A tale of Coast Guard heroism coming to life

This painting by Connecticut artist Tony Falcone that hangs in the lobby of the library at the Coast Guard Academy in New London depicts the CG36500 approaching the Pendleton in stormy seas, with crew members of the tanker lined up along its rail, waiting to be rescued.

If you like sea stories, which I do, you should probably pay attention when the commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Robert J. Papp, recommends a book.

I was intrigued when Papp talked about "The Finest Hours" by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman during the recent ceremony in New London for the signing of the agreement for building a Coast Guard Museum here.

The book tells the story of an incredible rescue by the Coast Guard after two tankers split in half, in unrelated incidents, during a gale-driven Nor'easter off Cape Cod in 1952.

The book is being made into a Walt Disney Studios movie, and no doubt museum advocates like Papp are pleased to think of a major Hollywood movie extolling Coast Guard heroism rolling out at the same time they are trying to raise money for their project.

It might remind people around here of the successful release of Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" at the same time Mystic Seaport was building a replica of the ship. The movie drove great public interest in the Amistad story and the shipbuilding here.

Papp also said he has a commitment that the New London museum will be able to display the wooden 36-foot lifeboat, CG36500, that rescued 32 crewmembers from the stern section of the tanker Pendleton, after the ship had split in two.

The lifeboat, which was restored by a group of dedicated volunteers on Cape Cod and is owned by the Orleans Historical Society, is on the National Register.

You can tell, in reading the excellent book, what a spellbinding, nail-biting movie it will make.

I'm sure either of the region's two fine bookstores, Monte Cristo in New London and Bank Square in Mystic, can hook you up with a copy, if you want to learn more of what happened the night of Feb. 18, 1952, when a storm of historic proportions churned off the coast of Massachusetts.

Tougias, who has written about other dramatic Coast Guard rescues, has a robust speaking schedule, and he is next scheduled to appear around here on April 3, at Wheeler Library in North Stonington, to talk about his latest book, "A Storm Too Soon." He is scheduled to be at the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London on May 4.

The story of the 1952 rescue is one that New London, with a new museum, may eventually help tell.

Actually, there is already a preamble here, a large painting by Connecticut artist Tony Falcone that hangs in the lobby of the library at the Coast Guard Academy. It depicts the CG36500 approaching the Pendleton in stormy seas, with crewmembers of the tanker lined up along its rail, waiting to be rescued.

"The Finest Hours" gives careful accounts of multiple rescue efforts by the Coast Guard to help crewmembers stranded on the hull and bow sections of both big tankers.

But the story focuses on four Coast Guardsmen who set out in the height of the storm from Chatham in CG36500. It took them several tries, after getting swamped, just to get out to the boat in the harbor aboard a rowing dinghy. After several dousings in the freezing water, they were close to their physical limits even before setting out on the rescue.

The fact that they would head out to sea in such conditions, in a small boat, spoke to their incredible sense of duty. One of the four crewmembers was a Coast Guardsman who just happened to be at the Chatham station at the time, waiting to transfer to his lightship assignment. He didn't have to go.

The heroics continued as they made their way out over the treacherous shoals off Chatham, braving monumental 70-foot seas. At times, the little boat became airborne in the troughs between waves, before crashing back down into the water.

They eventually took 32 survivors from the tanker onto the lifeboat, a harrowing transfer in which one life was lost. The lifeboat was only meant to handle 12, but they couldn't leave anyone behind since the tanker stern could have sunk before more help arrived.

The four crewmen of the CG36500 were eventually honored with the Gold Lifesaving Medal.

The morning after the rescue, the commander of CG36500, Bernie Webber, woke up in his bunk at the Chatham station surrounded by piles of money, stray bills that the tanker survivors had pulled from their pockets and left behind, in thanks.

Webber used the money to buy a new television for the station.

Webber, who was a reluctant hero in all the press coverage that followed the rescue, was interviewed many years later by Tougias, and he wrote to the authors of "The Finest Hours" days before he died, at the age of 80.

He sent them a picture of CG36500, which had then been restored by the Cape Cod volunteers.

"Guys - here's your boat," Webber wrote to the authors. "If a movie is made she'll be ready, just like brand new. I won't be around but give her a kiss for me!"

It looks like the movie will be made, and Webber's boat might be coming to New London.

This is the opinion of David Collins.



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