It’s a riveting dramatization of what’s thought to be the most daring and dangerous small boat rescue in the history of the United States Coast Guard. It all happened back on February 18, 1952 off the coast of Cape Cod during a horrific Nor’easter when 60-70-foot waves sank two ships. After boats had been sent to help the first distressed ship, it was discovered that the Pendleton (a 500-foot, 10,000-ton oil tanker) had literally split in half in the raging waters. Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber, who was only 24-years old, and three other men (who were all younger, less experienced, and hadn’t previously trained together) were sent out on the boat known as the 36-500 to “cross the bar”
and attempt to rescue 33 men who were stranded on the back half of the Pendleton. I remember reading about this daring rescue at the Maritime Museum on Cape Cod, which has been nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of some 3,000 shipwrecks off her coast. According to the TIME magazine article recounting this event, “Tougias and Sherman describe the bar as ‘a collection of ever-shifting shoals with flood currents carrying ocean waves that can splinter small boats in a matter of seconds…just in normal weather’.” Did they survive? Well, I won’t give the ending away, but I will tell you I’ve read that Bernie’s courtship went just about like it did in the movie, although the timing was different, and Miriam wasn’t really a busybody. Furthermore, it is true that the horrific storm really did tear out the compass, shatter the windshield, knock out the engine twice, and disable the radio so that they basically had no help or backup. Although it doesn’t come out in the movie, Bernie Webber was the son of a minister who was said to have “faith from above” that night. According to a CBS news report, one of the other sailors recalled of Bernie: “He said that God was on our side.” I also read that they didn’t sing a sailor’s song to comfort themselves; they were singing, “Rock of Ages” as they approached the bar:
“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
“Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die!
“While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgement throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.”
—Augustus Montague Toplady, 1763 “Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer. From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:1-2).
(If you’re interested in reading more, the complete story is written in Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman’s 2010 book, The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue.)
What about you? Are you ready to “cross the bar?”