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.

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.

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.

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?

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.