FAIRHAVEN – The date was Feb. 18, 1952. The SouthCoast was battling a “blinding blizzard that left 8½ inches of snow and crippled transportation,” according to the following day’s issue of The standard times.
“Hundreds of automobiles were stuck in deep snow, and snowdrifts and highways were covered in a hard layer of snow and ice, making driving dangerous,” reads the article.
Meanwhile, few still knew that relatively nearby there were 84 men at sea fighting for their lives, in what a related article from February 19, 1952 Normal hours called “Cape Cod’s worst maritime disaster since World War II”.
That morning, a tanker – the Pendleton, believed to be carrying 41 men – split in two off Cape Cod; and about 27 miles away, another tanker — the Fort Mercer, with its 43 men — shared the same fate.
In the end, a total of 70 people were rescued by the Coast Guard from the two wrecks, and 14 died, according to Michael Tougias, co-author of The Finest Hours: The True Story of the US Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue. “. “, released in 2009 and later adapted by Disney into a 2016 feature film of the same title.
While the rescues at both sites were highly praised, the more condensed action of the Pendleton rescues – which takes place over hours instead of days for Fort Mercer – eventually took center stage, with the team of four brave rescuers who went to extraordinary lengths to save what men they could with the help of a 36-foot motorized lifeboat.
“They had close calls,” Tougias said of the rescuers’ journey over the particularly difficult Chatham Bar, with its surroundings dubbed “the Graveyard of the Atlantic”. “It’s a shallow area where these big rollers go in and explode when they break. So you have big 35-foot waves breaking on this thing that’s only 36 feet.”
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Among the four rescuers was Richard Livesey of Fairhaven, a 22-year-old Coast Guard sailor stationed in Chatham. As Tougias describes in “The Finest Hours”, Livesey – who had volunteered to go to the rescue that day – “seemed to have salt water running through his veins”.
“His father had been in the navy for over 20 years and Richard wanted to carry on the tradition of sailors,” Tougias said.
According The Standard Times’ Article from February 19, 1952, a 38-year-old New Bedford man named Samuel Barboza, of 28 Hillman St., was among those aboard Fort Mercer at the time of the incident. Although the article does not specify whether he was among those rescued, an obituary available online of his wife, Palmira Barboza – who is named in the article – notes that he died in 1987.
From faded glory to vibrant inspiration
While the Pendleton and Fort Mercer rescues captured public attention at the time and continued to make headlines for the next several years, according to Tougias, the story would eventually fade from public consciousness.
In fact, had it not been for Tougias’ deep dive into old records and reports, he himself would not have been aware of the events that took place a few years before his birth. Having already written several books on real life survival and rescue events, he was in research mode looking for his next book topic when he came across some documentation from that day.
“I saw a Coast Guard accident report on this and realized, well, this is probably the biggest rescue in Coast Guard history and it happened here in Cape Cod,” he said. “Of course at the time there was no internet, so I checked with all the libraries and there was no book about it.”
With this discovery in hand, Tougias worked with co-author Casey Sherman on “The Finest Hours,” continuing to scour the archives and research key sources. One of the surviving rescuers Tougias was able to reach was Richard Livesey.
“Richard was living in Florida at the time and I remember him saying, wow, nobody asked me for a while,” Tougias said of when he went to Livesey for the interview circa 2002. “There was a whole lot of interest when it first happened. They were on the front pages of newspapers across the country, but after it died down, he didn’t talk about it much .
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A loyal friend
During their conversation, Tougias says Livesey explained that choosing to participate in the rescue was largely motivated by his loyalty to his close friend and Coast Guard comrade Bernie Webber, a 24-year-old boatswain who ran the team that day. “I remember him (Livesey) saying he felt obligated to Bernie,” Tougias said. “He couldn’t imagine letting his friend possibly date someone who wasn’t as qualified. He had been stationed there for a while, so he thought, I have to do this for Bernie.”
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Sadly, Tougias said Livesy – who died in 2007 – would not live to see the finished product, with ‘Finest Hours’ released in 2009. However, Tougias says he feels lucky to have the chance to meet those he he may have met before. they’ve been through, and also to connect with some members of the lifeguard family on a few occasions, most notably in 2016 during the Hollywood premiere of the film adaptation, starring Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster and Eric Bana as as four crew members.
Another occasion that brought many surviving family members together in one place occurred several years earlier at the funeral of Webber, who died in 2009 around the time “The Finest Hours” was released.
During his interviews with Webber – who, according to Tougias, played a particularly active role in the development of the book as a fact-checker – the rescue team leader shared that his friend Livesey’s willingness to put himself online had saved him from a difficult position. as a young leader.
“He (Webber) said, I was lucky that Richard volunteered because I didn’t want to choose anyone; I thought it was a suicide mission and whoever I chose wasn’t going to be alive by the end of the night,” Tougias recalled.
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According to a Cape Cod Times article, Pendleton’s last surviving lifeguard, Andy Fitzgerald, died in 2018 at the age of 86. He was 20 and an engineer at the time of the rescue – the youngest member of the team. The other member was sailor Ervin Maske, who was 23 at the time and died in 2003 at age 74, according to the US Coast Guard Lightship Sailors Association International.
The secrets of being a hero
Tougias says the Pendleton rescuers, along with others who have triumphed in similar situations, will be covered in his forthcoming book, “Extreme Survival”, which examines a number of perilous real-life survival/rescue situations, with an un special emphasis on the commonalities he noticed between people who faced seemingly impossible odds.
“In interviewing people who have been in these kinds of situations, I started to see these patterns of what really good survivors and rescuers tend to have in common, the techniques they used to get through these events, and how it could help all of us when we face adversity,” Tougias said, noting that he’s looked at hundreds of such cases between direct interviews and research. “When I interview them, they don’t never try to hide the fact that they were afraid. And when I asked them, ‘How do you deal with this fear?’ they would say just think about your next task. Don’t look too far down the road or it will overwhelm you.
“It’s not about not being afraid, it’s about not being paralyzed by it and still being able to think clearly and make good decisions despite that fear.”
Tougias, who is the author of 30 books for adults and eight for young adults, mentioned that the 1952 Coast Guard rescues weren’t the only SouthCoast connection he encountered while researching d writing, mentioning “Fatal Forecast: An Incredible True Tale of Disaster and Survival at Sea”, about a Westport man, Grant Moore, who in November 1980 went out in his own boat to rescue lobsters caught in the a storm.
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When Tougias makes his presentation on ‘The Finest Hours’ on Monday at Fairhaven Town Hall, he says he hopes his message about the true nature of heroism gets through as he walks the audience through the events. of February 18, 1952.
“I never just talk about an author – I visually guide the viewer through the events,” Tougias said of what attendees can expect. “I also want to talk about why Bernie felt like becoming America’s hero at that time became a burden, which is one of those things that surprised me.”
But if nothing else, says Tougias, as he guides people through his findings, he hopes he can inspire them to ask themselves: “What would I have done?