The Finest Hours brings to life the most daring rescue in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, in which a crew of four risked their lives to save 33 men stranded at sea in the middle of a devastating nor’easter.
On Feb. 18, 1952, the Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts, got word that the SS Pendleton, a World War II-era oil tanker, had been split in half at sea. Incredibly, it was the second tanker ripped apart that day, and the most experienced seamen at the station had already been dispatched to help with the first distress call.
Bernie Webber, played by Chris Pine in the film, was the best coxswain left at Chatham, and was asked to assemble a crew of volunteers to attempt a rescue. Ignoring warnings from locals to take a safer, more roundabout route to the Pendleton, Webber chose to save time by motoring his 36-foot lifeboat through the deadly Chatham bar – a vortex of waves and currents just off the coast.
“That storm was bad and that Chatham bar – on a good day, that’s not the best place to be, you’ll get a good ride if you go across it,” Mel Gouthro (played in the film by Beau Knapp), who was Webber’s engineman, tells PEOPLE. Guothro was at the station on the day of the storm, but was too sick to go on the mission.
“I’d never crossed in weather like that, it was an isolated case,” he says of passing the bar. “It was an order from the officer in charge to go out and see what they could do, and Bernie, despite warnings from the local fishermen that he was crazy to do it, obeyed his orders.”
While the rescue attempt was regarded as a suicide mission, Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), the only surviving member of Webber’s crew that day, tells PEOPLE he couldn’t have been happier to volunteer.
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“It was kind of exciting. It was really my first big rescue in the Coast Guard and I wanted to be on that boat,” he says. “I was thinking all day long about how I could get on that boat.”
Under normal circumstances, Fitzgerald would never have gone out that day. He was the least experienced engineman at the station, and was only chosen because of Guothro’s illness. Despite being fresh out of training, Fitzgerald managed to repair the engine twice, effectively saving the mission.
Webber, Fitzgerald and the other two crew members – Richard Livesey and Ervin Maske – battled 60-foot waves, hurricane-force winds and freezing temperatures to find the survivors.
“I was very cold and I was very wet,” Fitzgerald says. “I remember when we got to the bar, a wave hit us and lifted me about four feet in the air and I landed back on the same spot. It also took off the top of the boat and the compass.”
Somehow, without a roof or any navigational devices, Webber and his men miraculously located the Pendleton, and managed to save 32 of the 33 men left on board.
“When I saw that ship and saw how many people were lined up on the rail 30 feet above us, I was thinking, ‘How are we ever going to get up there to help those people?’ ” Fitzgerald remembers. “But then they threw down a rope latter and started climbing down, and that’s when Bernie pulled up along their ship. As they came down, I stood at the foot of the latter and helped them get onto the boat.”
Gouthro had fallen asleep by the time Webber and the crew returned that night, and didn’t learn that the mission was a success until the next day. “Early in the morning I came downstairs and there were people laying on the station floor who I knew must be the survivors,” he says.
“The man from the clothing store had come down and got them all dry clothes. I knew something was going on but I didn’t get to talk to those guys until later – I think they wanted to hit the sack, too,” he laughs.
The story of the Chatham station’s daring rescue has become a Coast Guard legend, and also inspired some policy changes in its aftermath. “They have since revised things so that they will not send a boat that small out in that kind of a storm again,” Guothro says with a laugh. “Bernie tried it, he succeeded, it was wonderful, but we won’t be doing that again.”
Guothro and Fitzgerald, who now have 21 grandchildren between them, were honored to have their story memorialized in film. “I loved it, it felt unreal in the beginning,” Fitzgerald says. “I don’t remember it looking that dangerous, but I was 20 years old then, so who knows?”
The Final Hours is in theaters now.