Connecticut Artist Gives a Remembrance of "Finest Hours" Coast Guard Hero | Connecticut Public Radio

Connecticut Artist Gives a Remembrance of "Finest Hours" Coast Guard Hero

Mar 24, 2016

The Coast Guard got its moment on the silver screen recently, with the release of "The Finest Hours" -- a retelling of the true story of what’s still rated as the greatest small boat rescue in the history of the service.

Behind the the big-budget Hollywood production, a Connecticut artist had a small part in bringing that story to the screen.

One stormy February night in 1952, Coast Guardsman Bernie Webber set off with a makeshift crew in a tiny, 36-foot craft to see what was left of the tanker, the Pendleton, broken in two off Cape Cod.

They returned with 32 men rescued from certain death.

Now in 2016, audiences are thrilling to this unlikely tale retold, with Hollywood hero Chris Pine portraying the humble Bernie Webber.

But this isn’t the first time this rescue has been memorialized.

Painter Tony Falcone, who has his studio in a converted dairy barn in Prospect, has been working for the past 15 years or so on a series of huge commissions from the Coast Guard, showing some of the key moments in the service’s history. In the early 2000s, he was asked to depict the Pendleton rescue.

“I said, well, I would need some help with research. And they said, well, we have somebody named Bernie Webber, and he is pretty knowledgeable of the subject,” he told an audience recently at a showing of the film at the Garde Arts Center in New London. 

Webber -- then long retired -- called, emailed, and swapped sketches with Falcone over almost two years as they collaborated to create the ten-foot canvas.

Falcone said Webber was himself a pretty good artist. "Every one of his sketches always had details and notes," he said. "He was really meticulous about making sure that I got maybe the right set of the davits, or how the Jacobs ladder would hang."

The painting was completed in 2005, and unveiled where it still hangs, in the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London.

Webber passed away in 2009, the same year Disney began developing a film based on his story.

Producer Dorothy Aufiero had seen Falcone’s immense painting of the rescue, and was fascinated by the story. She took a reproduction out to the shoot to inform the dark and foreboding look of the film.

Tony Falcone's 2005 painting of the Pendleton rescue.
Credit Tony Falcone
Some of the sketches Webber and Falcone swapped, preserved in Falcone's "chapbook."
Credit Tony Falcone

"They had set up a wonderful studio, literally with a giant tank to film the scenes," said Falcone, "and the production company asked for the print, to get some colors and perspective on how the tanker might have been."

Bernie Webber retired from the Coast Guard after a distinguished 20 year career, but he continued to be a familiar figure at his old station of Chatham on Cape Cod, where he would return every summer.

Master Chief Jack Downey commanded the station in the 1980s. He went out on the water many times with Webber, and always admired his continued mastery of small boats.

"I think you can see it in the movie, but if you knew him, he was just a very humble man," said Downey. "And you had to ask him questions. He didn’t just roll it out. You had to ask him the questions, and he would tell you in less than eight words."

But while the daring rescue-at-all-costs of "The Finest Hours" captures the man, and is a fitting tribute to the history of the Coast Guard, today’s service has changed a bit.

"That’s the first thing I thought of: oh my God, they need a bigger boat!" said Dan Tavernier. He's the current commanding officer of Coast Guard Station New London.

Tavernier said there are one or two things the movie gets wrong, but it absolutely captures the thrill of what it’s like to be out there for real.

"That movie’s unbelievable. I got chills," he said. "I was still shaking when I got up here, just watching the small boat operate."

Commander Andrew Ely, who  oversees all search and rescue operations in Connecticut and Long Island Sound says he believes the movie will rekindle wider public interest in the Coast Guard. "It'll drive more young folks to want to come in. But I also think it keeps a focus on us as a premier maritime lifesaving service."

You can see artist Tony Falcone’s painting of the Pendleton Rescue hanging in Hamilton Hall at the Coast Guard Academy.