The True Story Behind The Finest Hours

6 minute read

If you’ve never felt a strong sense of connection to the U.S. Coast Guard, The Finest Hours, out Jan. 29, might be the thing to change that. The new film, which stars Chris Pine and Casey Affleck, is based on the true story of one of the most dangerous and daring rescue attempts in Coast Guard history: Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Pine) sets out with a small team to rescue the crew of the Pendleton T2 oil tanker, which split in half off the coast of Cape Cod during a brutal nor’easter in 1952.

With some exceptions for the sake of dramatic tension and concise storytelling, the script largely sticks to its source material, 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. Here’s what really unfolded on that blustery February day.

Warning: Spoilers for The Finest Hours follow.

Fact: The Pendleton split in half because of a crack in its hull that couldn’t hold against the raging sea.

The tanker had sustained a three-way fracture the previous year, and despite a failure to repair it, the boat still passed inspection in January 1952, the month before the storm. But the crew didn’t realize the tanker had split in half until a young seaman named Chris Bridges ascended to the catwalk and realized that it just ended a few feet in front of him. It would later be confirmed that Captain John J. Fitzgerald and seven crewmen had gone down with the bow. Chief Engineer Raymond L. Sybert, played by Affleck, became the de facto captain of the stern.

MORE See Chris Pine as a Coast Guard Captain in Trailer for Disney’s The Finest Hours

Fact: After securing boats to the pier, Bernie was ordered by Chatham Station commanding officer Cluff to pick a crew for the mission, and he got three volunteers: Richard Livesey, Andy “Fitz” Fitzgerald and Ervin Maske.

As in the film, Bernie’s friend Mel Gouthro attempted to volunteer, but all agreed he was too sick to go. Richard (Ben Foster) and Fitz (Kyle Gallner) were the first to volunteer, followed by Ervin (John Magaro). The four men had not trained together as a unit and 24-year-old Bernie, who had joined the Coast Guard in 1946 (despite his father’s wish for him to enter the ministry), was the oldest and most experienced.

Fiction: Bernie and his girlfriend Miriam were on the brink of getting engaged when Bernie set out on the rescue mission.

The screenwriters took liberties with the timeline more than the facts here, since Bernie and Miriam Penttinen (played by Holliday Grainger) had actually been married for more than a year and a half in February 1952—but their real-life courtship played out much as it does in the film.

Fact: Chatham Station was on its own in the Pendleton rescue because the Boston and Nantucket Coast Guards had dispatched all their crews to another oil tanker that had split in half.

A tanker called the Fort Mercer suffered the same fate as the Pendleton during that February storm. Only four of the Mercer’s crewmembers survived.

Fact: One of the most dangerous parts of the rescue mission was getting past the Chatham Bar, so the crew thought hard about whether to even attempt it.

Tougias and Sherman describe the bar as “a collection of ever-shifting shoals with flood currents carrying ocean waves that can splinter small boats in a matter of seconds…just in normal weather.” Cape Cod Bay was often referred to as “the graveyard of the Atlantic” and had seen some 3,000 shipwrecks over several centuries.

Mostly Fact: The rescue took place largely as depicted in the movie—with the exception of the song the men sang to soothe themselves during a moment of overwhelming fear.

Cluff told the men to “proceed as directed,” even after hearing Bernie’s report of the 60- to 7o-foot waves beyond the bar. As they approached, they sang “Rock of Ages” to comfort themselves. After making it past the bar, they lost their compass and radio signal and the boat’s windshield had shattered, spewing bits of glass. Upon reaching the Pendleton despite a lack of navigational tools, they assumed it was a ghost ship until they saw one man on the deck, followed by dozens more. They quickly realized that the number of men to be rescued far exceeded the capacity of the boat, but they agreed, “We would all live, or we would all die.” Upon their return, more than one hundred locals were waiting to welcome the freezing cold men.

Partly Fiction: George “Tiny” Myers, the beloved 300-lb. part-time chef played by Abraham Benrubi, died after a wave caused him to be tossed against the Pendleton while descending the ladder to the rescue boat.

Tiny was, indeed, the only one of the 33 men aboard the Pendleton’s stern to die during the rescue. But he died in a different way than the one depicted onscreen. After slipping off the jacob’s ladder into the sea, the crew tried to pull him aboard but his weight was so great that they began slipping into the water and lost their grip on him. He was swallowed by a wave and then resurfaced, but when Bernie navigated the lifeboat toward him, a wave made the boat lose control, slamming into Tiny.

Partly Fiction: Bernie was haunted by a failed rescue attempt a few years back, and Miriam encountered the widow of one of the victims when she crashed her car into a snowbank.

Bernie was, in fact, tormented by the failed 1950 rescue attempt of a scalloper called the William J. Landry. He had been among the crew of four who tried to get out to the men during a storm, but their dory capsized multiple times on the way to the rescue boat, their oars broke, and after four attempts to get out they gave up. The victims’ remains were never recovered. As Miriam was stuck at home with the flu, her encounter with the widow was fabricated.

Fiction: Miriam barged into Chatham Station, demanding that commanding officer Cluff call Bernie back home, and was waiting at the pier to welcome him upon his return.

Though Miriam was a telephone operator, as depicted in the movie, she wasn’t calling to check in on Bernie from the switchboard because she was home with the flu for the duration of the storm. For the most part, the role she plays in the film is fabricated—presumably because shots of her sniffling in bed would have been much less interesting to watch.

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