On Sunday, Martha’s Vineyard expressed its appreciation and respect for the women and men who serve at Coast Guard Station Menemsha, and gave a nod to the Island’s former Coasties — the community took them out to the movies.
The crewmen and women and their family members, along with Islanders who had served in the Coast Guard, attended a special sold-out screening of “The Finest Hours” at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, as guests of The Martha’s Vineyard Times, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 11-9, and the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby committee.
The Disney film tells the story of what is considered the most daring small-boat sea rescue in Coast Guard history. On Feb. 18, 1952, a crew of volunteers from Chatham Coast Guard Station set out to assist in the rescue of crewmen from one of two tankers that had split in half off the coast of Cape Cod.
Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class (BSM1) Bernard “Bernie” Webber, Junior Engineer Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey, and Seaman Irving Maske, who was not even assigned to the station, headed out in a 36-foot motorized lifeboat, CG-36500, to the stricken oil tanker SS Fort Mercer during a raging nor’easter.
The Film Center theater rumbled with the sounds of their harrowing trip across the treacherous crashing waves of the Chatham bar and through huge seas. Despite a smashed windshield and the loss of the boat’s compass, Bernie Webber and his crew rescued 32 of 33 men from the stern of the Pendleton, in a lifeboat designed to carry four, plus up to 12 people.
“The Finest Hours” is based on a book by the same title by co-authors Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman.
Following the film, several former members of the Coast Guard said that watching the film brought back memories of the camaraderie, excitement, and sense of service they experienced while in the military.
The buzz beforehand
At a reception in the Film Center lobby prior to the screening, active-duty and former Coast Guardsmen said the rescue depicted in the movie remains a powerful and unforgotten legacy.
“This is a story we all know; it’s part of our history, so it’s really cool for us to be here,” BSM2 Ryan Rossi, a certified heavy-weather coxswain who grew up in Chilmark and graduated from the regional high school, said. He and his wife Ellen, a native of Oak Bluffs, returned to the Island last April with their infant daughter for his assignment to Station Menemsha.
Rear Admiral Mary Landry, USCG (Retd.) and her husband Mark Landry, a retired Coast Guard captain, traveled from Belmont to attend the screening with Captain John Kondratowicz, commander of Sector Southeastern New England.
Admiral Landry said the present and past came to mind as she spoke with Station Menemsha crew members earlier in the day. “When you think that this movie is about events that took place in 1952, and then to see the next generation coming along, it’s exciting,” Admiral Landry said.
Captain Kondratowicz noted the bond between the Coast Guard and the Island. “Martha’s Vineyard is a waterfront community, and whether it’s fishermen, whether it’s the ferry service of the Steamship Authority — that tie to the Coast Guard is so tight,” he said. “We do everything when it comes to the mariners, and we do our jobs so others can do theirs. And it’s good, because no matter where we go, we live in the community we serve.”
The fact that the guest list included 14 former members of the community struck a note. “It’s amazing the number of people who are in the Coast Guard, or have retired from the Coast Guard that live here, or have been stationed here,” he added.
One of those is Susan Larsen of Chilmark, the first woman petty officer and first woman coxswain to serve at Station Menemsha, where she was stationed from 1986 to 1989. She said she was drawn to Sunday’s screening because of her interest in CG-36500. She first saw the boat in Chatham, before she graduated from college, and enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1985.
Guests of honor
On Sunday, the front section of the theater was a sea of blue. Organizers had purposely seated the Station Menemsha crew and family members together as the guests of honor.
“In many ways Station Menemsha, small and isolated, is not unlike the Chatham station,” Times editor Nelson Sigelman said in opening remarks before the screening.
Mr. Sigelman noted that Islanders, particularly those who spend any time on the water, have a special appreciation for the Coast Guard that is missing from many mainland communities.
“We know it’s not easy sometimes to be here, but in fair weather and foul, you people are always there, like your motto, ‘Semper Paratus,’ always ready,” he said.
Although all of the crew was invited, Mr. Sigelman pointed out that some had to remain behind on duty at Station Menemsha. He asked those present and their family members to stand, to the audience’s applause. “Because as family members, as any of the Coast Guardsmen and women will tell you, they also serve along with their husbands and wives,” he said.
Questions and answers
At the movie’s conclusion, Capt. Kondratowicz and BMCS Robert Riemer, Officer in Charge, Station Menemsha, took to the stage to answer audience questions.
As part of the untold story, Captain Kondratowicz noted that the Coast Guard awarded Mr. Webber the Gold Lifesaving Medal, but he refused to accept it unless each of the other three crew members received it: “He made sure everybody received the Lifesaving Medal before he did.”
Referring to one scene in the movie, a member of the audience asked, “Would you post a guy in the forward hatch of a motorized lifeboat, like they did in the movie?”
“Not really — there were a lot of things we wouldn’t do,” Senior Chief Riemer said with a laugh. “And if I see any of you guys taking your life jackets off or turning your radio off, we’ll have some words,” he added, with a mock scowl, to his crew.
Ned Casey of Edgartown, who served in the Coast Guard 42 years ago at Station Menemsha, said watching the movie reminded him of the Coast Guard’s purpose and what it’s all about when the calls come in.
“You never really know what’s going to happen when you’re going out,” Mr. Casey said. “And the crew that’s up in Menemsha now, I’m still on the water, and I just thank you for your service. Thank you for being here for us.”
The question and answer session wrapped up with a comment from former Coast Guardsman Ken Ivory of Oak Bluffs.
“You mentioned the community on Martha’s Vineyard, and to the young men and women down there in the seats, I just want to give you a little warning,” Mr. Ivory said. “When you serve on Martha’s Vineyard, you may be here the rest of your life.”
He asked all those who had previously served at Station Menemsha to stand up. The audience applauded as 15 or so men and women, scattered around the theater, stood up.
Senior Chief Riemer said, “Thanks for your legacy, and for giving us something to look up to — you guys were awesome.”