A deepdive into the facts about what really happened on the harrowing night that produced the most daring rescue in U.S. Coast Guard history, as told by one of the authors of the book that spawned the Hollywood film The Finest Hours.
Two 500-foot T2 tankers, fully loaded with kerosene and home heating oil, tried to ride out a ferocious nor’easter off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in the predawn hours of February 18, 1952. The rolling 60-foot seas and 70-knot winds were powerful enough to split both large vessels in half. The USS Pendleton fractured first, coming apart at about 5:50 a.m., and the second, the USS Fort Mercer, split a few hours later. The U.S. Coast Guard was alerted almost immediately concerning the dire situation facing the Fort Mercer, and began planning a large rescue operation to save the 43 men marooned on board the ship’s two halves. The crippled Pendleton, however, had not been able to send a distress signal, and the 41 crewmembers on its two halves feared that they would be lost at sea without a trace.
Just prior to the Pendleton cracking in two, her captain had been forward with several of his officers on the bridge, atop the bow section, when they heard a roar echoing from the bowels of the ship. The crewmen braced themselves as the gigantic tanker rose out of the turbulent ocean and came crashing back down. The sudden impact tore the ship apart between the number-seven and number-nine cargo tanks. The men stationed in the stern section of the ship jumped out of their bunks and struggled to climb topside, where they watched in horror through the driving snow as the bow section was swept away into darkness.
With their captain now gone, the survivors on the stern whispered a prayer for their comrades’ safety and then looked toward their ranking officer for guidance and hope. At just 33 years of age, chief engineer Raymond Sybert had now become the de facto captain of the stern section of the Pendleton. During the next several hours, before it was finally discovered by a Coast Guard aircraft, the stern hulk of the ship was pushed by the seas toward the dangerous shoals off Chatham, Massachusetts.
Interview notes: The Men Behind the Rescue
One of the few points that Bernie Webber and Andy Fitzgerald differed on was whether or not they had indeed been sent on a “suicide mission” when commander Daniel Cluff ordered them to take the CG36500 out to the Pendleton. Bernie [who died in 2009] said he was shocked when Cluff first sent Donald Bangs out into the storm on another 36-foot motor lifeboat. He thought the odds of Bangs coming back alive were quite long, even though Bangs left from Stage Harbor instead of Chatham Fish Pier, and was thus able to avoid the Chatham Bar. So when Bernie himself was ordered out, at a later time in the day, when evening was approaching, he felt his chances of success were even more of a long-shot than Bangs’. But Andy [now 84 and living in Colorado] had a different opinion: “I had great faith that Bernie could get us over the bar, and I had faith in the boat itself. Those 36-footers may not have been the fastest boats, but they were rugged, and Bernie knew how to skipper that vessel as well as anyone.”
Andy said that although everyone thinks of the rescue as a great success, he was often haunted by the loss of Tiny Myers. “I never thought about the rescue all that often, but sometimes at night, when I closed my eyes, I’d see the face of Tiny Myers. We had a hold of him, but just could not haul him in quickly enough.” Bernie, too, found the death of Tiny Myers difficult, in part because he had been forced to make a split-second decision: “We assumed he’d been killed instantly, but with the last man still swinging at the end of the ladder, I had to change my focus onto rescuing him, rather than searching for Tiny.”
Bernie also found being labeled a hero to be a burden. “I was very uncomfortable when the Coast Guard had me go to ceremonies and dinners and introduced me as a hero,” he said. “We just did our jobs that night, and I never wanted the attention that came afterward.”
Both Andy and Bernie were extremely modest. Andy’s family knew that he had been awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal, but he didn’t talk about the incredible details of what he did that awful night. And Bernie gave all the credit to God and his crew. Bernie did not think there would be much of an audience for my book The Finest Hours, and when I said, “Who knows, someday it might be a movie,” he laughed and answered, “Well, if they do make a movie, I want Don Knotts to play me!”
You Have To Go Out, But…
At the Coast Guard’s Chatham Station, 24-year-old Bernie Webber, a Boatswain’s Mate First Class, was on duty when the Pendleton stern was first seen. Several of Webber’s comrades had already been dispatched to aid in the Fort Mercer rescue, and now the chief warrant officer was looking to him. “Webber, pick yourself a crew,” the officer ordered. “You have to take the CG36500 over the bar and assist that ship, the Pendleton.” In his mind’s eye, Webber could see his tiny, 36-foot motor lifeboat being torn apart by the unforgiving mayhem on Chatham Bar. It seemed that he was being ordered to pursue a suicide mission. The Coast Guard’s official motto came to mind: Semper Paratus (Always Ready). And then the unofficial Coast Guard motto came to mind as well: You have to go out, but you do not have to come back.
Webber looked around the station and found three eager volunteers: 22-year-old seaman Richard Livesey, 21-year-old engineman Andrew Fitzgerald, and 23-year-old seaman Irving Maske. Webber knew Livesey and Fitzgerald, and felt each man was competent, but young. Maske was a complete stranger, a crewmember off a nearby lightship who had just returned from leave and was at the station awaiting transport back when the call went out for volunteers. Webber sized up his young, inexperienced crew and felt the burden of responsibility: Their lives were now in his hands.
The crew departed at 5:50 p.m., and the sky had turned from charcoal gray to pitch black. The winds were howling, and sleet was falling heavily on the ocean. As Webber steered the tiny CG36500 out from the Chatham Fish Pier toward the ominous Chatham Bar, he could see the waves breaking over North Beach. This was not a good sign for things to come. To reach the open ocean and the Pendleton stern, they would have to cross the bar, where 60-foot waves hit shallow water and exploded. Webber keyed his radio mic and called the Coast Guard station, hoping someone there would tell him to turn back. Instead his commanding officer responded, “Proceed as directed.”
Rock of Ages
As the small motor lifeboat moved toward the bar, Webber and his crew began singing the hymn Rock of Ages through the sleet, snow, and freezing sea spray that bit at their flesh and cut their skin. They continued on into the white foam and crashing waves of the Chatham Bar, where they were met instantly by a wall of water that tossed their boat into the air like a small toy. As the vessel and her crew came crashing down, another huge wave struck, this one shattering the windshield and sending shards of glass into Webber’s face and hair. The wave spun the CG36500 completely around, so her bow now faced the shore. Webber pulled himself off the deck and attempted to steer the boat back into the oncoming seas. As he tried to get his bearings, he looked down to where the compass should have been and realized that it had been ripped from its mount and was gone.
Webber had to make a quick decision: abort the mission or try yet again to get over the bar. He gave the 160-horsepower Sterling gasoline engine full throttle, pointed the bow back into the next oncoming wave, and began climbing it. Just as the wave began to break on the little wooden rescue boat, he shouted to his crew, “Hold on!” Keeping the vessel at full speed, he sent it through the top section of the roller, almost like a submarine. When the CG36500 came out the other side of the wave, Webber was astonished to see that all three of his crewmen had somehow remained on board. They had made it over the Chatham Bar.
Now Webber thought: How on earth are we going to find the tanker in the pitch black, and with no compass?
A Strange Groaning Noise
The motor lifeboat headed further out to sea, climbing up each towering wave and racing down its backside. The four Coasties were bruised, battered, and shivering by now in the freezing temperatures, each man squinting through the sleet and snow, trying to spot the drifting tanker. With visibility no more than 50 feet, Andy Fitzgerald, manning the small search light from the bow of the rescue boat, feared that the tanker might suddenly materialize out of the sleet and they would crash right into it. A few minutes later, he heard a strange groaning noise.
Webber slowed the CG36500, and in the dim light, the four men saw a towering black hulk in front of them. It was the Pendleton stern! The groaning noise was from its twisted metal being hammered by the seas.
The four Coast Guardsmen realized that there were no lights shining from the ship’s deck. Oh my God, we’ve arrived too late, it’s a ghost ship, Webber said to himself. He tried to push the thought out of his mind as he rounded the stern and clearly saw the twisted metal of the fracture. It was truly an eerie sight. The stern appeared to be nothing more than a giant, floating tomb. As they motored a little closer, their hearts were lifted by the sight of a single light shining high up on the ship’s deck. Suddenly, they saw a figure waving his arms, and more men joined him on the deck. Then a Jacobs Ladder rolled down the side of the hull.
George “Tiny” Myers
“It looks safer up there than it does down here,” Webber told his crew as he moved the CG36500 closer to the Pendleton stern. And they were all getting ready to climb the Jacob’s Ladder up to the deck of the ship, when they saw the stranded crewmembers begin coming down. Webber moved his boat closer to the ship’s hull, timing the maneuver so that he’d be alongside at just the right moment to let a man jump into his boat. Webber’s main concern now was whether his tiny vessel could carry all of these men. The cabin was rated to hold only 12 additional passengers, but there had to be at least 30 men climbing down the ladder. Each of the survivors landed hard on the deck or in the nearby water, where they were yanked aboard by Fitzgerald, Maske, and Livesey. (Had there been only two crewmembers with Bernie instead of three, it’s doubtful that they would have had the strength to haul so many men in.)
George Myers, the second to last man attempting to get off the stern, posed a big challenge. Bernie figured the man must have weighed more than 300 pounds. Myers, known affectionately as Tiny by his fellow sailors, had spent the last several hours firing the ship’s flare gun off the deck to signal their position. He had also helped other men down the Jacob’s Ladder before attempting it himself.
Tiny Myers made it to the bottom of the ladder, and Webber steered the boat closer in hopes of pulling him to safety. But the rescue boat was sluggish with so many survivors aboard, and Webber was struggling to maintain control of the CG36500. As the vessel moved closer, Myers made an ill-timed jump and landed in the frigid water. He disappeared in the frothy whitecaps, although Fitzgerald soon spotted him with the searchlight. Myers was up against the hull, not far from one of the ship’s huge propeller blades. The only way Webber thought he could save him was to aim the bow of the CG36500 directly at him, and hope to get close enough for his crew to grab hold. But the violent seas did not cooperate. As Webber maneuvered closer, a massive wave sent the motor lifeboat racing forward. Bernie immediately threw the engine into reverse, trying desperately to back clear. But the wave was too strong, and pushed the boat into Tiny Myers, crushing him to death against the hull.
Lady Luck or a Miracle?
There was little time to mourn the loss of Tiny Myers. The last man, Ray Sybert, had come down the ladder and was hanging on as the wind and waves weakened his grip. Webber quickly maneuvered into position, and his crew safely grabbed the engineer.
There were now 36 men on board a 36-foot lifeboat. The possibility of making it back to shore seemed slim, given the extreme overloading and the lack of a compass. Webber turned the tiny vessel around and put the oncoming seas behind him. He figured by doing this, land would have to lie somewhere ahead. Webber’s plan was met with a hearty approval from the Pendleton survivors. “We’re with you, coxswain,” one man yelled out.
As he steered the CG36500 down into the troughs and up over the mountainous waves, Webber realized that he would need a miracle to make it back over Chatham Bar with so much extra weight in the cabin and so little freeboard.
Just 30 minutes later, Lady Luck—or the miracle he’d been praying for—graced the boat. A wave picked the vessel up and literally threw her over the Chatham Bar! Webber later said that he had not even known that they were at the bar, nor did he attribute the soft landing to any seamanship on his part. He peered through the windshield, which was now just a gaping hole with its edges circumscribed by shards of glass. Despite the falling snow, Webber could make out a red light flashing in the distance. It has to be coming from one of the Chatham RCA radio station towers, he thought to himself. My God, we’re gonna make it home!
Soon, Webber and his crew saw the lights of the Chatham Fish Pier shining ahead, where a huge crowd awaited them. Photographer Dick Kelsey was in the crowd, and captured the moment when Webber nudged the CG36500 against the dock, having completed the most daring small boat rescue in U.S. Coast Guard history.
Hollywood ending: Fact vs. Fiction
I was extremely pleased with the movie version of The Finest Hours, and thought it captured the personality of Bernie Webber, the challenge of such a difficult rescue, and the setting. Both the producers and the screenwriters consulted the co-author [Casey Sherman] and me on some of the changes to the story. One of those was the involvement of Bernie’s wife, Miriam. In reality, she was home in bed with the flu during the rescue, but we all realized that she needed a more active role in the movie (where she was portrayed as Bernie’s girlfriend.) Also, in the book, we describe how as the survivors were hauled onto the rescue boat, most of them were stuffed below in the survivor’s compartment, where they would not be swept off the vessel by a wave. But in the movie they’re shown clinging to the deck of the boat as Bernie heads toward land. (This allowed for a visual shot of just how crammed the boat was, with 36 men on a boat designed for 16.) The death of Tiny Myers was also portrayed a bit differently, and not as graphically, as his actual death, perhaps to keep the movie rating at PG-13. One aspect of the movie that I was most proud of was the sequence portraying the four rescuers’ harrowing passage from Chatham to the USS Pendleton. It was just the way Bernie, Richard, and Andy described it to me.
Michael J. Tougias is the author and co-author of 25 books, many of which are true stories of survival and rescue at sea. The movie based on his book, The Finest Hours, opened nationally early this year, and is available on a variety of platforms. A video clip of Tougias giving his slide talk: “Leadership Lessons from The Finest Hours” can be found at www.michaeltougias.com.