Scribner, 2007, 197 pages
In the winter of 1952, New England was battered by the most brutal nor'easter in years. As the weather wreaked havoc on land, the freezing Atlantic became a wind-whipped zone of peril, setting the stage for one of the most heroic rescue stories ever lived.
On February 18, while the storm raged, two oil tankers, the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer, were in the same horrifying predicament. Built with "dirty steel," and not prepared to withstand such ferocious seas, both tankers split in two, leaving the dozens of men on board utterly at the Atlantic's mercy. The Finest Hours is the gripping, true story of the valiant attempt to rescue the souls huddling inside the broken halves of the two ships.
The spellbinding tale is overflowing with breathtaking scenes, as boats capsize, bows and sterns crash into one another, and men hurl themselves into the raging sea in a terrifying battle for survival.
Not all of the 84 men caught at sea in the midst of that brutal storm survived, but considering the odds, it's a miracle - and a testament to their bravery - that any at all came home to tell their tales.
I wanted this book to be more interesting than it was. I usually enjoy these tales of harrowing survival in hostile environments, whether it be on the slopes of Mount Everest, the wilds of Alaska, or the Arctic seas. The Finest Hours is about four Coast Guardsmen who ventured out into a New England storm in 1952 to save the crews of two tankers that cracked up in the waves.
It is a harrowing and heroic story, but it was also a fairly straightforward one. The Pendleton and the Fort Mercer were both old ships built with "dirty steel," and failed to withstand the battering of an Atlantic storm. The Coast Guard sent a pair of 36-foot lifeboats out to rescue the crewmen who were aboard the floundering vessels. With surging waves and icy water tossing them around, they only managed to save some of the sailors — others died trying to jump from one deck to another, or falling into the waves and being unable to reach rescue. It traumatized some of the survivors, who were all given medals afterwards and became media darlings in the early television age.
But there isn't much more to the story — it was basically two ships in distress and the Coast Guard doing its job. The author pads this short book with a bit of history about the Coast Guard, and follows up on what happened to the survivors afterwards, but while a worthy story, it just wasn't as memorable as Shackleton's journey or one of Jon Krakauer's books.
My complete list of book reviews.