Disney’s latest adventure flick The Finest Hours takes its cues from an eponymous book penned by South Shore authors Casey Sherman and Michael J. TougiasBy Richard Trust • Photography by Jack Foley
While a blizzard was burying New England in the pre-dawn hours of February 18, 1952, two 500-foot oil tankers–located 20 miles apart–split in half off the coast of Cape Cod at virtually the same time. The lives of 84 men changed in an instant. Eight men on the bow of the
SS Pendleton were among the first to perish. That left 76 crewmen clinging to the bow and stern sections of both the Pendleton and the SS Fort Mercer.
Howling winds had whipped the sea into monstrous waves that reached 80 feet high and the water temperature was 32 degrees when a wooden U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat, just 36 feet in length and manned by a crew of four, headed for the Pendleton.
“The first wave they ran into was so big and ferocious, it picked up their little lifeboat and tossed it into the air and then slammed it back to the water,” says Marshfield author Casey Sherman, who co-authored the book “The Finest Hours” together with Plymouth author Michael J. Tougias. Published in 2009, the book chronicles the true story of the Coast Guard’s most daring small-boat rescue.
Initially, Casey and Tougias were each researching the tanker tragedy for their own personal projects. But in 2007 the authors decided to collaborate on a joint book project, each interviewing many of the then-living survivors.
“We knew each other only by reputation, but it was an amazing collaboration,” says Sherman. The two men met regularly to discuss the project but wrote chapters of the book independently. “Mike would write a great chapter on the Fort Mercer rescue and I’d say, ‘OK, time to step it up, Casey,’ and I would try to outdo him with my chapter on the Pendleton,” says Sherman.
Drama on the High Seas
At the heart of their book is a story of four young men, led by Bernie Webber, a 24-year-old Boatswain’s Mate First Class from Milton. “Bernie was given a suicide mission: Get a crew of three men and take a tiny, 36-foot lifeboat out in those mammoth waves with a simple order–‘save as many men as you can,’ ” says Sherman.
Before the men in the rescue boat could see the listing tanker in the dark, they could hear it. Twisted metal was making strange, eerie, groaning noises.
“It must have been unreal out there in the dark,” says Tougias, who divides his residency between Plymouth and Mendon.
“They took that little lifeboat into those gigantic waves and they saved 32 men (squeezing them all onto that tiny CG-36500) on a night that no one should have made it home alive,” says Sherman.
One of the rescuers, Coast Guard Third Class Engineman Andy Fitzgerald, was 21 at the time that the rescue boat left Chatham, off of which the stricken Pendleton was ravaged by the nor’easter. Now 84 years old, Fitzgerald is the only living member among the rescuers and crews of the two tankers. A Bay State native (born in Brockton, raised in Whitinsville), he now resides in Aurora, Colorado, with his wife, Gloria. Fitzgerald has told friends that he never considered the mission one of suicide; that he had absolutely no thoughts that he was going to die. Fact is, he was looking forward to the rescue as an adventure.
Wayne Higgins of Scituate was 21 years old at the time of the rescue and was one of the rescuers aboard the Yakutat, a Coast Guard cutter sent out to save men on the drifting bow of the Fort Mercer. Higgins, now 85 years old, was the guardsman responsible for shooting a messenger line over to the damaged tanker so that the two remaining crewmen on the Mercer’s bow section could slide down the line to a rubber raft tethered to the cutter.
Higgins recalled the incident in the book “The Finest Hours.”
“I knew we had to get this line over immediately, because it looked like the ship was going to sink. When I fired the gun, the recoil was tremendous, and my left hand slipped and my index finger was slashed open on the line canister. But the shot looked good.” The shot was good, but there was trouble in the water. The rescue raft capsized and the two survivors had to struggle to turn it upright and scramble inside before hypothermia made their limbs useless. Once in the raft, the men realized the line that stretched from the tanker to the raft was still attached and they were too cold to cut it with a jackknife. The decision was made to reverse the engines on the cutter in order to break the line between the raft and the tanker. Once freed, the men on the raft were brought aboard the Yakutat. Seventeen minutes after the rescue began the Fort Mercer’s bow reared straight up toward the gray sky, pivoted, fell backward and sank into the churning sea.
A total of 70 men, 32 from the Pendleton and 38 from the Fort Mercer–which broke apart in waters northeast of Nantucket–were saved.
Sherman believed from the get-go that the story would translate well to the big screen. “From the very first word I wrote in the prologue, I thought [the story] would be made into a major motion picture one day because it was so inspiring,” says Sherman. When the book was published in 2009, it was an immediate bestseller. He and Tougias sat back and waited for the Hollywood offers to come in. They never did.
But if Hollywood doesn’t come to you, you go to Hollywood. Sherman’s passion for turning “The Finest Hours” into a movie led him to meetings with several studio executives but was turned down each time. Months later, in 2010, he had an opportunity to meet with Dorothy Aufiero, one of the producers of that year’s big film, “The Fighter,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. Aufiero had also been the production supervisor on the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck classic “Good Will Hunting.” The Watertown resident agreed to meet with Sherman because of her interest in his 2009 book “Bad Blood: Freedom and Death in the White Mountains,” and just as she was about to leave without a commitment, Sherman pulled a copy of “The Finest Hours” out of his jacket and told her, “This is the movie you’ve been waiting to make. This is going to be a blockbuster.”
Two weeks later, Aufiero got back to Sherman. “This is incredible,” she said. “I want to produce this film.”
Walt Disney Pictures/Whitaker Entertainment purchased the rights to the movie and production ensued. An old warehouse at the former Quincy Shipyard was transformed into a massive soundstage, where the dramatic ocean scenes were filmed. Additional shot locations included the South Shore towns of Cohasset, Duxbury, Marshfield and Norwell as well as Chatham, which is where the story takes place.
The movie was directed by Craig Gillespie, co-produced by Aufiero Douglas Merrifield and James Whitaker, and stars Casey Affleck, Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger and Kyle Gallner among others. Sherman and Tougias served as consultants on the screenplay, which was written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson.
“The Finest Hours” is scheduled to be shown in theatres across the United States and in 80 countries worldwide beginning in January 2016. The movie will be shown in Disney Digital 3-D, RealD 3D, and IMAX 3D formats.
Sherman and Tougias aren’t resting on their laurels. Sherman recently co-authored the book “Boston Strong” with author Dave Wedge, about the Boston Marathon bombings that is being made into a film starring Mark Wahlberg. Tougias and Alison O’Leary of Plymouth co-authored “So Close to Home: A True Story of an American Family’s Fight for Survival During World War II,” which is available as a pre-order on Amazon.com before its spring release. Tougias and Sherman are also teaming up on a new book detailing a little-known aspect of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Regardless of how their newest works fare, Sherman and Tougias will never forget
the magic of their first film.
“It’s been a dream come true,” says Tougias.
“From start to finish, it’s been wonderful.”
JAN 13: Author Michael Tougias will appear at Laura’s Center of the Arts (at the Hanover YMCA) at 7 pm to give a presentation on his new book “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue.” Tougias will use images of the storm, the sinking tankers, the rescues, the victims, the survivors and the heroes to tell the story of this historic event. This program is a joint venture of the North & South Rivers Watershed Association, South Shore Natural Science Center and Mass Audubon and is free and open to the public. The program is funded by Clean Harbors and the Rockland Federal Credit Union. nsrwa.org
JAN 28: Guests of Chatham Bars Inn and local community members are invited to attend an advanced showing of The Finest Hours at the Chatham Orpheum Theater, followed by a Finest Hours Opening Party in Chatham Bars Inn’s Sacred Cod Tavern. Proceeds from the party will support both the Coast Guard Museum and Orleans Historical Society. Tickets are $95 per person. For more info, call 508-945-0096 or visit chathambarsinn.com.