the understated quality of the story. Dubbed as the most daring rescue mission in US Coast Guard history, it had the appeal and respect towards people that exhibit the character and courage during their ‘finest hours’.

The film debuted in cinemas last Friday, January 29 under the direction of Craig Gillespie. Starring Chris Pine as Bernie Webber and Casey Affleck as Pendleton chief engineer Raymond L. Sybert who became the de facto captain of the stern. With an over-all budget of US$80 million, it promises an engaging special effects experience available both in Real 3D and IMAX 3D.

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