Friday, February 5, 2016

Family of SS Pendleton survivor gathers to watch "The Finest Hours" - By Elizabeth Richards

For one local family, the Disney movie “The Finest Hours” released last weekend is more than entertainment. The story is one they grew up hearing first hand, a part of their own family history.
Casco resident Letty Tucci was four years old when her father, a crew member on the SS Pendleton, was rescued at sea amid a nor’easter that made this rescue one of the most dangerous Coast Guard rescues in history.

Tucci’s father, Fred Brown, was a 36-year-old merchant marine, on his way back from an oil delivery to Louisiana when the blizzard hit on February 18, 1952. According to his granddaughter Caroline West, Brown told a story of being asleep, and waking to a terrible sound. He ran to the deck, and saw crew members bailing water.

Another story Brown frequently repeated was of being unable to save his best friend, ship cook Tiny Myers. “He wanted my dad to take his wallet and the possessions in his pocket because he said ‘I won’t make it, I can’t make it down there to the rescue boat’ and my dad said ‘No, you’ll make it’ and he put his stuff back into his pocket,” said Tucci. But as Myers tried to descend the rope ladder he slipped, and was crushed between the rescue boat and the ship. Although he was already dead, Tucci said her father reached out to grab him, trying to pull him onto the boat, and the Coast Guard team had to force his hands away from Myers. 

Myers was one of nine to lose his life that day. The eight officers on the ship were killed when the ship split in two, and the crew had to watch them float away on the bow of the ship.

It was an experience that impacted the rest of Brown’s life, and a difficult thing for him to talk about, said Tucci. She said the rescue was a miracle that the crew did not anticipate. They had been shooting off flares and blowing a whistle with no response. “When they gave up all hope, all of a sudden they saw a little light in the dark in the distance, and it was a miracle to them,” she said. 

One thing Tucci hopes people get from the movie is how brave the Coast Guard crew was. “It was an extremely dangerous mission, but had it not been for them, my dad never would have come home.”
When Brown did make it home, he went immediately to the hospital where his son, Stephen, had been born the morning after the storm. Tucci said her father arrived in the same brown tweed clothing stained with blood that he’d had on when rescued. Her mother, she said, hadn’t known her father was shipwrecked until after the baby was born, and Brown had been saved.

Her father would never have dreamed that a book would be written about the experience, or a movie made. She herself found out about it when she overheard the story on Fox morning news. 

Having a book and movie written about the incident allows the family to understand some of what Brown went through, said granddaughter Jennifer White, who lives in Raymond. “It helps me to understand some of the struggles that he had as my grandfather,” she said. In 2014, White took a trip to Chatham in Cape Cod, where the wreck took place. “It was quite emotional to stand there and look out and to see where this all occurred,” White said. 

White and 33 family members gathered at Smitty’s in Windham to see the show on Saturday. It was a sold out show, so only 23 of the family members present were able to get tickets, but they all gathered afterwards in the function room at Pat’s pizza to talk and process the movie.
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White felt that the movie took some creative liberties, not portraying events the same as they were written in the book, or things they had heard from her grandfather. It didn’t show some of the relationships between characters that they had heard about, particularly the relationship between Brown and Myers. That was likely, she said, a direct reflection of the fact that no one involved was able to speak directly to her grandfather, who passed away in 1997.

White also said she and her family were confused by a character called “Brown” who was portrayed very differently than the man they knew her grandfather to be. At the end, the credits showed that that character was actually a David Brown, who was no relation to Fred. 

Watching the rescue on the screen was amazing, White said. “You got a little bit of a feeling of what they went through,” she said. “It was an important story to tell.”

Tucci said the movie is important because there’s a lot on the screen these days that isn’t real. “It’s amazing to have a story like this on the big screen that is absolutely real and true to what actually happened,” she said. “It should have an impact on people because it’s true.”

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