The Finest Hours is the latest action movie from Disney, and as you can see from the trailer, it’s a pretty big deal. In addition to featuring an impressive starring cast, the film is being presented in three 3D formats giving audiences a “you are there” feeling. For one man watching the movie, he was.
Andy Fitzgerald is the last remaining member of the four Coast Guardsmen featured in the film. While filming the movie inside an old building at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, the very same spot where much of The Finest Hours takes place, Fitzgerald was on hand to relive the experience that happened 64 years earlier.
“I’ve never forgotten it,” Fitzgerald told The Boston Globe. “I can remember it like it was yesterday.”
Other than Fitzgerald, not many people are aware of the story. Fortunately, all was chronicled and written down by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias for the non-fiction book, The Finest Hours, published in 2010.
In feels like a bizarre Hollywood storyline, two large tanker ships, the SS Pendleton and the SS Fort Mercer, were cut in two during a winter storm in 1952 off the coast of Massachusetts. Crew members aboard these ships had just two hours before their ships would sink. The movie version of The Finest Hours focuses on the rescue of the members of the Pendleton.
Considering everything, it was a rescue that shouldn’t have been made possible and yet, the event is now known as the greatest small boat rescue in the Coast Guard’s history. On that fateful night, four men volunteered for the job: Bernard C. Webber, Richard P. Livese, Ervin E. Mask, and Fitzgerald himself. The four were ill-equipped riding in a 36-foot motorized life boat without knowing for sure if they would make it back alive.
“The motto of the Coast Guard at that time was, ‘You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.’ It was our job,” says Fitzgerald.
On the way to finding the Pendleton, they were hit with a wave that took out their compass as well as the boat’s windshield. Fortunately, they still had their emergency gear. If it wasn’t for that, they might have missed the ship altogether or worse, slammed right into it. The crew of the Pendleton had to lower themselves down a rope ladder to reach the little boat. With the waves and wind, that was a harrowing task in itself. Of the 33 shipmates on board waiting to be rescued, only one, George “Tiny” Myers, perished. Sadly, he was struck by both vessels after falling from the ladder. Amazingly, all 36 men made it back to shore on a boat that was meant to hold eight men without a compass though the inky blackness of night.
Gloria Fitzgerald married Andy in 1956, four years after the incident. It wasn’t until after they were married that Gloria learned of this amazing story.
“He doesn’t consider himself a hero to this day. He’d say, ‘It was three hours of work that we were supposed to do.'”
While on set, the Fitzgeralds met Kyle Gallner, the actor portraying Andy in The Finest Hours. It was reported that Fitzgerald thanked the actor for working so hard in the cold and wet conditions of the sound stage. “We admire the actors, but they almost seem to admire us,” said Fitzgerald. The humility is not lost on Gallner.
“These guys were a totally different breed,” Gallner said. “I think it’s a good thing to show real-life heroes and the strength of the human spirit. It’s nice to have parts like this, where you can show regular people doing amazing things.”
The Finest Hours also stars Chris Pine as Bernard C. Webber, Ben Foster as Richard P. Livese, and John Magaro as Ervin E. Mask. The movie opens in theaters nationwide on January 29, 2016.
[Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures]