Magazine article Humanities

Storied RESCUE

Magazine article Humanities

Storied RESCUE

Article excerpt

VERMONT ON FEBRUARY 18, 1952, A FIERCE STORM hammered the New England coast, generating waves that topped 70 feet. Just off Cape Cod, two 500-foot tankers were broken in half by the heavy seas.

The Coast Guard's daring rescue of the men aboard those ships became the subject of The Finest Hours, a 2009 book written by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman.

A recent Hollywood movie of the same name, however, focused solely on the rescue of 32 men from only one of the doomed tankers, the Pendleton. Tougias understands that movies often have to simplify more complex stories, and the Pendleton rescue, undertaken by a 36-foot Coast Guard lifeboat piloted by a brave young man named Bernie Webber, had all the drama a movie could hold-a stoic hero, a romance, a demanding boss, selfless action, and impossible odds. In the movie, Webber reminds his shipmates of the Coast Guard's 1899 unofficial motto, "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back."

But the rest of the story is no less dramatic. In a talk in Lower Waterford in Vermont's tiny Davies Memorial Library, Tougias narrated the rescue of the Fort Mercer, the other tanker that foundered in the storm. Tougias's presentation, sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Speakers Bureau, connected audiences to the stories he's collected from the people who experienced them. "Here, the control comes back to me again, so you're telling the stories the way the guys lived it," he explained.

The Fort Mercer, like the Pendleton, was a T2-SE-A1 tanker, built on the cheap during World War II. They were known for breaking in half. The Fort Mercer split apart at midday on February 18, while trying to ride out a gale. The captain and eight crew members were trapped on the bow of the ship, and 34 were on the stern.

The first attempt at rescuing the men on the bow of the Fort Mercer, which was listing badly in the heavy seas, failed miserably. One man was swept overboard, and four more leaped into the water in the hope of reaching lifeboats that extended from a Coast Guard cutter. All four drowned, and the cutter had to back off to await the dawn.

In daylight, the cutter launched a 26-foot wooden lifeboat, which rescued two of the four remaining men. …

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