Atwood House Benefit Focuses On Stories About 'The Finest Hours'

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local History

Don St. Pierre with the reproduction of the front-end compartment of the CG36500 that he built which is on display at the Atwood House Museum. He will give tours of the exhibit during a special benefit at the museum Sunday. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – What really happened on Feb. 18, 1952?

While the book and movie of the Pendleton rescue, “The Finest Hours,” tells the story of how a four-man Coast Guard crew from Chatham saved 32 men from a sinking tanker off the town's coast, like any historical event, there's always a lot more to tell.

At the Chatham Historical Society's Atwood House Museum Sunday, those other stories of the CG36500 and the Pendleton will be told though a panel discussion, “insider tour,” and an exclusive documentary this Sunday, Sept. 25.

The focus of the event, called "Chatham Remembers," a benefit for the society, is on what else happened in town that evening. Those who were there, or whose family members were there, will tell stories about how the town reacted to the historic rescue, before, during and after Bernie Webber and his crew miraculously returned to the fish pier with all but one of the men who had been stranded on the stern end of the Pendleton when it ran aground due east of Chatham in a fierce blizzard.

Following the best-selling book and hit Disney film, the story told in “The Finest Hours” is well known: how Webber and three other Coast Guardsmen went out in the 36-foot CG36500, crossed heavy seas over the Chatham Bar and, without a compass, found the wreck of the tanker, and were able to shoehorn the 32 Pendleton survivors into a boat designed to hold 12 people. It's still considered the greatest small boat rescue in the history of the Coast Guard.

But what was going on in town while the rescue was taking place? The film tells a largely fictionalized story focusing on Webber's bride-to-be (they were actually married at the time) agonizing over whether he'll make it back to shore. In reality, Miriam Webber was ill and home in bed that night. But townspeople, who were holding a town meeting at the time, mobilized to be ready if and when the CG36500 returned to port.

“It's about the boat, the town, the people,” said Phyllis Nickerson Power, a member of the historical society's board of trustees who organized the event with Ginny Nickerson.

Recalling that night will be Betsy Nickerson, whose father, David, was chief of police; Ben Goodspeed, whose father was the fire chief; Nancy Ryder, whose father David was a selectman; Don St. Pierre, who helped restore the CG36500 and serves as one of its two coxswains; and Patty Hamilton, Bernie and Miriam Webber's daughter.

“It's going to be kind of like an old fashioned gam session,” said Nickerson Power.

St. Pierre will also provide attendees with an “insider tour” of the museum's exhibit dedicated to the rescue. Its centerpiece is a full-size reproduction of the front-end compartment of the CG36500, which helps demonstrate how difficult it was to get 32 men into the small space. St. Pierre and Ron Flechtner built the compartment out of plywood and masonite in his garage, disassembled it and then rebuilt it at the Atwood House.

“People realize there ain't much room in there,” St. Pierre said.

Inside the compartment, a video put together by the Orleans Historical Society, which owns the CG36500, and the Coast Guard Museum tells the story of the rescue.

Perhaps the highlight of the event is the screening of a 14-minute documentary with footage culled from interviews done by Disney for a featurette included on “The Finest Hours” DVD. This version is different than the one that appears on the DVD; that short film includes comments by the filmmakers and book authors; for this special cut, those have been removed and extended interviews with a number of local residents were added.

A crew from Disney filmed the interviews in August 2015 and went pretty deep into the events of the evening. They talked to Jane Nickerson, whose daughter was born that night; Nickerson Power's mother Frances recalls watching the stern section of the Pendleton float by through her kitchen window; Bob Ryder, Richard Ryder and St. Pierre are also interviewed.

“More time is spent on them than the movie people” in the special version being shown at the Atwood House, Nickerson Power said.

There will be two showings of the film on Sunday, at 4 and 6 p.m. Tickets for the event are $30 per person, and can be reserved by emailing kwright.atwood@gmail.com.