Fact Check: The Finest Hours Portrayal of the Pendleton Crew Got It Very Wrong

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As everyone should know by now if you’ve been reading my fact check of The Finest Hours, I’m a fan of the movie.

Yes, some of the facts are wrong.  But the spirit and the truth of the rescue are accurate and well managed artistically with poetic license.  I stand by that, but in saluting the spirit of the movie, I have to acknowledge that some of the critics have got it right and bending some of the facts hurt some real people.

Art, it has been said, does not apologize.

But sometimes it should.

As a detached author of Two Tankers Down and journalist, I’m in a removed position.  The relatives of the Pendleton crew are not and more than one has complained the movie takes liberties by portraying the Pendleton crew as panicked and nearly mutinous when instead it was calm, steadfast and courageous.

So for the record, the crew of the Pendleton from all that my research shows, reacted calmly to their predicament.  There was no rush to the lifeboats, no name calling. Nor was the chief engineer — the Affleck character — a shrinking violet as the movie suggested.

He took control nearly instantly.  Here is how I described Sybert’s actions in my book, Two Tankers Down, and also how the crew reacted to the idea of running to the lifeboats.

On the stern, Sybert brought power back up.  He discovered he could actually steer the ship.  A bit. He had power. He had a rudder. She would buck and heave, but he could for brief moments control the ship.

The thought had to strike Sybert there and then.  It was strange,  but there it was.  He was master of a ship.  His half-ship.  He had given a command, maneuvered her.  She responded.  He was a master. 

He took command.  But there was one problem with that. And he quickly confessed it.  He gathered all the survivors in the mess and told it to them straight:  Boys, our officers are gone and you able bodied seamen are going to have to pick up the slack.  I know engines.  Don’t know much about navigation, lifeboats, and seamanship in general. 

Quickly, he found that one able bodied seaman, Jacob Hicks, and another, Ray Steele, would take leadership positions.  He came to think of Hicks as a makeshift chief mate, the ranking deck officer.  [i]

Did Sybert want them to check the life boats?  Yes, Sybert said, but he thought the best thing to do was remain on board the stern section of the ship if it seemed seaworthy.  Others were dispatched to close all water tight doors.  Sybert and his engineers checked the salinity of the boilers to see if too much seawater had leaked in.

Hicks and Steele scrambled up on the deck and what they saw and felt there was disheartening.  The gale was now a full blown screeching storm with winds of 50 mph and more.  It would reach more than 70 before the night was through, reports said, sometimes clocked at 80.  You had to lean into a wind like that just to stand steady.

They struggled to reach the lifeboats and once there prepared them for launch.  But below them – sometimes over them – soared 35 to 45 foot waves.  Launching a lifeboat into such mountains of water would be fearsome work.  It would be a miracle just to get a boat out there without the sea splintering it.  Once launched, how long could a small lifeboat remain afloat?

They seemed stuck staying with the stern. 

They looked across the water toward the bow.   The bow and all the deck officers on it were carried swiftly away from the stern by the mountainous waves.  The bow section was still afloat but increasingly it rose at an angle to the plane of the sea, lifting the bow to the sky, plunging the bridge and deckhouse  down toward the bottom.   In fifteen to twenty minutes, the bow disappeared from view, bobbing away into the  rain and snow, invisible to the men on the stern now.

Sybert was certain they would get help soon.  The radioman had almost certainly sent an SOS from the bridge. 

 It took time for it to sink in that this was improbable and that no one on shore was aware any of this was happening.  Slowly, they were understanding the fix they were in. 

 The splitting of the ship was clear enough; the ramifications of the split less so.   Yes, the captain and most deck officers were located toward the front of the ship in a structure that rose from the deck and gave them a clear view ahead. The engineers and engine room were located aft.   So the officers were gone but the clean fracture had wrought even worse chaos.

The bow had the radio but no power.   Sybert’s new half-ship had the power but no radio.  

Sybert did the math. The ship had split in part in about five seconds.  There could not have been time, no time at all, to understand what was happening and send out a signal. 

Now, Sybert took stock.  He thought they were close to shore.    They had been nearly 25 miles offshore due east of northern Cape Cod,  but their drift was south and west now, which would take them quickly toward the elbow of Cape Cod, toward Chatham.  That fact had been a blessing initially.  Comforting somehow. But now?

He could maneuver the stern section a bit, but he knew they were drifting too rapidly toward shore – the Cape Cod shore where so many thousands of wrecks had washed up.  If he attempted to steer and control too aggressively, the ship would pitch and lurch.  There was little that he could do other than go with the flow and steer to keep the stern section straight.  He could not steam her farther out to sea, just keep her straight as she drifted. Everytime he attempted to steer and maneuver, he could, briefly, but the forward exposed part of the stern dipped down and got drenched.

Above him, on deck, Hicks dug out a flare gun from the lifeboat.  He pointed it skyward and the flare arched out over the water into the darkness. 

Perhaps they would be spotted visually from shore.  Perhaps the officers on the bow would respond with a flare back.   He took out another flare cartridge and aimed it skyward.  The cartridge flizzled and popped but did not fire.  From the bow, no reply came at all.  Hicks looked at the date stamped on the flares. “July 1942.”  He threw the dud flare  into the water after it had fizzled. He loaded another.  No luck. No signals.  He took smoke markers from the lifeboat and lit them, then tossed them overboard.  They put out a pathetic smudge of smoke quickly whipped away to nothing in the gale. [ii]

No radio.  No flares. No smoke. No blinker lights for sending code.  No one who could send or understand code, either. 

No one knew they were out there.  No one knew they were in trouble. No one had any way of finding out. 

Well, there was one way.  One ancient way.                

Aaron Powell, a wiper, rigged up a line to the steam whistle.   Another wiper was too small a man to work the rig himself; it took some heft to pull the line.  So Powell drafted  George “Tiny” Myers, an OS – ordinary seaman.   He weighed more than 300 pounds, not much of it muscle, it had to be said, but Tiny had plenty of spirit and enough weight to heave that whistle lanyard.  [iii]

They were not sure what the true navigational whistle signals were for their situation, but kept blowing and blowing and blowing.  The danger signal was all Powell knew… a series of short blasts.  They would blast out four  short signals and then pause to listen for any reply.

There was none.  They were alone.

The movie screenwriters might have drawn the “lifeboat panic” sequences from the crew of the Fort Mercer, where some of the crew — but only a few –were frisky indeed and came close to mutiny.  Here is what I wrote in Two Tankers Down:

Not everyone on board the Fort Mercer felt as comfortable with the crack arrestors as the captain.  Not everyone, in fact, felt comfortable with the captain. 

(Captain) Patezel had ordered the men to be alert but had not sounded a general alarm.  He did not want to sound any signals or bells that would stampede the crew. Word got out to some; not to others. What followed was a combination of undue concern by some and unwarranted complacency among others.

Julio Molino, a seaman, was one of those who heard nothing from the master about the 8 a.m. crack.  He did not have to be told.  He was standing with a friend and looked out at sea.

“Look in the water, the ship is broke,” Molino said matter of factly.  “There’s oil.”

“I don’t want to look, “ his friend said.  “I’m scared.”

“Let’s go tell the captain,” Molino said.  But his friend was too scared and would not even look at the oil.  He turned away from the sight.

Then Molino saw a plate floating away.

These guys are all too scared of the old man, Molino thought, because the captain is too tough on them.  Well, the hell with it, Molino would tell him.  He marched forward to the bridge and confronted the master of the ship – a rare and unthinkable breach of etiquette on most ships.

“What do you want?” Patezel asked him on the bridge. 

“The ship is broke,” Molino said.  

“That’s none of your fucking business,” Molino heard Paetzel say.  And then the captain physically pushed the seaman off the master’s bridge and toward the stairs.

None of my fucking business? It was completely Molino’s business.

He ran down, got his life preserver, and began yelling out to anyone he could see, “The ship is broke!”  

Jack C. Brewer, the chief mate and second in command after the captain, chased him down and cornered Molino.

“Who are you to tell the crew?” the mate demanded.  

“I’ve been at sea long enough to know when there’s danger,” Molino said. [i]

The bosun intervened at this point.  The bosun is the equivalent of a seargent at sea – the head non-commissioned officer, so to speak, in charge of the deck crew.  He channeled Molino’s fears in a constructive manner. 

“Take the covers off the boats,” he told Molino.  And Molino did just that. He ran to the starboard lifeboat at the stern and cut the cover the boat.  Then he jumped in.  The quartermaster moved to swing the boat out and lower it.  The starboard side was taking the most wind. 

“Calm down, calm down!” the bosun said.  “Move to the port side.”

And Molino did.  There was far less wind on that side of the ship.  He prepared the boat there for launching, but this time did not jump in.  He stood watch for two hours, never leaving the side of the boat, but grew too cold and eventually went below.

This was before the Fort Mercer was really in trouble.  And when the ship finally did break in two, the sort of panic portrayed in the movie did take place on the Fort Mercer.  From Two Tankers Down:

Did the captian give any alarm? Roviaro asked that question, but  no one seemed to know. He put on a lifejacket and yelled back to the chief:

“I think she cracked up.”

He ran onto the deck to hear one of the boys say,   “oh there’s another ship ahead of us.”

“Heck no, “ someone else said.  “That’s the Fort Mercer floating…” [i]

For certain, along the side of the “other ship” was the name Fort Mercer.  But how could that be?  They were on the Fort Mercer.

Then, just as on the Pendleton, there was a rush to realization as to how worlds had changed.  They had split in two.  Cleanly in two.  And then there was a sense of pure panic.  A wave came up on the bow of the Fort Mercer and cleanly sheared away the two lifeboats there.   The men on the stern could see that. Then the bow began drifting directly back to the stern, on a collision path, it seemed. 

Word went down to Bushnell in the engine room and the chief engineer gently backed the engines astern.  The smooth electroglide nature of the T-2 was still there; the half-ship responded and Bushnell maneuvered out of harm’s way. [ii] The act – one half of a ship avoiding collision with its other half – is believed unique  in known maritime history.

On the stern,  the men did not commemorate this historic event.  They were excited, nearly a mob.  They rushed the lifeboats.  They were crowded around the starboard lifeboat, intent on piling in, lowering the boats and getting off the ship anyway they could.   The wind was blowing directly into them, the spray, the snow, the rain, pelting them.

Laurence Whilley,  an ordinary seaman, was there when a man from the mess – he did not know his name — yelled to Whilley above the howling weather:          

“Do you know how to pray?”                    

“Sure, I’m a Christian and member of the church,” Whilley yelled back.  “No one should be ashamed to pray.”

The man and Whilley left the boat and went to the mess.  There they got down on their knees and prayed for their lives, prayed for the men, prayed for the ship, and prayed for their world. 

Above, the bosun looked at the men jostling the lifeboats, looked at the surging seas, looked at the relative calm and steadiness of the stern and told the quartermaster, “Tell the boys to take it easy.”

 Roviaro, the pumpman, ran to the stern above the men and yelled out: “There’s no danger.”

Newman, the quartermaster, chimed in:

“Take it easy; it’s too rough a sea.”

And seaman Robert Mackenzie yelled out a flat-out order. 

 “Don’t’ touch the boat!”

 “Don’t get excited,” the quartermaster yelled again. “Let’s see what we can do.”

All of those men kept cautioning the crew.  Let’s see what we can do with the stern, which seemed steady, all things considered.  There’s too much wind on the starboard side, someone added.   Why are we here?

“Let’s try the port side,” someone else said.

“We’ll do that,” the bosun said.

 And the men moved over to the port side, the more sheltered side, and again this seemed to calm them just as it had Molino earlier.  Soon, thoughts of taking the boats had subsided.  They made sure the port boat was prepared and then went down below.  It was more stable and calming there.   Darkness fell and the stern still seemed steady.   The mess was open for business.  It was warm.  In many ways, it was normal.  Comforting this: the warmth and the coziness of the mess. [iii]

It’s a tricky thing when you try to cram a real world event into a 90 minute movie.  So what I think may be justified certainly may not be to a relative whose father was on the Pendleton and had to be dragged away from the boat’s edge in trying to desperately rescue his friend.

It is notable that the movie does in the end portray the crew as steadfast good guys. That is cold comfort to the children of Pendleton crew members who know their fathers were brave and calm — but portrayed as panicked and fearful.

Here’s a post from one of them:

The Finest Hours is a faithful and truthful telling of the rescue of crewmen on the tanker the SS Pendleton. Truthful does not …

Thank you, Mr. Frump for the review. As the daughter of Fred Brown, a survivor, I was somewhat disappointed in the way in which the ship’s crew was portrayed…not at all the way my dad spoke of it. Dad was quoted in the Portland Press Herald, and he was also quoted in the book The finest hours which described a very different crew. They banded together and prayed like never before. Also, the movie was confusing as to how the Coast Guard discovered the Pendleton. Tiny Myers was my dad’s best friend. When dad returned to us, he had Tiny’s blood on his clothing from trying to pull him in the boat. The rescuers forced him to let go because Tiny was dead. And what about the eight officers that were lost, and the way in which they were lost? I think they deserved some recognition in the movie. All things considered, it was a good movie, especially for those who don’t know the whole story. Thank you for correcting some errors, like the song. It was the great hymn…Rock of Ages!


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