The Finest Hours
Special to The History Place
Two days after the first moon landing in July 1969, I boarded a bus for Cape May, New Jersey. That Tuesday in mid-summer marked the start of my four years in the United States Coast. Guard. My motive for enlisting was to keep as far from Vietnam as I could get, short of running off to Canada or Sweden. Succeeding in my goal, following boot camp and officer candidate school, I served for three years in the Great Lakes. As the Ninth Coast Guard District’s public information officer, I reported on all of Charlie Golf’s major missions: aids to navigation, ice breaking, oil-spill clean ups, port safety and, of course, search and rescue.
Early in my brief Coast Guard career, I learned the motto, which is the theme of The Finest Hours: you have to go out, but you don’t have to come back. For Boatswain’s Mate Bernie Webber of the Chatham, Massachusetts, Coast Guard Station, the motto took on a tone of potential tragedy on a winter’s night in 1952. He had reported for duty intent on honoring the Coastie custom of requesting permission to marry. But before he had the opportunity to broach the issue with his CO, the station’s skipper ordered him and a three-man crew to cross the bar and attempt to rescue the surviving crew of the oil tanker Pendleton.
As Webber (Chris Pine) and his mates battle their way over the treacherous bar, the Pendleton stern half, separated from the rest of the vessel when it was split in two by a terrifying nor’easter, fight their own battle to keep the hulk afloat. Led by the ship’s chief engineer (Casey Affleck), the 32 surviving sailors rig a tiller and manage to ground themselves on a shoal. Then, in a case of the blind leading the blind, the Coast Guardsmen, who have been stripped by the ferocious weather of their compass, stumble on the teetering hulk and do their darndest to pack 32 more mariners onto a 12-man vessel.
Having admitted I enlisted in the Coast Guard to avoid the nasty little war America was fighting in Southeast Asia, I may as well also admit that what I love most about the movies is experiencing virtually (and safely) what I would never dare do in real life. Offered by Disney in 3-D, The Finest Hours was this former public information officer’s unique opportunity to finally feel what it might have been like to be out there. The rain and snow looked like it was falling in the theater, as I road up and slammed down in the roiling waves with Bernie and the boys. For me it was a bit of thrill, if only a cheap thrill.
By way of an epilogue, I might note how the Coast Guard’s mission has evolved with the changing times. In Bernie Webber’s day, the service was still an arm of the U.S. Treasury Department, having begun its life as the Revenue Cutter Service. But, in fact, Webber’s lighthouse and life saving wing of the organization traced its roots to the U.S. Life Saving Service. And by the time I signed up in ’69, the amalgamated military organization was operating under the Secretary of Transportation.
But, despite its primarily peacetime missions, the Coast Guard has served in every American war. The War on Terror has been no exception. When, after 9/ll, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard was incorporated into this new, cabinet-level federal entity. Already having added the War on Drugs to its portfolio, the Guard’s transition to counter-terrorism probably wasn’t as dramatic a move as it otherwise might have been. Bernie Webber lived to see all these changes to his beloved service, since he lived into his early eighties, not passing away until 2009, after living for 58 years with the woman he intended on that fateful February day in 1952 to seek his CO’s permission to marry.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of peril.
Dr. Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer, consultant and writer, whose webpage is https://jamescastagnera.wordpress.com/. His most recent book is Handbook for Student Law for Higher Education Administrators (Revised Edition 2014).