Published February 18, 2014
The four young U.S. Coast Guard sailors faced a "suicide mission," steering their small wooden boat into 80-foot waves and a blinding nor'easter in a bid to reach 84 men clinging to the broken hulls of two World War II-era tankers 5 miles off the coast of Massachusetts.
Their 36-foot lifeboat, known as CG-36500, tossed like a corked bottle -- its windshield shattered and compass ripped from its mounts -- as the four pressed on toward the SS Fort Mercer and SS Pendleton in the evening hours of Feb. 18, 1952, with little reason to believe they'd ever make it back to dry land. Some 62 years later, their rescue of dozens using little more than a dinghy stands as the Coast Guard's most daring small boat rescue ever, ranking alongside the heralded wartime efforts of America's bravest soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen.
"This is definitely in the top five most important rescues in U.S. Coast Guard history," Scott Price, deputy Coast Guard historian, told FoxNews.com. "I can't think of anyone who isn't moved by their heroism."
It began when the two 500-foot long oil tankers, built a decade earlier with the cheap "dirty steel" during World War II effort, split in half at around 5 a.m. off the coast of Cape Cod during a devastating blizzard that paralyzed New England. Eight officers on the bow section of the Pendleton were killed almost immediately, leaving 76 men clinging to the bow and stern sections of both tankers, according to Casey Sherman, co-author of "The Finest Hours," which chronicles the episode that is now set to be adapted into a movie.
"This was an unprecedented challenge for the U.S. Coast Guard at the time," Sherman said.
The crews were trapped at sea for 12 hours when four men stationed at Chatham Harbor, Mass., were given orders to use a 36 foot long, wooden lifeboat to rescue as many men as they could possibly fit into the vessel built for 12 people. Petty Officer 1st Class Bernie Webber, Petty Officer 2nd Class Andy Fitzgerald, Seaman Ervin Maske and Seaman Richard Lively set out to sea in waters likened to those in the popular movie "The Perfect Storm."
"It was a mammoth ordeal," Sherman said. "The first wave they encountered was so big and so ferocious that it picked up their little lifeboat and tossed it into the air, slamming it back onto the sea."
"They lost their compass. Their windshield was smashed. The glass was now embedded in the captain’s skin," he said.
Other boats were headed for the scene as well, including five Coast Guard cutters. But it was the faster, smaller CG-36500 that would be the star of the effort, in which 70 of the stranded sailors were saved. Reaching the stern section of the Pendleton, the four found 33 men hanging on for their lives. They herded 32 of the men onto the boat. One man, identified as George "Tiny" Myers, died when the rescue boat collided with the Pendleton's stern, pinning him between the two vessels.
"For the men who performed that rescue, they never considered it a successful rescue attempt because of the one man they left behind," Sherman said.
While the small wooden boat headed back to shore with 36 men in total on board, other Coast Guard vessels were dispatched to rescue those trapped on the Mercer, which was roughly 20 miles away from the Pendleton. In all, 70 men made it home on a night that no one should have survived.
"They all could have died and they should have died," Sherman said about the odds of such a rescue.
His opinion on the historic rescue is well-supported. The lifeboat that performed the rescue was refurbished and eventually brought to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., where officers attempted to re-create the recovery in calm water.
"They tried to fit 36 cadets on that boat and they could not fit them all," Sherman said.
For decades, the lifeboat sat as a floating museum on Cape Cod. Now, the vessel will be part of a new, national Coast Guard museum in New London -- the first of its kind.
Sherman, who grew up on Cape Cod, wrote about the rescue in "The Finest Hours," published in 2009. In January 2014, he and his co-author published a children's edition of the ordeal, which he said is currently being adapted into a major motion picture by Walt Disney.