Fact Check The Finest Hours: The Movie Got the Pendleton Crew Very Wrong

Fact Check: The Finest Hours Portrayal of the Pendleton Crew Got It Very Wrong
Posted: February 5, 2016 in Contemporary Commentary
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As everyone should know by now if you’ve been reading my fact check of The Finest Hours, I’m a fan of the movie.

Yes, some of the facts are wrong. But the spirit and the truth of the rescue are accurate and well managed artistically with poetic license. I stand by that, but in saluting the spirit of the movie, I have to acknowledge that some of the critics have got it right and bending some of the facts hurt some real people.

Art, it has been said, does not apologize.

But sometimes it should.

As a detached author of Two Tankers Down and journalist, I’m in a removed position. The relatives of the Pendleton crew are not and more than one has complained the movie takes liberties by portraying the Pendleton crew as panicked and nearly mutinous when instead it was calm, steadfast and courageous.

So for the record, the crew of the Pendleton from all that my research shows, reacted calmly to their predicament. There was no rush to the lifeboats, no name calling. Nor was the chief engineer — the Affleck character — a shrinking violet as the movie suggested.

He took control nearly instantly. Here is how I described Sybert’s actions in my book, Two Tankers Down, and also how the crew reacted to the idea of running to the lifeboats.

On the stern, Sybert brought power back up. He discovered he could actually steer the ship. A bit. He had power. He had a rudder. She would buck and heave, but he could for brief moments control the ship.

The thought had to strike Sybert there and then. It was strange, but there it was. He was master of a ship. His half-ship. He had given a command, maneuvered her. She responded. He was a master.

He took command. But there was one problem with that. And he quickly confessed it. He gathered all the survivors in the mess and told it to them straight: Boys, our officers are gone and you able bodied seamen are going to have to pick up the slack. I know engines. Don’t know much about navigation, lifeboats, and seamanship in general.

Quickly, he found that one able bodied seaman, Jacob Hicks, and another, Ray Steele, would take leadership positions. He came to think of Hicks as a makeshift chief mate, the ranking deck officer. [i]

Did Sybert want them to check the life boats? Yes, Sybert said, but he thought the best thing to do was remain on board the stern section of the ship if it seemed seaworthy. Others were dispatched to close all water tight doors. Sybert and his engineers checked the salinity of the boilers to see if too much seawater had leaked in.

Hicks and Steele scrambled up on the deck and what they saw and felt there was disheartening. The gale was now a full blown screeching storm with winds of 50 mph and more. It would reach more than 70 before the night was through, reports said, sometimes clocked at 80. You had to lean into a wind like that just to stand steady.

They struggled to reach the lifeboats and once there prepared them for launch. But below them – sometimes over them – soared 35 to 45 foot waves. Launching a lifeboat into such mountains of water would be fearsome work. It would be a miracle just to get a boat out there without the sea splintering it. Once launched, how long could a small lifeboat remain afloat?

They seemed stuck staying with the stern.

They looked across the water toward the bow. The bow and all the deck officers on it were carried swiftly away from the stern by the mountainous waves. The bow section was still afloat but increasingly it rose at an angle to the plane of the sea, lifting the bow to the sky, plunging the bridge and deckhouse down toward the bottom. In fifteen to twenty minutes, the bow disappeared from view, bobbing away into the rain and snow, invisible to the men on the stern now.

Sybert was certain they would get help soon. The radioman had almost certainly sent an SOS from the bridge.

It took time for it to sink in that this was improbable and that no one on shore was aware any of this was happening. Slowly, they were understanding the fix they were in.

The splitting of the ship was clear enough; the ramifications of the split less so. Yes, the captain and most deck officers were located toward the front of the ship in a structure that rose from the deck and gave them a clear view ahead. The engineers and engine room were located aft. So the officers were gone but the clean fracture had wrought even worse chaos.

The bow had the radio but no power. Sybert’s new half-ship had the power but no radio.

Sybert did the math. The ship had split in part in about five seconds. There could not have been time, no time at all, to understand what was happening and send out a signal.

Now, Sybert took stock. He thought they were close to shore. They had been nearly 25 miles offshore due east of northern Cape Cod, but their drift was south and west now, which would take them quickly toward the elbow of Cape Cod, toward Chatham. That fact had been a blessing initially. Comforting somehow. But now?

He could maneuver the stern section a bit, but he knew they were drifting too rapidly toward shore – the Cape Cod shore where so many thousands of wrecks had washed up. If he attempted to steer and control too aggressively, the ship would pitch and lurch. There was little that he could do other than go with the flow and steer to keep the stern section straight. He could not steam her farther out to sea, just keep her straight as she drifted. Everytime he attempted to steer and maneuver, he could, briefly, but the forward exposed part of the stern dipped down and got drenched.

Above him, on deck, Hicks dug out a flare gun from the lifeboat. He pointed it skyward and the flare arched out over the water into the darkness.

Perhaps they would be spotted visually from shore. Perhaps the officers on the bow would respond with a flare back. He took out another flare cartridge and aimed it skyward. The cartridge flizzled and popped but did not fire. From the bow, no reply came at all. Hicks looked at the date stamped on the flares. “July 1942.” He threw the dud flare into the water after it had fizzled. He loaded another. No luck. No signals. He took smoke markers from the lifeboat and lit them, then tossed them overboard. They put out a pathetic smudge of smoke quickly whipped away to nothing in the gale. [ii]

No radio. No flares. No smoke. No blinker lights for sending code. No one who could send or understand code, either.

No one knew they were out there. No one knew they were in trouble. No one had any way of finding out.

Well, there was one way. One ancient way.

Aaron Powell, a wiper, rigged up a line to the steam whistle. Another wiper was too small a man to work the rig himself; it took some heft to pull the line. So Powell drafted George “Tiny” Myers, an OS – ordinary seaman. He weighed more than 300 pounds, not much of it muscle, it had to be said, but Tiny had plenty of spirit and enough weight to heave that whistle lanyard. [iii]

They were not sure what the true navigational whistle signals were for their situation, but kept blowing and blowing and blowing. The danger signal was all Powell knew… a series of short blasts. They would blast out four short signals and then pause to listen for any reply.

There was none. They were alone.

The movie screenwriters might have drawn the “lifeboat panic” sequences from the crew of the Fort Mercer, where some of the crew — but only a few –were frisky indeed and came close to mutiny. Here is what I wrote in Two Tankers Down:

Not everyone on board the Fort Mercer felt as comfortable with the crack arrestors as the captain. Not everyone, in fact, felt comfortable with the captain.

(Captain) Patezel had ordered the men to be alert but had not sounded a general alarm. He did not want to sound any signals or bells that would stampede the crew. Word got out to some; not to others. What followed was a combination of undue concern by some and unwarranted complacency among others.

Julio Molino, a seaman, was one of those who heard nothing from the master about the 8 a.m. crack. He did not have to be told. He was standing with a friend and looked out at sea.

“Look in the water, the ship is broke,” Molino said matter of factly. “There’s oil.”

“I don’t want to look, “ his friend said. “I’m scared.”

“Let’s go tell the captain,” Molino said. But his friend was too scared and would not even look at the oil. He turned away from the sight.

Then Molino saw a plate floating away.

These guys are all too scared of the old man, Molino thought, because the captain is too tough on them. Well, the hell with it, Molino would tell him. He marched forward to the bridge and confronted the master of the ship – a rare and unthinkable breach of etiquette on most ships.

“What do you want?” Patezel asked him on the bridge.

“The ship is broke,” Molino said.

“That’s none of your fucking business,” Molino heard Paetzel say. And then the captain physically pushed the seaman off the master’s bridge and toward the stairs.

None of my fucking business? It was completely Molino’s business.

He ran down, got his life preserver, and began yelling out to anyone he could see, “The ship is broke!”

Jack C. Brewer, the chief mate and second in command after the captain, chased him down and cornered Molino.

“Who are you to tell the crew?” the mate demanded.

“I’ve been at sea long enough to know when there’s danger,” Molino said. [i]

The bosun intervened at this point. The bosun is the equivalent of a seargent at sea – the head non-commissioned officer, so to speak, in charge of the deck crew. He channeled Molino’s fears in a constructive manner.

“Take the covers off the boats,” he told Molino. And Molino did just that. He ran to the starboard lifeboat at the stern and cut the cover the boat. Then he jumped in. The quartermaster moved to swing the boat out and lower it. The starboard side was taking the most wind.

“Calm down, calm down!” the bosun said. “Move to the port side.”

And Molino did. There was far less wind on that side of the ship. He prepared the boat there for launching, but this time did not jump in. He stood watch for two hours, never leaving the side of the boat, but grew too cold and eventually went below.

This was before the Fort Mercer was really in trouble. And when the ship finally did break in two, the sort of panic portrayed in the movie did take place on the Fort Mercer. From Two Tankers Down:

Did the captian give any alarm? Roviaro asked that question, but no one seemed to know. He put on a lifejacket and yelled back to the chief:

“I think she cracked up.”

He ran onto the deck to hear one of the boys say, “oh there’s another ship ahead of us.”

“Heck no, “ someone else said. “That’s the Fort Mercer floating…” [i]

For certain, along the side of the “other ship” was the name Fort Mercer. But how could that be? They were on the Fort Mercer.

Then, just as on the Pendleton, there was a rush to realization as to how worlds had changed. They had split in two. Cleanly in two. And then there was a sense of pure panic. A wave came up on the bow of the Fort Mercer and cleanly sheared away the two lifeboats there. The men on the stern could see that. Then the bow began drifting directly back to the stern, on a collision path, it seemed.

Word went down to Bushnell in the engine room and the chief engineer gently backed the engines astern. The smooth electroglide nature of the T-2 was still there; the half-ship responded and Bushnell maneuvered out of harm’s way. [ii] The act – one half of a ship avoiding collision with its other half – is believed unique in known maritime history.

On the stern, the men did not commemorate this historic event. They were excited, nearly a mob. They rushed the lifeboats. They were crowded around the starboard lifeboat, intent on piling in, lowering the boats and getting off the ship anyway they could. The wind was blowing directly into them, the spray, the snow, the rain, pelting them.

Laurence Whilley, an ordinary seaman, was there when a man from the mess – he did not know his name — yelled to Whilley above the howling weather:

“Do you know how to pray?”

“Sure, I’m a Christian and member of the church,” Whilley yelled back. “No one should be ashamed to pray.”

The man and Whilley left the boat and went to the mess. There they got down on their knees and prayed for their lives, prayed for the men, prayed for the ship, and prayed for their world.

Above, the bosun looked at the men jostling the lifeboats, looked at the surging seas, looked at the relative calm and steadiness of the stern and told the quartermaster, “Tell the boys to take it easy.”

Roviaro, the pumpman, ran to the stern above the men and yelled out: “There’s no danger.”

Newman, the quartermaster, chimed in:

“Take it easy; it’s too rough a sea.”

And seaman Robert Mackenzie yelled out a flat-out order.

“Don’t’ touch the boat!”

“Don’t get excited,” the quartermaster yelled again. “Let’s see what we can do.”

All of those men kept cautioning the crew. Let’s see what we can do with the stern, which seemed steady, all things considered. There’s too much wind on the starboard side, someone added. Why are we here?

“Let’s try the port side,” someone else said.

“We’ll do that,” the bosun said.

And the men moved over to the port side, the more sheltered side, and again this seemed to calm them just as it had Molino earlier. Soon, thoughts of taking the boats had subsided. They made sure the port boat was prepared and then went down below. It was more stable and calming there. Darkness fell and the stern still seemed steady. The mess was open for business. It was warm. In many ways, it was normal. Comforting this: the warmth and the coziness of the mess. [iii]

It’s a tricky thing when you try to cram a real world event into a 90 minute movie. So what I think may be justified certainly may not be to a relative whose father was on the Pendleton and had to be dragged away from the boat’s edge in trying to desperately rescue his friend.

It is notable that the movie does in the end portray the crew as steadfast good guys. That is cold comfort to the children of Pendleton crew members who know their fathers were brave and calm — but portrayed as panicked and fearful.

Here’s a post from one of them:

Letty Brown Tucci commented on Fact Checking “The Finest Hours”

The Finest Hours is a faithful and truthful telling of the rescue of crewmen on the tanker the SS Pendleton. Truthful does not …

Thank you, Mr. Frump for the review. As the daughter of Fred Brown, a survivor, I was somewhat disappointed in the way in which the ship’s crew was portrayed…not at all the way my dad spoke of it. Dad was quoted in the Portland Press Herald, and he was also quoted in the book The finest hours which described a very different crew. They banded together and prayed like never before. Also, the movie was confusing as to how the Coast Guard discovered the Pendleton. Tiny Myers was my dad’s best friend. When dad returned to us, he had Tiny’s blood on his clothing from trying to pull him in the boat. The rescuers forced him to let go because Tiny was dead. And what about the eight officers that were lost, and the way in which they were lost? I think they deserved some recognition in the movie. All things considered, it was a good movie, especially for those who don’t know the whole story. Thank you for correcting some errors, like the song. It was the great hymn…Rock of Ages!

Fact Checking Update: The Finest Hours


Fact Checking “The Finest Hours” Movie

The Finest Hours is a faithful and truthful telling of the rescue of crewmen on the tanker the SS Pendleton.

Truthful does not in all cases mean factual. There are no huge bloopers in the movie. There is some compounding of characters and time is both stretched, cut and pasted.

For me it works, and I figure I’m in as good a position as anyone to judge this. I spent a good chunk of time and hours and hours talking with Bernie, researching the wreck, combing through archived records and cross-checking with him for my book on the rescue, “Two Tankers Down.”

In other words, I know this subject matter well, and I am not indebted to the studio.

So how did the Hollywood guys do on the facts?
Based on the cheesy previews and trailers, I was prepared to flatten this baby. But in fact, it’s well done and true to the event and the people even if the facts are not sometimes.

There are no “Pants on Fire” rankings here. And some of my “catches” are nerdish maritime writer notes. What some people MIGHT think are whoppers I can accept and I’ll explain why.

Let the Fact Check begin:

  1. Miriam Webber did not come down to the Coast Guard Station.
    In fact, she was very sick at home with the flu. The couple had been married before the rescue. She did not know Bernie was in an impossible mission until after it was over. But of course she was aware all coasties would be endangered that night.Why it doesn’t matter to me: The film pretty well represents the couple’s romance, right down to the “bear skin” coat. The presence of Miriam in the film allows for a nice conflict of concerns: a human concern for life versus the Coast Guard code of the ‘You have to go out– you don’t have to come back.” I guess for purists this would be a pants on fire fact fail. For me, I think it’s a great bit of dramatic license that while not factual gets the truth across.I asked Bernie about how Miriam learned of the rescue and here is his reply from 2008. Emphasis mine.

Bob
John Stello and his wife Jean were our much loved neighbos when we lived on Sea View Street in Chatham. John a fisherman and Jean a fisherman’s wife were well aware of the ways of the sea and how things were communicated among sea fareing folks. As we were getting aboard our dory at the fish pier John who was standing in the lee of the fish shack called down to me and said Webber you better get lost before you get to far down the harbor. I understood his message. In turn I laid the trusted responsibility on him as a friend, neighbor, and fisherman, to be the one to let Miriam know whatever happens. John understood, he knew she was sick at home and that she being a coast guardsmans wife realized a storm was brewing would already be concerned whether I would be called out. That’s why he waited until ithe rescue was over and we had returned safely so he would be in a position to deliver whatever the outcome was. So your corr rect with your observation.
Bernie

2. Bernie was far taller and less pretty than Chris Pine.
Bernie was kind of a big lug of a guy. 6 foot 2 and 170 at his prime. Pine is too pretty and too short.
Okay, but Pine does a pretty good job of playing Bernie as the good-hearted and well-intended fella he was. If there is a critique here, I’d say the director portrays Bernie as a little dumb and simple. He wasn’t. He was cagey enough to know questions I would ask him before I asked them. The guy had been admitted to a top prep school. He had an unerring ability to compute multiple factors in his head — navigational and personal. On the other hand, Bernie often played dumb. And in social matters, he could be dumb. I can’t fault Pine’s performance at all and feel it’s on the money. And the my critique here is not a serious one or deal breaker.

3. The Pendleton did not split at a weld.
I told you this would get a little nerdy. But T-2 tankers did not have welding faults — though it was widely suspected they did. Their fault was in the type of steel used, which under 50 degrees turned brittle. Cracks would form and race through the whole hull. The “crack arrestors” or steel belts were there to stop that, not reinforce the welding. This is about a big a false fact as I can find. But it’s not crucial to the plot or the fact that the ships were flawed. There was no gradual split. There was a loud bang — and a separation.

4. At times the movie actually understates conditions.
I’ve read some reviews that say the angle of the lifeboat ascending waves was improbable. The movie had it right. It might have been interesting to dwell on the boat descending waves — when Webber had to jam the engine in reverse to slow the boat as it gained speed. Had he not done that, the boat would have essentially kept going to the bottom.
Other understatements: Bernie emerged from the “bar” crossing with windshield fragments embedded in his skull. The men in the engine room of the boat fried great sections of their arms on the hot motor. Not essential to the movie, and I thought actually showed some restraint.

5. The “Lost Man” was probably “lost” before he hit the water.
If I did nothing else through Two Tankers Down, I hope I eased Bernie’s mind on this death. Throughout his life Bernie was haunted by the one guy he lost. He mentioned this frequently in conversations and correspondence. The crew and the rescuers even concocted a story to say that Tiny was the last man down the ladder — and had waited until all were clear.
In fact, Tiny was probably in the advanced stages of hypothermia. He was a large man, 300+ pounds. And at the top of the ship, he had stripped off all his clothes, in the advanced stages of hypothermia. This phenomenon is known as “paradoxical undressing.” The blood flows suddenly from the heart to the extremities and causes a feeling of burning. Once in this state, few come back. So yes, the rescuers could not get Tiny in the boat. But almost certainly, even had they been able to wrestle the huge man up over the side, he would have passed.

6. Livesey and Bernie had no beef
More dramatic license here. Bernie and his crew member had no quarrel or grudge as suggested in the film. They respected each other. The director uses the grudge as a way of referring back to the story of an earlier failed rescue — when Webber and others tried in vain to reach a fishing boat on the other side of the Chatham Bar.Again, in my mind: poetic license granted. This worked for me as a dramatic device.

 

7. There is a bittersweet ending to the real story.
The movie tells the tale well and has no obligation to go beyond the story. Truth is life got very complicated for Bernie after the awards with some of the brass. He was offered the Lifesaving Gold Medal and declined it unless his whole crew got it. (They did.) He was nearly court martialed for disobeying the order to take the boat out to sea to offload the rescued.
Worse, some of his own colleagues shunned him in the egalitarian ranks of the non-officer corps, or gave him the cold shoulder.
Uncomfortable with the spotlight, he nevertheless was forced to do speech tours with the Coast Guard brass when he wanted nothing more to get back on his boat with his crew.
Then, as a publicity project, in the early days of the Vietnam War, the Coast Guard shipped him over in charge of a riverine warfare gunboat. There he performed close-in duty, in the mode of Apocalypse Now. It’s the one thing I could not get him to talk about. He retired from the Coast Guard shortly after this tour, thinking the Coast Guard had moved into another era.
The good news is he maintained his sense of honor and self dignity. He actively chose to stay within the working ranks of non-commissioned officers when he might easily have become an officer. Decades later, Coast Guard rescue workers still talk of him.In Bernie’s own words, this is how he got caught between the cultural changes of the Coast Guard and the nation torn apart by Vietnam.
Bob

I gave a lot of thought about your question re CG change and my retirement. It would take a book to detail the events. Returning from Merchant Marine duty in the S. Pacific during WWII and joining the CG at the tail end 1946 my career spanned the waning days of that war through Korea on through Vietnam.

The things that went on, the officer enlisted relationship, the equipment, would not be believed by the modern generation.

As the Officer in Charge of the Coast Guard Cutter Point Banks when I received orders to Vietnam along with my crew it was the beginning of a chain reaction that not only affected those of us directly involved, but the whole service and would change it forever.

Immediately my family and I were besieged by the Anti Vietnam crowd and the John Birch Society.

Cape Codders, friends, relatives and neighbors alike took positions that only confused the family and made my leaving more difficult. It got so bad Miriam and the children had to leave our home on the Cape and came to Florida to get away from it all until I returned.

Upon returning to the States, picking up the family in FL, returning to the Cape and duty aboard CGC Hornbeam I realized just how much they had endured. I retired with the hope of keeping us together and bringing us back to normality. However, it had far reaching affect. There’s so much more however, for you purposes nuf said. It’s very difficult to condense the total picture. Hope this has been of some help?
B

8. The movie may slightly have overstated Bernie’s natural courage and understated his doubts.
Throughout his voyage to the bar, Bernie kept saying to himself that they would call him back, he hoped they would call him back. I mention this not to criticize Bernie but to underscore the fact that he was a real human being with real thoughts, not a hero sprung from whole cloth. I can’t fault the director too much here. And there are only so many interior thoughts you can convey.

9. The conflict with the Pendleton crew was overstated; the engineer’s “plan” exaggerated
Chief Engineer Sybert had little trouble controlling the crew.
His plan to run the ship up on a sandbar came as the opportunity presented it, not through careful planning. Moreover, he had no conflict with the captain of the ship, who followed Sybert’s advice.

10. They did not sing a sea chanty as they motored toward the bar.
They sang the hymn Rock of Ages.

Let me know what other questions you have. Also, if you’re interested in the other wreck that day — involving the SS Fort Mercer — you’ll find it in my book, Two Tankers Down.

An Appreciation of Bernard C. Webber


(A reposting of my 2013 take on Bernie.)
Posted: February 18, 2013 in Contemporary Commentary

Bernie Webber was the least likely candidate to execute the greatest small-boat rescue in American history.Yet that is what he did, nearly 71 years ago to the date, in a very small boat, facing very large waves and larger odds.

Image

Bernie

His rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton, a stricken oil tanker, off Chatham, MA, in February 1952 is one of the most heroic deeds performed by any Coast Guardsmen anywhere, anytime.

The second rescue crew that day accomplished a similarly impossible mission in pulling the officers from the Fort Mercer, a second tanker that had split in two during a powerful Atlantic storm.

Bernie was the trouble-prone son of a Baptist minister, who’d been well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. Until he went to sea.

Image

Tbe Gold Medal Crew

And then, on the night of February 18, 1952, in a raging blizzard off the coast of Cape Cod, Webber, now a young lifeboat coxswain with the U.S. Coast Guard, and his crew performed a miracle.

Two big oil tankers had split in two in raging seas, and nothing—not a big cutter, not a sea plane, not a chopper—could reach them in time. Only Webber and his crew of three volunteers had a chance.
Image
He knew they would probably die on this mission. They were, after all, in an unassuming thirty-six-foot rescue boat that didn’t even have a name but for the “CG 36500” on its side. But he loved this boat—and he knew the inauspicious Coast Guard motto: “You have to go out. You don’t have to come back.”

Webber took the CG 36500 out in sixty-foot waves and saved thirty lives. He and his men won the rarely bestowed Coast Guard Gold Medal for Valor and a place in history that shapes the Coast Guard culture to this day.Pendleton_7_sm

What placed him apart from others?  Webber did not know; he only knew that events aligned so he was able to do the impossible, and he attributed it to  a higher power.
I think it surely was that — God, luck, karma, providence, you name it — but he was also captain of his fate.  Or at least a bosun of it.The man’s integrity was unbreakable.  When they offered him the Gold Lifesaving Medal and his crew the Silver, he turned them down.  He’d only take it, he said, if his crew received it as well.
Pendleton_Half_Ship_2_sm
It would be nice to see his integrity and courage in today’s leaders. Oh, I think it is still in the Coast Guard.  I was thinking more of Congress as they now set off on a witch hunt to discover the holes in our maritime safety network — holes that they have put there.

“The Finest Hours”: Frequently Asked Questions


Let’s start a Frequently Asked Questions section on The Finest Hours.

First off: Why no choppers?

The Finest Hours is a fine movie that chronicles one of the greatest small boat rescues in the history of the US Coast Guard.  In the movie, its namesake book, and my book, Two Tankers Down, you can find out how Bernie Webber and his crew overcame impossible obstacles to save the crew of the Pendleton.

And in Two Tankers Down, you can also see how another valiant crew on that same day rescued many members of the SS Fort Mercer.

But implicit within the movie is a question: Why no helicopters?

Certainly choppers were in use during this time period.  The Navy used them extensively in Korea.

But not in the Coast Guard. Choppers were very late to the game because of a running conflict between the fixed-wing aviators and the choppers.

As the cover copy for a book on the controversy says:

 Incredible as it now seems, great resis¬tance to developing and utilizing rotary-wing aircraft was entrenched within each of the armed forces, and only the relentless, dogged determination of less than a handful of Coast Guard officers turned the tide and launched a new chapter in aviation history.

The book by the way is: “Wonderful Flying Machines” by Barrett Thomas Beard

In a nutshell, the fixed way aviators dominated the Coast Guard budget and policy making until in a series of famous impromptu rescues the rotor boys won the day.

Would the choppers of the day been able to help the Pendleton crew?  Probably not, given the distances and wind speed involved.  But we’ll never know because at that time, the Coast Guard chopped were few and far between.  They did not come into play until later in the 1950’s.

In the meantime, the fixed wing aviators did develop incredible new methods of sea rescue — pioneering methods of landing parallel to waves instead of into them.  Those techniques are thought to have saved many lives because they are applied in passenger airliner emergency sea landings.

Questions and comments welcome.

Fact Checking “The Finest Hours” Movie


The Finest Hours is a faithful and truthful telling of the rescue of crewmen on the tanker the SS Pendleton.

Truthful does not in all cases mean factual.  There are no huge bloopers in the movie.  There is some compounding of characters and time is both stretched, cut and pasted.

For me it works, and I figure I’m in as good a position as anyone to judge this.  I spent a good chunk of time and hours and hours talking with Bernie, researching the wreck, combing through archived records and cross-checking with him for my book on the rescue, “Two Tankers Down.”

In other words, I know this subject matter well, and I am not indebted to the studio.

So how did the Hollywood guys do on the facts?

Based on the cheesy previews and trailers, I was prepared to flatten this baby.  But in fact, it’s well done and true to the event and the people even if the facts are not sometimes.

There are no “Pants on Fire” rankings here.  And some of my “catches” are nerdish maritime writer notes.  What some people MIGHT think are whoppers I can accept and I’ll explain why.

Let the Fact Check begin:

  1. Miriam Webber did not come down to the Coast Guard Station.
    In fact, she was very sick at home with the flu.  The couple had been married before the rescue.
    Why it doesn’t matter to me:   The film pretty well represents the couple’s romance, right down to the “bear skin” coat.  The presence of Miriam in the film allows for a nice conflict of concerns:  a human concern for life versus the Coast Guard code of the ‘You have to go out– you don’t have to come back.”   I guess for purists this would be a pants on fire fact fail.  For me, I think it’s a great bit of dramatic license that while not factual gets the truth across.
  2. Bernie was far taller and less pretty than Chris Pine.
    Bernie was kind of a big lug of a guy.  Okay, but Pine does a pretty good job of playing Bernie as the good-hearted and well-intended fella he was. If there is a critique here, I’d say the director portrays Bernie as a little dumb and simple.  He wasn’t.  He was cagey enough to know questions I would ask him before I asked them.  The guy had been admitted to a top prep school.  He had an unerring ability to compute multiple factors in his head — navigational and personal.  On the other hand, Bernie often played dumb.  And in social matters, he could be dumb. I can’t fault Pine’s performance at all and feel it’s on the money.
  3. The Pendleton did not split at a weld.
    I told you this would get a little nerdy.  But T-2 tankers did not have welding faults — though it was widely suspected they did.  Their fault was in the type of steel used, which under 50 degrees turned brittle.  Cracks would form and race through the whole hull.  The “crack arrestors” or steel belts were there to stop that, not reinforce the welding.  This is about a big a false fact as I can find.  But it’s not crucial to the plot or the fact that the ships were flawed.
  4. At times the movie actually understates conditions.
    I’ve read some reviews that say the angle of the lifeboat ascending waves was improbable.  The movie had it right.  It might have been interesting to dwell on the boat descending waves — when Webber had to jam the engine in reverse to slow the boat as it gained speed.  Had he not done that, the boat would have essentially kept going to the bottom.
    Other understatements: Bernie emerged from the “bar” crossing with windshield fragments embedded in his skull.  The men in the engine room of the boat fried great sections of their arms on the hot motor.  Not essential to the movie, and I thought actually showed some restraint.5. The “Lost Man” was probably “lost” before he hit the water.If I did nothing else through Two Tankers Down, I hope I eased Bernie’s mind on this death.  Throughout his life Bernie was haunted by the one guy he lost.  He mentioned this frequently in conversations and correspondence.  The crew and the rescuers even concocted a story to say that Tiny was the last man down the ladder — and had waited until all were clear.
    In fact, Tiny was probably in the advanced stages of hypothermia.  He was a large man, 300+ pounds.  And at the top of the ship, he had stripped off all his clothes, in the advanced stages of hypothermia.  This phenomenon is known as “paradoxical undressing.”  The blood flows suddenly from the heart to the extremities and causes a feeling of burning.  Once in this state, few come back.  So yes, the rescuers could not get Tiny in the boat.  But almost certainly, even had they been able to wrestle the huge man up over the side, he would have passed.6. Livesey and Bernie had no beefMore dramatic license here.  Bernie and his crew member had no quarrel or grudge as suggested in the film.  They respected each other.  The director uses the grudge as a way of referring back to the story of an earlier failed rescue — when Webber and others tried in vain to reach a fishing boat on the other side of the Chatham Bar.Again, in my mind: poetic license granted.  This worked for me as a dramatic device.

    7. There is a bittersweet ending to the real story.

    The movie tells the tale well and has no obligation to go beyond the story.  Truth is life got very complicated for Bernie after the awards with some of the brass.  He was offered the Lifesaving Gold Medal and declined it unless his whole crew got it. (They did.) He was nearly court martialed for disobeying the order to take the boat out to sea to offload the rescued.
    Worse, some of his own colleagues shunned him in the egalitarian ranks of the non-officer corps, or gave him the cold shoulder.
    Uncomfortable with the spotlight, he nevertheless was forced to do speech tours with the Coast Guard brass when he wanted nothing more to get back on his boat with his crew.
    Then, as a publicity project, in the early days of the Vietnam War, the Coast Guard shipped him over in charge of a riverine warfare gunboat.  There he performed close-in duty, in the mode of Apocalypse Now.  It’s the one thing I could not get him to talk about. He retired from the Coast Guard shortly after this tour, thinking the Coast Guard had moved into another era.
    The good news is he maintained his sense of honor and self dignity.  He actively chose to stay within the working ranks of non-commissioned officers when he might easily have become an officer.  Decades later, Coast Guard rescue workers still talk of him.

    8. The movie may have overstated Bernie’s natural courage and understated his doubts.

    Throughout his voyage to the bar, Bernie kept saying to himself that they would call him back, he hoped they would call him back.  I mention this not to criticize Bernie but to underscore the fact that he was a real human being with real thoughts, not a hero sprung from whole cloth.  I can’t fault the director too much here.

9.  They did not sing a sea chanty as they motored toward the bar.
           
          They sang the hymn Rock of Ages.

Let me know what other questions you have.  Also, if you’re interested in the other wreck that day — involving the SS Fort Mercer — you’ll find it in my book, Two Tankers Down.