It’s a movie with heroism, high seas, and even higher stakes—and it’s all based on a true story that occurred just off the coast of Cape Cod.
“The Finest Hours,” opening in theaters on Friday, January 29th, is based on a sea rescue that began during a nor’easter in the winter of 1952. Four men set off in a tiny wooden boat off the coast of Cape Cod, rescued 32 men from a sinking tanker ship, and went down in Coast Guard history.
And then they didn’t speak of it for 60 years.
“My family goes back seven generations on the Cape. I consider myself a historian of where I grew up, but I had never heard of this rescue before,” says writer Casey Sherman.
About 10 years ago, Sherman stumbled upon a small memorial at the Coast Guard station in Chatham, honoring what naval historians still consider the greatest small-boat rescue ever.
Sherman and co-author Michael Tougias began writing an account of the incredible tale called The Finest Hours, relying on the first-person experiences of coxswain Bernard Webber and his crew—Andrew J. Fitzgerald, Richard P. Livese, and Ervin E. Mask.
But getting the men to share their experience of what happened on that fateful night wasn’t easy. When Sherman and Tougias contacted the men, none of them thought there was much to the story beyond four men doing their jobs. They’d never fully recounted their memories in detail before, even to their friends and family.
“When they finally let us interview them, you could see the pressure and the relief pour off their shoulders,” says Sherman.
The men set sail from Chatham in February 1952 to rescue the crew of the SS Pendleton, which had broken in half and was rapidly sinking. The crew battled 70-foot waves, howling winds, and snow without a compass on a 36-foot wooden boat.
“The first wave they encountered that night,” says Sherman, “picked up that little lifeboat like a toy, tossed it into the air – leaving all four crew members momentarily airborne – and slammed it down on the surface of the sea.”
The members of the Coast Guard did their service proud that night, and both the book and the film highlight the difficulties of their task and the extreme conditions they had to overcome.
“Bernie Webber always told me,” says Sherman, “’I was a good skipper, but I wasn’t that good. Something else was at the helm of that little lifeboat that night.’”
It’s the kind of story that seems made for the silver screen, and it’s finally getting that treatment, though Andrew J. Fitzgerald, as the last surviving member of the original crew, will be only one to see the rescue on film.
Sherman calls the movie a “valentine” to the way New Englanders live and work. “It’s a story with a heart. It’s a story of courage and self-sacrifice. And at a time when there’s so much negativity in the world, I think people need to go to a film to be inspired.”
“The Finest Hours” stars actors Chris Pine and Casey Affleck, and was filmed in various locations across Massachusetts. It opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, January 29th, 2016.
You can listen WGBH Morning Edition host Bob Seay's full interview with co-author Casey Sherman at the top of the page.