There were more than 500 T2 tankers built during World War II, and like their sister “Liberty ships,” they served across the oceans. Never meant to last beyond the war years, many were pressed into commercial service when the conflict ended. Unfortunately, some of the T2s were manufactured with brittle steel, and displayed a frightening tendency to break in half when encountering cold weather and heavy seas. On Feb. 18, 1952, the T2 tankers SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer both split in half less than 40 miles from each other off the coast of Massachusetts during a heavy storm. Pendleton had broken up south of Cape Cod, Fort Mercer east of Chatham. The U.S. Coast Guard was alerted to Fort Mercer’s emergency, but Pendleton wasn’t able to get off a message in time, and the Coast Guard initially didn’t know it was dealing with two ships in distress, complicated by the fact that there were now four pieces of hull still afloat in the same general area.
Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Bernard C. Webber, coxswain of motor lifeboat CG-36500 from Station Chatham, and his crew, consisting of Engineman 3rd Class Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey, and Seaman Ervin Maske, were sent to rescue the newly discovered Pendleton and its 33 surviving crewmembers.
While Coast Guard cutters in extraordinary feats of seamanship rescued crewmembers aboard Fort Mercer, the Coast Guard discovered that Pendleton was in distress, its surviving crew aboard its stern half. Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Bernard C. Webber, coxswain of motor lifeboat CG-36500 from Station Chatham, and his crew, consisting of Engineman 3rd Class Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey, and Seaman Ervin Maske, were sent to rescue the newly discovered Pendleton and its 33 surviving crewmembers.
Webber and his crew went out to save the Pendleton’s crew in a 36-foot lifeboat built to carry only 12 survivors. They lost the boat’s compass and windshield to heavy seas before even clearing the harbor, but despite this, fought 70-foot waves, hurricane-force winds, and freezing temperatures to reach the Pendleton and rescue its crew.
“It was so apparent from the beginning that this was an incredible story, really almost beyond belief, and that it needed to be told.”
This is the story told by The Finest Hours, a film from the Disney Company arriving in theaters in January. Directed by Craig Gilespie, The Finest Hours stars Chris Pine (Bernie Webber), Casey Affleck (Ray Sybert), Ben Foster (Richard Livesey), Holliday Grainger (Miriam), John Ortiz (Wallace Quirey), and Eric Bana (Daniel Cluff). Producer Jim Whitaker said in a recent interview with Coast Guard Outlook that he was determined to make the film from the first time he learned of the story.
“My wife was approached by Dorothy Aufiero, my co-producer on the project. [My wife] was working with me at the company and said this would be a great movie. I read the book [The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue, by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman] and just fell in love, basically, and said to the studio, ‘We really have to develop this, it could be an incredible movie.’ It was so apparent from the beginning that this was an incredible story, really almost beyond belief, and that it needed to be told.”
Although born in Maryland, Whitaker grew up on the coast of Nova Scotia, and was immediately drawn to this story of life and death among those who make their living at sea.
“I lived in a very small town on the coast of Nova Scotia and I grew up with a lot of friends whose parents were fisherman. I lived in a place where people lived off the sea and I was very acquainted with the idea that there’re those that live off the sea and then those that protect and help and oftentimes save people who work on the sea. I felt an immediate connection to the idea of telling a story that showed the incredible heroism and selflessness of people in the Coast Guard, because the job is one where they go out and they do everything quite selflessly to save people’s lives. I thought those qualities in a movie were the kinds of qualities I felt it was really, really important to show. I’m pleased with the job that the director has done with the film. Very pleased.”
No effort was spared in trying to re-create the events in a way that was as true to life as possible. The production company worked extensively with the Coast Guard to get the details right, beginning with the screenplay.
“I would say it started with the Coast Guard,” said Whitaker. “We began here at MOPICS [the Coast Guard’s Motion Picture & Television Office] with Capt. [John] Pruitt and [CWO] Mike Lutz. We certainly dug into the details of the events in terms of the history and the facts … which is to say in the completion of the screenplay [we were] doing our best to, as authentically and in as much detail as possible, convey and replicate the events of the day and the evening and next day. So, it was important for us to really get it right. Authenticity, I think, is so important, because you want to be able to convey the feeling of what the experience was, and that’s part of bringing an audience into the experience in order to allow them to feel what it was as best as we possibly can – what it was that Bernie and Andy and Richard and Ervin went through that night. Then when we began making the film, it really became just about pursuing that authenticity and that detail through the production as much as possible. We just felt that it was very important.”