Book Review: The Finest Hours by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman

Topic & Content

Published in 2009, this is yet another history of the Fort Mercer and Pendleton disasters, which were two T2 tankers that split in half off the coast of Cape Cod Massachusetts during a storm in February of 1952. The book is organized as follows:

Part OnePart Two
Ch. 1: Chatham Lifeboat StationCh. 13: The Mercer‘s Bow Capsizes
Ch. 2: The PendletonCh. 14: A Maneuver for the Ages
Ch. 3: The Fort MercerCh. 15: Tuesday at Chatham Station
Ch. 4: “It Can’t Be True”Ch. 16: Thirteen Men Still on Board
Ch. 5: “You Got to Take the 36500 Out”Ch. 17: Search for the Pendleton Bow
Ch. 6: Blowout at Chatham BarPart Three
Ch. 7: Chatham MobilizesCh. 18: The Inquiry
Ch. 8: “He Came to the Surface Floating”Ch. 19: Being Labeled a Hero Can Be a Burden
Ch. 9: Losing All Hope: On Board the Pendleton SternCh. 20: Tanker Trouble
Ch. 10: All but One: The Rescue of the Pendleton SternCh. 21: Beyond the Rescue
Ch. 11: Thirty-six Men in a Thirty-six foot BoatCh. 22: The Restoration
Ch. 12: Pandemonium in ChathamEpilogue: They Were Young Once

The Pendleton rescue by Bernie Webber, his crew, and the motor lifeboat CG-36500 have been immortalized in the film, The Finest Hours which is based on this book. Unlike the film, however, this book also covers the rescue of Fort Mercer. Also, note that this is specifically a review of the book and not the film…I may do a review of the film at a future date.

Undoubtedly, I’ll be comparing this book with Robert Frump’s Two Tankers Down (which I previously reviewed). It covers the exact same topic and contains much of the same information. So why bother reading both? The main difference is in the writing and how Tougias and Sherman incorporate more personal accounts and factoids into the narrative. Unlike Frump’s book, which takes a much more “operational perspective,” so to speak, The Finest Hours looks at the disaster from a more “human perspective” and includes more personal recollections from the people involved.

Thesis

This book has no identifiable thesis.

Author’s Background

Michael Tougias is the author of some 30 books covering topics on history and maritime history. He is also a motivational and leadership speaker. Casey Sherman is an author, journalist, and screenwriter. In addition to contributing articles to Esquire, The Washington Post, and Boston Magazine, he has also authored more than seven non-fiction books, mostly on true crime.

Critical Observations

Positives

One interesting thing is the fact that this book was published only a year after Frump’s Two Tankers Down. Both books cover the exact same events, yet for whatever reason, this book was chosen to be adapted into a film. I can only conjecture that the reason for this was because the authors have more connections with the entertainment industry and also because the writing is more informal and less academic than Frump’s style of writing.

In terms of content, there’s not much to discuss since this book effectively echoes Frumps. One advantage this book does have over the former is that it incorporates a larger variety of sources and material into the narrative. The authors seemed to have taken greater strides to do more up-to-date research and contacted many of the survivors to get their stories later in life. Thankfully they did because Bernie Webber would pass away the same year this book was published. Richard Livesey passed away in 2007 and Ervin Maske in 2003. Only Andy Fitzgerald lived to see the book turned into a film. He passed away in 2018. Thankfully, this book does go into more detail about the later careers and lives of the survivors and participants, rather than just that of Bernie Webber.

This book does a good job of including other tidbits of information about the events and the people that Frump’s book doesn’t. Different, and in some ways more details, are given about the rescue efforts involving the Fort Mercer and the bow section of the Pendleton. At the very least, it helps to flesh out the story a bit more. If you’re a reader who’s more interested in personal narratives, then this book will probably appeal to you more. Additionally, the writing is a bit more casual and easy to pick up.

Negatives

Unlike Two Tankers Down, this book is far more oriented toward the popular history market. Most notably, the book contains no footnotes or endnotes. As a result, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to tell exactly where information in the book came from based solely on the bibliography.

I noted a few discrepancies between Frump’s book and this book with the particulars regarding the rescues. For example, Frump notes that David Brown was the last man off the Pendleton‘s stern section, whereas Tougias and Sherman write that that was actually Raymond Sybert. Other differing details include the death of George “Tiny” Meyers and the officer in charge of Yakutat‘s surfboat (Ens. William Kiley) that assisted in the rescue from the Fort Mercer‘s bow. Another odd discrepancy is the designation of the lifeboat that was skippered by Donald Bangs. Tougias and Sherman write that he used the CG-36383, whereas Frump writes that its number was either CG-36850 or CG-36580. At least Tougias and Sherman were consistent in which number it was. In this case, I think Frump got the numbers mixed up. Finding differences in details such as these in separate sources is common when researching historical events, but it also demonstrates why citations are so important in attributing information. To that end, I’m a bit more apt to believe in (most of) Frump’s version given that he actually included citations (even if his citations aren’t the most detailed).

In some ways, I’m also suspicious of the writing given the way it reads. While Tougias and Sherman have listed a good assortment of primary and secondary sources in their bibliography, some of the details in the book stretch my suspension of disbelief. The narrative will occasionally go into the thoughts of the participants in these events. As a result, like several other books I’ve read, I couldn’t help but wonder, “how could the authors possibly know what these people were thinking at that exact moment in time?” I mean, were the primary sources so detailed that the participants’ thoughts were also recorded? Therefore, I suspect that the authors are occasionally guilty of “putting words in people’s mouths,” so to speak. The aforementioned lack of citations makes it hard to corroborate these kinds of details.

A final issue I have is that the narrative occasionally goes off on tangents to discuss some historical event in order to make an analogy to the Pendleton and Fort Mercer rescues. These are interesting to a degree, but they aren’t terribly relevant and don’t always advance our understanding of the events under discussion.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

Ultimately, while I prefer Frump’s Two Tankers Down for its better historiography, I do feel that Tougias and Sherman’s The Finest Hours still has a lot to offer. My criticisms are simply different. Focusing more on personal stories, this book is easier and quicker to read. While some of the details relating to people’s thoughts are a bit suspect, the book offers a more well-rounded view of the participants involved in these events. Either way, both books cover the same events and discuss them through slightly different lenses. Read this book if you prefer a more human perspective.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (Good. Borrow from a library.)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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