The Finest Hour is the story of one of the greatest rescue operations in the history of the US Coast Guard, and it happened out of Chatham, in February, 1952. There were actually four rescues that fateful night, as two T2 tankers, the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer, broke in half off the east coast of Cape Cod, stranding 84 seamen on the bows and sterns of both vessels. And four young men from Chatham risked their lives to save seamen they never knew. All told 70 were saved; 14 perished.
The Pendleton was a 503' oil tanker on its way from Louisiana to Boston when a gale blew out of the northeast. Waves up to 70' with a cargo of 122,000 barrels of kerosene in its belly were too much for the tanker and its Captain John J. Fitzgerald, a veteran of the North Atlantic from Roslindale, MA. The tanker was just outside Boston Harbor on the evening of February 17, but Captain Fitzgerald chose not to try to risk navigating the treacherous harbor and its 34 islands as the weather worsened, choosing instead to ride out the storm on the open sea. The ship rode the storm though the night, but at approximately 5:30 in the morning, she broke in two.
Captain Fitzgerald, and the radio room, was in the bow, but the ship's power was cut so the captain and seven men with him were without radio, without power, and adrift in monstrous seas. None would survive.
In the stern, Chief Engineer Ray Seibert found himself in charge of the remaining 32 men. The sound of the ship breaking to two brought all hands together. They still had power, and the water tight doors throughout the wreckage kept her afloat, but without a radio, they were drifting southerly down the east coast of Cape Cod, from off Race Point toward Monomoy in a monster nor'easter, with no idea how long she would continue to remain afloat.
The Fort Mercer was another 503' tanker, built hastily in WWII with high sulfur steel and weak rivets, headed also from Louisiana toward Portland Maine. Her captain, Frederick Paetzel was German, and had been at sea since age 14, but had never seen seas like these with 50' and 60' waves, nor heard the thunderous roar of a ship breaking in-half. Voice by radio in 1952 was only good to 40-50 miles, but Morse code could communicate much further; Coast Guard icebreaker Eastwind heard the distress call from 150 miles away. In addition, the Yakutat, a Coast Guard cutter out of Provincetown was dispatched to the Mercer’s approximate location.
Immediately, Coast Guard stations on Nantucket and in Chatham were notified of the Mercer's breakup, as they were closer than the Eastwind and Yakutat to the drifting tanker. Knowing that sending men out in 36' wooden lifeboats into seas twice their length put their lives at risk, and many remembered the Guard's slogan: You have to go out. You don't have to come back.
Meanwhile a resident of Nauset had heard seven horns off-shore, and soon the Pendleton was positively identified drifting south just off shore from Chatham.
Earlier that morning, Bernie Webber and Seaman Richard Livesay had been helping fishermen secure their crafts in Chatham’s Old Harbor in the wooden 36500. They were exhausted and cold to the bone when they returned to Chatham station. Station Chief Daniel Cluff told Bernie they had just gotten word that the Pendleton had broken up just outside the Chatham Bar, and Bernie needed to get a team together and take the 36500 out to rescue the seamen on that ship.
Webber asked Richard Livesay, who had been helping him on Old Harbor, and engineer, Andrew Fitzgerald. Seaman Ervin Maske just happened to be in the station between jobs, and volunteered to join the men in the CG36500 out to rescue the men on the Pendleton.
The book follows the incredible journey out to the Pendleton's stern, and the wild retrieval of over thirty souls. A post-disaster inquiry revealed that emergency procedures were severely lacking: inadequate flares, only a single Jacobs Ladder, a rope and wood ladder, which had only three rungs. One by one men descended the ladder onto the deck of the 36500. Only the cook, Tiny, was swallowed up by the sea. The CG36500 was designed to hold about a dozen men. It brought 36 back.
The book describes the other three rescue efforts in bone chilling detail, including the failure to locate Captain Fitzgerald or anyone else stuck in the bow. The Fort Mercer rescues were from 100' cutters, Acushnet, Eastham, and Yakutat, and while these would be among the most difficult at sea rescues ever, were eclipsed by the four Guardsmen who saved the 31 from the Pendleton.
The book also described the post-rescue lives of the reluctant heroes, including a poignant description of Webber's threatened refusal to accept the Gold Lifesaving Medal decoration, unless the other three seamen would be decorated as well. Most preferred not to re-live their harrowing experience, but did enjoy a 50th reunion in 2002.
The book could have read more richly if the author had taken artistic license and expanded the narrative about the actual rescue. Instead it read as a chronicling, and while the drama of the rescue and the story of unselfish courage and heroism speaks for itself, the movie could actually provide more depth and character development to bring it closer to life.