The Amazing True Story Behind ‘The Finest Hours’

The 36500 returning with the rescued Pendleton crew.
The 36500 returning with the rescued Pendleton crew.Kelsey Kennard

On a dangerously dark and stormy February night in 1952, when most of the townspeople of Chatham, Massachusetts, were boarding windows against a terrible gale, four brave Coast Guardsmen boarded a 36-foot wooden boat and motored defiantly against 80-mile-an-hour winds and 60-foot swells on a perilous recovery mission. It sounds like the making of naval folklore, as well as a dramatic motion picture, and it has become just that.

Engineman second class Andy Fitzgerald, who at the time had spent his service days pulling lobster boats and painting hulls, had driven through the pelting rain to the Chatham Lifeboat Station purely on the possibility that he would be able to take part in an actual rescue. “I was just hanging around the building hoping that they would need me to go out,” says Fitzgerald, who is now 85 years old, remembering the events during a recent conversation. He got his wish.

There was no way anyone at the station could have anticipated what was taking place out at sea. Not one but two separate giant T2 tankers had been literally torn apart by nor’easter-driven seas off the coast of Cape Cod, leaving four separate hulls floating in the North Atlantic Ocean. The 503-foot Pendleton with a cargo of 122,000 barrels of kerosene had adjusted course due to the inclement weather, passing by its original port of Boston into the Massachusetts Bay to wait out the storm, but the situation had escalated intensely, and by 5:50 a.m. the boat shuddered in a series of violent cracks, finally breaking in two. During the split, the circuit breakers had been tripped, leaving the bow section with the control equipment in a complete blackout. The ship’s commander, captain John Fitzgerald, along with seven other men were lost in the freezing water. The stern section had maintained its operating systems, and on learning that the bow was gone for good, chief engineer Raymond Sybert took charge delegating emergency procedures to keep them afloat for as long as possible. What they did not know is that no S.O.S. had been issued.

Back at Chatham Lifeboat Station, the first call for help came from the other T2, the T/V Fort Mercer, around noon, and the majority of the station’s assets were deployed to assist the vessel 20 miles offshore. Boatswain’s mate first class Bernie Webber was one of the skeleton crew left behind, and was given the more commonplace task of helping lobstermen re-moor their boats back in the harbor. While he was gone, the station’s radar picked up two blips five and a half miles offshore, and they diverted a PBY Catalina aircraft to scan the area, where they discovered the two floating pieces of the Pendleton.

(The bow of the Pendleton. Photo credit: Kelsey Kennard)

Webber had returned to the base and became aware of the urgent crisis. After a deliberation on the best means of aid, the officer in charge, Daniel Cluff. finally made the call, “Pick yourself a crew. Take the 36500 out over the bar and assist that ship.” Fitzgerald says there was no hesitation on Webber’s part, and with the only other engineman, Mel Gortho, sick, he volunteered and was quickly chosen to be part of that rescue party. “I said, ‘Let’s go!’ ” Fitzgerald recalls. But not all the men at the station were as eager to risk the turbulent seas, and they soon discovered there were only two other servicemen willing and able to be enlisted: seaman Richard Livesey and seaman Irving Maske, who had only been passing through the building on his way to the Stonehorse Lightship.

Despite the brutal waves, and the lives already lost, Fitzgerald says that from the very beginning of the mission he had complete confidence in Webber to bring them back safe. “My thought was, ‘God, the waves are kinda big, but that’s okay. We’ve got a good boat, and we’ve got a great coxswain.’ ” As the crew stepped on the dingy to row out to their rescue boat, Webber called out to a local fisherman to tell his wife, who was home sick, about his orders. They all knew how hazardous the voyage was, especially crossing Chatham’s sand bar, a natural shallow strip that has been known to run ships aground, as well as causing tremendous break in the water. It is a dangerous obstacle in even moderately difficult weather. Webber made a final check-in call to the station, half expecting the mission to be called off, but he got a blunt response, “Proceed as directed.” So he gunned the engine, and his crewmates braced themselves for the battering waves of the bar.

Fitzgerald remembers the moment well. He had a front-seat view from the bow while the sea lifted and tossed their small utilitarian vessel. “I watched a huge wave come over the bow, it blew out the windshield and threw Bernie off the wheel, knocking him on his back. When he stood back up he had a piece of glass in his cheek, but he kept on steering.” The windshield gone, Webber was forced to squint against the hurricane-force winds while piloting. Thanks to his competent hand on the controls, they made it past the bar. But the feat would not have been possible without Fitzgerald’s quick action with the motor. The crests of each wave drenched the boat to the point where the engine would stall out after losing its prime, forcing him to crawl into the small compartment for a manual restart, burning and bruising his hands against the hot metal.

The crew discovered that they had lost their compass during the turmoil, all the while the seas seemed to be only getting worse, but Webber and his crew were far from giving up. They pressed on with the search, looking for landmarks that could be used as navigational tools, though that proved difficult, with the biting snow on their faces. Then, as if through a moment of divine intervention, the coxswain sensed a presence in front of them and ordered a man to the boat’s searchlight. The beam pierced through the flurries of snow and crashing water, until it landed on a towering black figure where it finally illuminated the ship’s name: PENDLETON.

“We had no idea how many people to expect, and they all started lining up against the rail of the deck, waving their hands,” says Fitzgerald. “I thought, ‘Holy Mackerel, how are we going to get all of these guys off?’ We had a full capacity of 12 people, including us, and there were 32 people on that boat. But before we knew it, they had dropped down a ladder and were already starting to come down. The first guy fell into the water, I rushed to the side to help grab him and pull him aboard.”

Fitzgerald and the rest of the crew lined the side of the CG36500 helping pull the survivors up from the sea, one by one, after they were either thrown into the ocean off the ladder or hit the boat and fell off. Webber guided their craft expertly, simultaneously pulling up close the survivors all while dodging the constantly shifting and unpredictable tanker wreckage. Each rescued soul beyond the boat’s capacity made it more difficult to steer, and Webber informed the men aboard that they weren’t leaving anyone behind. They would either all live, or all die that night.

(The 36500 crew, after the rescue. Photo credit: Kelsey Kennard)

But with each man plucked from the freezing water, it seemed like they were going to accomplish the impossible with Webber’s skill, the crew’s diligence, and the vessel performing beyond its expected functionality. It was then when a tragic event occurred. One of the Pendleton’s most beloved crewmembers, a 300-pound man named George “Tiny” Myers, had decided to be the last man off the boat, helping the others, and when it came time to make his jump off the ladder, he had timed it wrong, hitting the boat.

“He was hanging off the boat, holding onto one of the ropes. I could see him from where I was,” says Fitzgerald somberly. “I said, ‘Come along the rope to us. We can help you.’ Then a wave came up and he was gone.” They spotted him later hanging on to one of the Pendleton’s large propeller blades, but when Webber attempted to get close a huge wave picked up the lifeboat, slamming it into the tanker and then shoving it out to sea. Tiny was gone. “I’ll never forget his name. That moment haunted me for years after I left the Coast Guard.”

But there was no time to linger. Without a compass and no safe plan to be picked up, Webber made the call to run aground at the nearest beach, an announcement that the Pendleton crew responded to with cheers. By another stroke of miraculous luck, they quickly spotted one of the signal buoys marking the entrance to Chatham’s Old Harbor, and a call was made into the station to make preparations for their arrival.

It was a joyous moment for the 36 passengers aboard the CG36500 when they spotted a large crowd of men, women, and children lined up along the local fishing pier. Fitzgerald says that while he didn’t have any family in the area to greet him, emotions ran high during their docking. “I was amazed at how many people were there, because it was still snowing hard, but they were happy to see us.”

Fitzgerald is the only surviving member of the CG36500’s brave crew, but their actions on that day live on as the Coast Guard’s greatest small-boat rescue, for which they all earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal. Their heroic actions will now be retold through the new Disney Pictures The Finest Hours, directed by Craig Gillespie. Fitzgerald retired from the service not long after the rescue. On how he feels about a movie being made of the Pendleton rescue, he says, “It’s pretty special but nothing will compare to that night, and going out with those great men.”

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