"The Finest Hours" tells epic tale of Coast Guard triumph

Six decades ago, Bernie Webber led a crew of four Coast Guardsmen on an unbelievable rescue off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. That tale of heroism hit the big screen this weekend with "The Finest Hours," which chronicled the triumph and tragedy of one harrowing night -- and the courageous men who pulled it off.

It was a Nor'easter so hellacious, it split a 500-foot, 10,000-ton tanker oil tanker in half, and set the crew of the SS Pendleton scrambling for their lives.

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SS Pendleton

Sixty-four years and a lifetime of memories after that bitter February day, one sound stays with former Coast Guardsman Mel "Gus" Gouthro, who made it to the ship's bow, miles away from the stern.

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Former Coast Guardsman Mel "Gus" Gouthro
CBS News

"I can hear those cargo tanks rumbling to this day -- B-b-b-b-boom! And I said, 'Oh baby, don't you sink now!'" Gouthro told CBS News' Mark Albert.

Eight crewmen, including the captain, were thought to be in the bow. But Gouthro's rescue party found no one to save.

"I climbed up on board, we went up inside... There was a man passed out and dead," Gouthro said.

No one made it out of that section alive.

Gouthro's best friend, Bernie Webber, battled to get to the other half of the ship, the stern, several nights before in conditions few could survive.

The epic tale of that night in 1952 -- and what happened on the ferocious seas in blinding conditions -- is now a Disney movie, starring Chris Pine as Webber, who led a crew of four on a small Coast Guard lifeboat, known by its call-sign, the 36-500.

The massive storm tore out boat's compass, played havoc with the radio, shattered the glass windshield and knocked out the engine twice.

There was no help, no backup -- just four men, none over the age of 24.

Incredibly, they managed to find the Pendleton's stern and 33 men desperate to escape the crippled, sinking ship. One by one, the sailors climbed a gyrating ladder down to the 36-500 lifeboat.

The Coasties saved all but one who fell into the sea and drowned.

"And that I know has bothered all four of those guys. That they lost one," Gouthro said.

Webber, who was a minister's son, had faith from above that night.

"He said that God was on our side," Gouthro recalled.

Thirty-six men crammed onto the 36-foot boat built for just 12. Still without a compass, Webber somehow guided them home.

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Thirty-six men crammed onto the 36-500 lifeboat built for just 12

"Anyone who will see this film, will look at that boat and say, 'No. No, they couldn't do that.' They did that," Gouthro said.

"I've been on that boat. It's small, it's unbelievable to think all those people made it on there," Albert said.

"Yeah, when you want to live, you'll find a way," Gouthro responded.

CBS News visited the restored 36-500 on Cape Cod this past October. Volunteers, like Dick Ryder, raised a quarter of a million dollars to save the boat and also preserve the legend.

"Do you ever think that you're looking out the same windows that those four crewmen were?" Albert asked him.

"Oh, yeah. All the time. All the time," Ryder said.

With the U.S. Coast Guard band leading the way, the movie's premiere docked Monday in Hollywood.

Andy Fitzgerald, the last of Webber's crew still alive, anchored the red carpet with his trademark wit flashing just as bright as the cameras.

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Coast Guard engineer Andy Fitzgerald arrives at the premiere of Disney's "The Finest Hours" at the TCL Chinese Theatre on January 25, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

"Yeah, this is very, very exciting. It's not quite as exciting as the night we went in the boat," Fitzgerald said.

During filming, Fitzgerald and Gouthro visited the Massachusetts movie set together and met the actors including Pine, Casey Affleck and Eric Bana. In the movie, Gouthro is played by Beau Knapp.

"Chris Pine called you a 'live wire' who likes to joke around. Were you the live wire at the station?" Albert asked.

"I still am," Gouthro said.

Chatting with him this week at his home outside Boston, Gouthro also had a quick comeback for those who think only Hollywood writers could dream up a drama like this.

"This is a movie that is true," Gouthro said.

"To make that rescue and to get those men, it was fantastic. It was just, it was just great," he added.

To this day, the Coast Guard calls it the greatest small boat rescue.

"I believe it is. It is," Gouthro said.

The finest hours whose legacy is now timeless.