“The Finest Hours” on a “Serial Sinker”

By Larry Clinton

The new movie, “The Finest Hours,” is based on a real-life rescue that took place in February 1952, when two oil tankers broke apart during a nor’easter off the coast of Cape Cod. The ships were T 2 tankers, like those hastily built at Marinship here in Sausalito during WWII.

Marinship was best known for turning out transport vessels called Liberty ships, at a record pace (one each week, at peak). But in 1943, Marinship President Ken Bechtel announced: “We have set a high record at Marinship on Liberty ships. That's why the Maritime Commission has asked us for 22 tankers. Frankly, this is not an easy goal. But I am convinced we can do it if we all work together.”

T 2 tanker underway during WWII.
Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

The Marin-er, an in-house magazine published by the Marinship Employee Relations Division, boasted: “If our tankers are built on time, and sent into the war service on a critical front, they can swing the tide of battle in favor of the United Nations. If our tankers fail to show up ... if they are late . . . our gallant troops are helpless without fuel.” As a rallying cry for Marinship workers, the publication’s editors added this exhortation: “Day by day, week by week, month by month throughout 1943 we must work so that, by the end of the year, we will have delivered at least 22 tankers into Uncle Sam's service, to join the Victory Fleet. Our nation is counting on us!”

Many T2 tankers served well, but others became known as “serial sinkers” for their tendency to snap in half during cold weather.  In the book from which the movie takes its title, authors Michael J. Tougias, and Casey Sherman state that trouble with this class of ship dated back to January, 1943, “when the Schenectady split in halt while still at the dock! The ship had just completed its sea trials and had returned to port at Swan Island, Oregon, when suddenly she cracked just aft of the bridge superstructure.”

The 503-foot ship featured in the movie, the Pendelton, had been built quickly for the war effort, like the Schenectady. Its “strong outward appearance concealed the subpar welding methods used in its construction,” claim the authors, who also point out: “As in many T 2 tankers built during that era, the hull of the Pendleton was most likely put together with ‘dirty steel or ‘tired iron,’ in other words steel weakened by excess sulfur content.  In fact, the Pendleton had sustained a three-way fracture in the bulkhead between number 4 starboard and center tanks just one year before the tragedy depicted in the movie. The three-way fracture had never been repaired.  Amazingly, the Pendleton passed its last Coast Guard inspection on January 9, 1952 in Jacksonville, Florida with flying colors.”

The movie retells the story of the sea rescue that took place in conditions at least as fierce as the one immortalized in “The Perfect Storm.” New York Times critic Charles McGrathjan offered this description of the maritime disaster:  “One of the broken ships, the Pendleton, drifted perilously close to the shoals off Chatham, Mass. The captain and seven others in the bow section were lost, but the 33 sailors trapped aft maintained electric power for a while and were even able to navigate after a fashion until the hull began flooding and drifted so close to shore that people could glimpse it from the beach.

“All the available cutters were busy trying to rescue the other tanker, so as darkness fell the Coast Guard sent a 36-foot wooden motor lifeboat operated by just four young crewmen. That the little boat made it out to the Pendleton, let alone back with all but one of the 33 stranded sailors, is still a source of wonder to naval historians, who consider this the greatest small-boat rescue ever.”

It’s important to point out that the ill-fated T 2 Pendleton was not a Marinship-built tanker.  She was constructed in Oregon by the Kaiser Company in 1944.