Spotlight to shine on decades-old daring rescue at sea

This may be the most amazing rescue of Americans at sea you've never heard of. So much went wrong that day that four Coast Guardsmen didn't know if they would make it back to shore, CBS News' Mark Albert reports.

The story about how they did make it is awe-inspiring.

The motorized lifeboat used in the daring rescue may have seen its fame recede long ago, but the passion the boat invokes in admirers, like Dick Ryder, has not.

"It's really a treasure for me," Ryder said. "It is amazing. This boat is a tough cookie."

Ryder, and many others, helped save the decommissioned Coast Guard vessel, known by its call sign 36-500, which was the scene of a triumph that nearly became a tragedy.

"I listened to the rescue on the Coast Guard radio," Ryder said.

On Feb. 18, 1952, the 500-foot, 10,000-ton tanker SS Pendleton -- its nine cargo tanks filled to the top with kerosene and heating oil -- had been ripped in two offshore.

The crew of 41 faced "imminent death."

"It was what we call here a nor'easter with waves that you can't even describe unless you see it," Mark Carron, the chairman of the Orleans Historical Society on Cape Cod, said about the day the ship sank.

A teletype sent after the storm called the waters "hazardous," the seas "mountainous," the darkness "extreme," the falling snow and winter gale "violent."

"Hellish storm," Carron said.

A quartet of "Coasties" -- none older than 24 -- was at the Coast Guard station on Cape Cod when the distress call came over the radio.

Coast Guardsman Bernie Webber got an order to take his crew into the storm.

"It was a suicide mission," said Casey Sherman, co-author of a book on the rescue called "The Finest Hours," which is now being made into a Disney movie.

"The Finest Hours" tells the story about how Webber and his crew set sail on a small Coast Guard lifeboat, the 36-500. The storm shattered the boat's windshield, sprayed the men with glass, tore out the compass and temporarily knocked out the motor.

With no direction, no help and little hope, they found the stern section of the Pendleton and most of the crew.

Webber then faced a fateful choice: "Does he take everybody home or try to?" Sherman asked. "Does he only try to rescue as many as the boat can fit? And he told his men, 'Boys, we're all gonna live tonight or we're all gonna die, but we're not going home without all these men.'"

Webber, the son of a Massachusetts minister, was praying for a miracle.

And he got it.

Despite the incredible conditions, Webber piloted the boat back to Chatham, Massachusetts, and sailed into history.

His crew saved 32 of the 41 people aboard the Pendleton.

"To his last dying day, he called it divine providence was what brought those men back," Sherman said.

From the top of the Coast Guard lighthouse in Chatham Harbor, Officer-in-Charge Corbin Ross still marvels at the moment more than 60 years after the daring display of courage and gumption in those waters.

Ross said that in the long history of the Coast Guard, "This is the greatest small-boat rescue the Coast Guard has seen, ever."

But the current of history would have all but erased the memory of the rescue if not for a freelance photographer who stumbled upon the abandoned carcass of the wooden boat in 1981.

"He came upon this boat sitting in the woods rotting away, and it was rotting away," Carron said.

He spotted the one recognizable clue the tides of time had not yet washed away -- the numbers 36-500.

He, among few others, knew it as the call sign of a miracle.

So, over the past 30 years, volunteers at the historical society have raised a quarter of a million dollars to restore it, putting the luster back in the legend.

Ryder, who pilots the famed 36-500, said that when he looks out of the windows, he thinks about how he is looking out of the same windows that those Coast Guardsmen did before they rescued the Pendleton.

And soon, millions will too when the Disney movie about the incredible tale docks in theaters in January.

Asked if he was trying to keep the story alive so people don't forget, Carron said he was "because if they forget, then all of what those heroes did and the family of the 32 that were saved is all for naught -- unless history can keep it alive."

The Orleans Historical Society has faced rough seas in fundraising and is running out of time. It is trying to get enough donations to take the lifeboat out of the water and preserve it in a museum.

The boat is already on the National Register of Historic Places, and the historical society hopes the movie will bring in more donations.

Donations to the Orleans Historical Society can be made on their website.