The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The real-life story behind Disney’s forthcoming Coast Guard rescue movie, ‘The Finest Hours’

Set in 1952, "The Finest Hours" centers on a Coast Guard rescue mission for stranded sailors after two oil tankers sink. (Video: Disney)

In the winter of 1952, two World War II-era tanker ships faced catastrophe during a horrific nor’easter off the coast of Massachusetts. The ships, the SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer, split in two within hours of each other in frigid cold and monstrous waves, leaving their crew members with just hours to live before the ships went down.

The daring rescue of those mariners is the subject of a forthcoming Disney movie, “The Finest Hours.” The first trailer for the film was released last week, underscoring the bravery of the Coast Guardsmen involved in the Feb. 18, 1952, recovery. The movie stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Eric Bana, and will be released next winter.

[Coast Guard video shows dramatic rescue of men on Alaska fishing vessel]

The film will likely center heavily around the effort to save mariners aboard the 503-foot Pendleton, which is considered the greatest small-boat rescue in the sea service’s history. Four men — coxswain Bernard C. Webber and his crew Andrew J. Fitzgerald, Richard P. Livese and Ervin E. Mask — would later receive the rare Gold Lifesaving Medal, the service’s highest decoration for heroism during a rescue operation.

The rescue effort for the Fort Mercer, traveling from Louisiana to Maine, was nearly as fantastic. William R. Kiely Jr. earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal for his actions, guiding a small surfboat from the CGC Yakutat to the bow of the Fort Mercer in heavy seas. The small craft slammed against the Fort Mercer’s hull at one point, but Kiely and his crew were able to recover two survivors before returning to the Yakutat while taking on water. Other ships were involved in rescuing other Fort Mercer crew members.

According to one 2001 account published in Proceedings magazine, the Pendleton burst apart with a series of explosive cracking noises in the early hours of the morning while traveling from New Orleans to Boston. The captain and seven men in the bow of the ship at the time were left without power, and wouldn’t make it out alive.

The stern of the Pendleton, carrying 33 men, had a bit more hope. But it still faced extreme peril. Whipped by the wind and angry seas, it drifted closer to shore, but toward a sandbar near the Cape Cod port of Chatham that could have wrecked the rest of the ship and spelled disaster for the men inside.

The four Coast Guardsmen launched their 36-foot wooden motor life boat without any certainty they’d make it back alive. They maneuvered the craft around the treacherous Chatham Bar, and then out to the remnants of the Pendleton. There things took a turn for the worse.

“As the CG-36500 crossed the bar, the boat was smashed by a mountain of a wave and thrown high in the air. The boat landed on its side between waves,” the 2001 account said. “The self-righting boat recovered quickly and was smote again, this time tons of seawater crashed over the boat breaking its windshield and flattening coxswain Webber.”

The wall of water took out the boat’s compass, but the crew continued on toward the Pendleton in driving snow. In violent, rolling seas, the Pendleton crew descended down a rope ladder and into the Coast Guard boat. The small craft wasn’t built to handle so many people, but Bernard, the group’s leader, refused to turn anyone away.

Only one man — George “Tiny” Myers — didn’t make it away alive. He was smashed between the Coast Guard craft and the Pendleton after falling from the rope ladder into the sea.

The movie is based on a 2009 book by the same name. The lone surviving member of the Coast Guard crew, Fitzgerald, watched as portions of the film were recorded in a ship yard in Quincy, Mass., just south of Boston.

“I’ve never forgotten it,” Fitzgerald, told the Boston Globe in 2014 while on the set for the film. “I can remember it like it was yesterday.”

Between the two doomed tanker ships, 70 men were saved.