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.

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.

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.