Sea stories

Sam Smith – Sometime in the next few months, Disney plans to release a movie – Finest Hours – about one of the most extraordinary Coast Guard rescues ever. It will be based on a book of the same title.

The reason this is of interest to me was that I served as aide to a Coast Guard captain who had played a key role coordinating the rescue, He was  district commander and I was public information officer for the Second Coast Guard District in St. Louis. I remember Captain Oliver Peterson greeting his staff with the words, “I just have two questions: where do I hang my hat and who’s the son of a bitch I have to watch out for?”

Peterson was a genial boss even if he didn’t seem quite certain of what a public information officer was meant to do or why he had one. He was a man of action, not of words. He had once taken the Coast Guard cutter Eastwind to within 442 nautical miles of the North Pole, a record for a surface ship at the time.

Captain Peterson had also in 1952 helped direct the rescue of 70 of the 84 tanker crew members by several Coast Guard ships during a violent winter storm,. When the first call came, a CG plane flew to the location to guide the rescue ships in. The Eastwind, arriving on the scene, spotted part of a tanker and called the plane on the radio. We see the ship, the radioman said, but we don’t see you. The plane’s crew replied that they could see the tanker but not the Eastwind.  It took some time before ship and plane realized they were looking at two different tankers — identical in class and identical in fate — both having broken in two in the gale.

A smaller rescue craft had a similar experience. Its crew, sent to rescue those on the Fort Mercer, moved to the bow only to see the name Pendleton on it.  The story goes on from there, leading to the book and film, a mixture of courage and intelligence including at one point a rescue ship’s captain ordering his crew to being their mattresses up to the fantail, so he could back into the tanker and have its crew jump off


The two tankers wrecked in the same storm.
At top the Ft Mercer, below the Pendleton.

I was later transferred to the Coast Guard Cutter Spar in Bristol RI, where I was operations officer and navigator. The Coast Guard wasn’t well funded in those days and the 1920s-built 125 foot search & rescue vessel at Woods Hole wasn’t considered safe enough to send out when there was more than a small craft weather advisory (about 35 mph max). So we took over the bad  weather search & rescue role which meant sometimes traveling through the very same area and in similar weather to that which had marked the tanker disaster. Nothing heroic occurred on any of our ventures unless you include most of a crew doing their job while wanting to throw up as the vessel rolled 30-40 degrees. But just realizing the story lurking behind where you were gave one pause as you rocked ahead. And I have never been with a bunch of guys with whom I felt so comfortable during a rough time. Which, I had learned, was part what the Coast Guard was all about.


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