Known to friends as Bernie, Webber was a Merchant Marine veteran during the Second World War and subsequently joined the Coast Guard in 1946, where he became a Boatswain’s Mate First Class stationed in Chatham, Massachusetts. He is known for his leading the rescue operation that saved the lives of over 30 crew members of the SS Pendleton.
His crew included Engineman Third Class Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey and Seaman Ervin Maske.
On February 18, 1952, during a severe storm (or “nor’easter”) off the coast of Massachusetts, the SS Pendleton was en route from New Orleans to Boston with a hull full of 122,000 barrels of kerosene and heating oil.
At approximately 5:50 a.m., the ship split in two following a series of explosions. The bow was left without power and went down with the Captain and seven crew members – all of whom perished – about 10 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. In the stern were 33 men, including Chief Engineer Raymond Sybert, who took charge. Earlier that evening, another tanker, the Ft. Mercer had also split in two just up the coast and the Coast Guard at first only knew about that shipwreck – several men were sent out to rescue those sailors.
When the Coast Guard learned of the second shipwreck, Webber quickly chose three of the remaining men to be his crew and headed out in a freezing winter storm at the helm of a CG-36500 motorboat to rescue the remaining sailors from the Pendleton. He asked his neighbor to call his wife, Miriam, to let her know where he was going.
Webber maneuvered the 36-foot lifeboat under the stern, where the entirety of the crew were trapped. Each man, one by one, jumped into the water and were pulled into the lifeboat, until it came to George “Tiny” Myers, the largest man on the crew at 300 pounds.
With 32 men already in the Coast Guard boat, which was designed to safely hold eight people, Tiny had waited until he’d helped his fellow crewmen off the ship, then jumped and hit the water. Just at that moment, a huge wave pushed the CG-36500 forward, slamming Tiny into the Pendleton. He was the only casualty of the 33 crew members. The rest were brought back to shore and the rescue mission is considered one of the greatest in U.S. Coast Guard history.
Webber, Fitzgerald, Livesey and Maske were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for their heroics.
Webber died on January 24, 2009 at the age of 80. The Sentinel class-cutter, the first of its kind, USCGC Bernard C. Webber was named in Webber’s honor and launched in April 2011.
Released in 2016, the Disney movie The Finest Hours accurately depicts the rescue mission. However, there were a few liberties made to enhance the romantic aspects. At the beginning of the film, Webber meets Miriam and four months later, they are engaged. When the rescue mission departs, they are not yet married in the movie, although they were in real life.
The movie stars Chris Pine as Bernie Webber, Holliday Grainger as Miriam, Casey Affleck as Raymond Sybert, Ben Foster as Richard Livesey, John Magaro as Ervin Maske, Abraham Benrubi as Tiny Myers and Kyle Gallner as Andy Fitzgerald. When watching filming of the movie in 2014, Mr. Fitzgerald, then 83, told The Boston Globe: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back. It was our job.” ~Shelby Morton and Alexandra Heilbron