“Oh God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”
BRETON FISHERMAN’S PRAYER (variation)
The Finest Hours, by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman is a true story. It is a book about exceptional human bravery and true heroism. It is based on an event, or rather, a series of events, that happened off the eastern seaboard of the United States in 1952. It is a book that I found hard to put down, once I’d started reading it.
Picture yourself in a boat. A wooden boat. A wooden boat only thirty-six feet long. A boat designed to hold just twelve people. Then ask yourself: would you venture out in a boat just a little longer than two cars parked end-to-end, into the teeth of a fierce Atlantic nor’easter blowing sixty knots, in a February snowstorm, at night, into waves seven stories high?
Hold that thought. Then picture this. Would you go out into the Atlantic Ocean in a storm with gale-force winds that had churned up the sea to a point where it had already torn not one, but two, five-hundred-foot-long, ocean-going steel ships into two pieces, just forty miles from each other? A storm that left the drifting bow and stern sections of the huge broken ships tossing about like corks in the sixty and seventy foot waves? A storm that left dozens of survivors stranded on the drifting hulks, praying desperately against hope, for a miraculous rescue before those ripped-apart sections sank? If you said yes, I’d say: read this book. Then think again. If you said no, I’d say: read this book. And prepare to be surprised.
…two 10,000-ton ships, the SS Fort Mercer and SS Pendleton, were snapped in two like matchsticks.
That scenario really happened in 1952. And there were four people who did go out into the Atlantic, in a small craft, in such a storm. They were a U.S. Coast Guard crew. One man was ordered to go. Three of them volunteered. They went on a search and rescue mission. Before they even got out into the open ocean, the boat’s windshield was smashed as they plunged through a sixty-foot wave, and the compass was torn from its mount and rendered useless. That was just the beginning of what they went through. Incredibly, they all survived. And they carried out one of the most daring sea rescues of the twentieth century.
That story is the essence of the The Finest Hours. The bare facts about the events on their own are astonishing enough—two 10,000-ton ships, the SS Fort Mercer and SS Pendleton, were snapped in two like matchsticks. The sea-battered hulks of one of them went undiscovered for eight hours because the crew was unable to get off a distress signal before the catastrophe—but the authors have put human faces on the story. That is this book’s most compelling feature.
Sadly, not everyone on those two wrecks made it back to shore alive. But the reader is pulled inexorably through this well-written book page after page, by a sense of hope for both the shipwrecked sailors, and the rescue crews.
Their accomplishment was, quite simply, extraordinary.
I say crews, because The Finest Hours focuses essentially on telling the story of the one small Coast Guard motor lifeboat, CG36500. But it also covers the greater scope of the overall rescue operation. Five other larger Coast Guard ships, cutters Achushnet, Eastwind, McCulloch, Unimak and Yakutat also raced to join the search and rescue effort, as did other vessels and several aircraft. The accounts of rescues by the other ships, some almost as harrowing as that of CG36500 are also woven into the story. But the four-man crew of the small motor lifeboat; Bernard C. Webber and the three volunteers, Andrew J. Fitzgerald, Richard P. Livesey and Ervin E. Maske are the book’s focal point. Their accomplishment was, quite simply, extraordinary.
Remember that the CG36500 and crew were severely handicapped by a broken windshield and a non-functioning compass before they were barely out of the harbour. In spite of this, they managed to find the stern section of the Pendleton still afloat in the roiling darkness. Then they managed to rescue thirty-two seamen off the broken hulk that was tossing and pitching wildly in sixty and seventy-foot waves. Finally they were somehow able to fit thirty-six men (thirty-two survivors and the four rescue-crew members) into the small wooden motor lifeboat designed for twelve, and bring them all back to land safely.
Seventy of the eighty-four crew members from the two huge ships that were torn apart that night were rescued.
The authors chose to use a quote above a chapter heading in The Finest Hours that was attributed to the American writer and naturalist Henry Beston, who knew the fury of the Atlantic in the area where the wrecks took place, intimately. He lived on the outer beach there for more than a year after World War I, with the ocean almost at his door. Perhaps the quote was chosen because the historic house he lived in was also swept away by the raging seas in a February hurricane in 1978. Beston, who wrote the 1928 literary nature-classic The Outermost House, got the textual flavour of what those seamen must have experienced that night in 1952, exactly right.
“The North Atlantic was a convulsion of elemental fury whipped by the sleety wind, the great parallels of the breakers tumbling all together and mingling in one seething and immense confusion, the sound of this mile of surf being an endless booming roar, a seethe, and dread grinding, all intertwined with the high scream of the wind.”
Seventy of the eighty-four crew members from the two huge ships that were torn apart that night were rescued. But there were men on board who were never found. One of the surviving seamen off the Pendleton, Oliver Gendron, believed that some of the crew, including the ship’s captain, would have perished instantly in the midship house on the Pendleton’s bow, when it broke up.
Gendron is quoted as saying: “a seventy-foot wave lifted us till the bow pointed straight up. Then we came down and there was a grinding, tearing crash. As we hit the trough of the wave the mast came down. It crashed into the midship house. I should have been there but I was aft at a pinochle game.”
The Finest Hours is a book with a story that speaks to a reader at the elemental level.
The book is drawn from a deep well of research as the 1952 rescue operation was front-page news worldwide the next day. The authors were able to glean from more than fifty newspaper, wire service and magazine articles, fifteen government agency reports and a number of earlier books. They also interviewed more than two dozen rescue-crew members and shipwreck survivors still living. Their memories, still stark and vivid many years later, go to the very heart of the story.
The Finest Hours is a book with a story that speaks to a reader at the elemental level. Heroism; raw courage in the face of overwhelming odds; the possibility of a miracle in the face of a maelstrom. It was made into a movie in 2016. I haven’t seen it. Maybe I will, but, for me, the book left images in my head that are just as vivid as those to be seen at any movie. REG
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