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the article began..........

Aboard the
ATHENIA

September 3, 1939 - a little after 11 o'clock that morning, a notice posted on the ship's bulletin board said England was now at war with Germany.  Conversation aboard the liner faltered as she headed for the wide Atlantic.....

 

Relatively few Americans were in the line of fire when war broke out in Europe on September 1, 1939 - the day that Germany invaded Poland to initiate the conflict that soon would be known as World War II.  Isolationist in mood, the country would not be drawn into the spreading war for another two years, and even then it was in response to direct attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.
          EDITOR NOTE - The slaughter of 40,000 to 50,000 ethnic Germans by the Polish Army,
                civilians and police a month or so prior to 1 September 1939 is generally accepted as the
                reason it was necessary for Germany to invade Poland.


All America nonetheless was deeply shocked and outraged when a German submarine torpedoed and sank a defenseless passenger liner, the ATHENIA three days into the new war.  Twenty-eight Americans were among 113 lost in the sinking off the Hebrides Islands.

One of the Americans was the father of an eleven-year-old boy named Russel A. Parks.  Now fifty years older, he still retains a vivid, often searing memory of his own experience as an early American victim of a distant and unwanted war.

 

The family - Russel 11, his father Alexander Ross Park and his mother Rebecca Armstrong Park had been visiting Ireland in the summer of 1939.  They crossed the Atlantic aboard the British TRANSYLVANIA and were booked on the British CALIFORNIA for their return passage in late August.  On the way to Ireland, they struck up a friendship with a priest named O'Connor and his father.  Then in mid-August their return booking on the CALIFORNIA was cancelled.  She had been taken over by the Royal Navy.  The Parks would have to find another way home.  Was looked imminent.  Mr. Parks tells the rest of the story:
       
 (photo left - ATHENIA underway)

By late August, the international situation was deteriorating rapidly.  Due to ship cancellations such as ours and a steady stream of refugees, the best we could do was get a ship headed for Canada instead of the United States.  We could not get first-class passage either.  Although we were all in tourist class, my father was placed in a stateroom with another gentleman while my mother and I were placed in a stateroom with other women.  Being a child, I could get away with this!  A storm was breaking over Europe and we considered ourselves lucky that we had found a way home.  Our lucky ship was the British owned ATHENIA of the Donaldson Atlantic Line.

We picked her up in Belfast in the evening.  I will always remember our trip out to the ATHENIA.  She had stayed out in the harbor which required us to board her from a 'lighter', a smaller ship.  It was just about dusk as we approached her.  The air was cold and wet - a slight spray was blowing.  She looked normal with her white superstructure, black hull and funnel but I felt apprehensive about her.  I did not realize what the difficulty was until we were just about to board.  ATHENIA did not have a light showing.  I was impressed by the fact that this large passenger vessel, the kind I had always associated with gaiety and good times would be dark as a tomb.  I had never seen a 'blacked out' ship before.  This was two days before the declaration of war.

It was soon evident that this would not be a normal voyage.  The most obvious thing was the splitting up of our family into separate cabins.  I do not remember anything about the women in my mother's cabin, but I do recall the man who was booked into my father's cabin.  I believe he was associated with the American shipping industry.  He would be heard from again.

  
 (photo right - ATHENIA leaving harbor)

   

The blackout was very conspicuous on board.  Portholes were sealed permanently or were painted out, double curtains were placed over all outside doors and many warning signs were posted prohibiting smoking on deck at night.

It was very easy to see that ATHENIA was carrying a larger than normal passenger complement.  The meals were served in shifts.  We asked for and received places at the first sitting.  This was to become very important come September 3, 1939.  We were pleasantly surprised to find Father O'Connor and his father on board also.  I believe that they could only obtain passage in the third class section of the ship.

The next day we had our first lifeboat drill.  Since Mom and Dad were in separate cabins, this presented a problem in that we were assigned to different lifeboats.  I remember my parents discussing this situation, but I do not know what they decided to do in case of an emergency.  Mother and I had our lifeboat station on the port (left) side.  We had the last boat on the main boat deck.  There was one set of boats farther aft on the poop deck.  We could not see the ocean from our boat station since the area from the rail to the upper deck was covered with canvas as part of the blackout protection.

Boat drills were not new to me since I had been through many of them before.  The 'boat chief' of the lifeboat would tell us that the 'abandon ship' signal would be six or seven short signals on the whistle or alarm bell followed by one long one.  We were instructed in the use of life belts and the proper procedure for loading the lifeboat.  We were told to bring warm clothes and blankets.  I did not pay much attention to these instructions since I had heard them before.

On September 2, 1939 we dropped anchor at Liverpool, England.  Again a 'lighter' was used to bring out passengers and baggage.  Another strange sight greeted me here.  Barrage balloons were gently floating over the city and harbor.  The day was slightly overcast but the barrage balloons appeared to me to create a great carnival atmosphere.  They were silver in color and very fat.  I thought it would be a lot of fun t see one up close.  I cannot remember when we left Liverpool but by Sunday September 3, 1939 we were at sea.

I had never been seasick before.  Sunday however, my mother and I were not feeling our best - there had been a gentle swell for many hours.  We attended church services in the lounge that morning.  It was crowded, but so was the whole ship.  I cannot say if the threat of imminent war itself had anything to do with church attendance.  After the church service, Mother had me dress in my oldest clothes - knickers, sneakers, sweater etc.  She knew that I would be climbing all over the ship - and she was right.  By mid-afternoon I had been everywhere it was permitted for passengers to be and a few places where they were not allowed.  I had a great time climbing the spare anchors that were stowed aft, just forward of the after hatch.  I probably was not the cleanest boy in the world, but I was acquiring knowledge that would later that day come in handy.

A little after 11 o'clock that morning, a notice was posted on the ship's bulletin board stating that England was now at war with Germany.  I seem to recall that conversation became less frequent after that.

Dad and I had dinner at the first seating, about 5:30 to 6:00 pm.  Mother was not feeling well, so she did not join us.  She remained in her cabin, which I believe was on the starboard side aft, about "C" deck.  This deck constituted the main deck of the ship.

After dinner, Dad and I went to the main tourist lounge.  He signed a book out of the ship's library for me.  I remember the Lounge Steward taking me to a special shelf that contained all children's books.  I selected a big one with a picture of a train on the cover.  We sat down at one of the glass-covered tables in the lounge to read.  This was at approximately 6:45 pm.

My reading ended abruptly at about 7:00 pm.  A loud metallic 'bang!' jolted me out of my chair.  Simultaneously the lights in the lounge flickered out.  I was conscious of being on the floor in total darkness with a chair or table upon me.  I could hear women screaming, men shouting and I could smell burning paint, hot metal and what later in life I found to be the odor of gasses generated by high explosives upon detonation.  Dad somehow managed to find me in the debris.  Remember, the inside of the ship was now in darkness.  He led me to the deck aft of the lounge.  I was unhurt in spite of the broken glass around me from the table top, but I was very scared.  I can remember saying over and over again;

"Something's happened!  Something's happened!"

 

The door from the lounge led us directly to my mother's lifeboat station - but no one was assembling there and my father stared up the stairs to the boat deck.  A steward - I think it was the same one who ran the library, blocked our way (there were many passengers at this location now).  He said that we would interfere with the lowering of the boats.  There was no panic as such evident.  There were a few near-hysterical women, but an order by someone who sounded like he knew what he was doing, was sufficient to restore calm.

Immediately upon leaving the closed portion of the deck, I heard what sounded like a muffled explosion.  I looked to the side and saw a cloud of brownish-black smoke on the surface of the water.  I cannot remember for sure whether this the port or starboard side of the ship, although I favor the port side.  Later I did see what appeared to be a mast floating in the water near the bow.  I cannot say for sure whether I saw diesel smoke or the splash of a shell if the sub fired at us.  I am sure however, that I heard a muffled explosion of some kind away from the ship.

      
EDITOR NOTE - This could not have been a shell splash since U-30 did not fire at them with the deck gun.

On our way up to the boat deck, we had to pass a hatch in the after section of the ship.  I had been sleeping on this hatch this afternoon, leaving it only to go to dinner.  The cover was gone now, exposing the black, burnt sides of the hatchway.  I saw what appeared to be a burned bundle of rags at the base of the stairs to the upper deck.  As we approached, I saw that it was a man burned severely and charred from head to toe.  Someone touched him with their foot as they went up the stairs.  He moaned, which meant that he was not dead.  I did not see anyone go to his air or even pay him any attention for that matter.  I later learned from reading accounts of of the sinking that there were men and women lying upon the hatch covers when the torpedo hit.  The force of the explosion was vented up the hatchway, throwing those on top a hundred feet into the air.  I think that the poor soul I saw was one of those who fell back upon the ship.  Aside from his fall injuries, he was severely burned.

I doubt if it was five minutes from the time that the torpedo hit till we were at the stairs to the boat deck.  The steward said that we could enter the boat deck when the lifeboats were in position for lowering.  Since we were on the stairs waiting, my father thought that it was in a good position for lowering.  He told me to wait there for him while he went down inside the ship to look for my mother.  He told me to get into the lifeboat if it was ready to be launched before he got back.

It took a lot of courage for him to do this.  The inside of the ship was in total darkness.  Many stairs and decks were mangled by the explosion.  It must have been a very difficult decision for him to make - that is to leave his only son and enter that chaos to look for his wife.  The ship by this time had taken a decided list to port that I would estimate at about 15 degrees.  We were noticeably down by the stern.  I was not too concerned by these facts, but I am sure that my father knew their significance.

Sometime after he left, the ship's whistle blew the abandon ship signal.  I could tell that the alarm bells inside the ship were not ringing.  At this point, the ship was still without power.  Later we were allowed on the boat deck.  The nearest boat was filled by people and lowered.  This is the one I had been told by my father to enter..  Since there were still other boats forward, I decided to let this boat go and wait for one of the others.

There does not seem to be any pattern to the way the boats were launched.  Some were loaded at the boat deck and lowered complete with passengers.  Others were lowered empty and then loaded with the aid of ladders.  This was quite a long trip, since the boat deck was one of the highest decks of the ship.  One ladder broke.  I saw people in the water at this point.  I do not know what happened to them.  They were in danger of having the other boats lowered upon them.  Most of the people I was in the water were wearing life jackets, but that does not mean that there were others who fell without them.  As time went on, I saw men throwing wooden deck chairs overboard.  I doubt if they would do much good in regard to keeping anyone afloat.  Luckily I did not have to find out.  I never did obtain a life jacket during these events.  To this day, I have not learned how to swim.  I guess 'someone upstairs' was watching over me!

One after another, the boats on the port side were launched.  I moved up each time to the next boat, hoping my parents would return and find me.  Finally, I was so far forward that I could see the navigation bridge.  I saw an officer, probably the captain, yelling orders to the boat crews with a megaphone.  At this point, I heard a crew member report to an officer that 'this was the last one'.  I decided that I better be in it.

This was easier said than done.  It refused to come out of its blocks.  A 20 foot piece of lumber was placed over the rail and under the boat, using the rail as a fulcrum of a lever.  When a group of men put their weight on the other end of the lever, all they succeeded in dong was breaking the rail.  The boat did not budge.  This may have been caused by the list of the ship.  They finally succeeded in freeing the boat by using fire axes to chop the blocks out from under it.

The boat was lowered to the boat deck level and loading was started.  It was very conspicuous that there were more people left on board than this boat could accommodate.  The boat was filled however; women and children first.  Very few of the men, passengers or crew, made it.

After we were loaded, they proceeded to lower us to the water by hand.  It was a very orderly lowering until the last few feet, when they discovered that the falls were not quite long enough.  Since we were on the low side of the list, we must have had our bow up very high to cause this.  I think that they cut the falls - we dropped the last few feet and made a large splash.  We were on our own!  At that time, I did not exactly feel glad to leave the secure steel deck of the ATHENIA for this small wooden boat.  The men left on board who had a better picture of what was going on probably had felt worse about letting the last lifeboat leave without them.  The only comment I heard from them was to wish us well!

Only after we hit the water was I aware that night had fallen.  Emergency power had finally been started and the boat deck was now lit.  As we drifted further away from the ship, the darkness really made itself felt.  It was encouraging however, to see the lights on the ATHENIA.  While she was afloat, we still had hope.

I was surrounded by women, but only when we tried to maneuver the boat were we aware of the shortage of men.  We had only one crew member aboard, a rather aged waited from one of the dining rooms.  He started to organize the boat for rowing.  We found that we had sufficient oars, but many of the oarlocks were either missing or could not be located.  Many of the things we felt were missing were probably only hidden or inaccessible to us in our crowded condition.  We had a rudder but no tiller.  A mast, but no sail.  Most lifeboats have a hole in the bottom to let out the rainwater.  We could find the plug.  The women were using their shoes to bail out the water continually rising in the bottom of the boat.

We did manage to place a few oars on both sides of the boat.  When our crewman thought it necessary, he would shout 'Row 1' or 'Row 2' depending on which side he felt needed the action.

I was sitting on one of the gunwale (side) seats.  I could easily touch the water, which indicated that we had less than one foot of freeboard available.  I was so close to the water that I actually retrieved one of the oars that a group of women up forward had dropped.  It should be noted that these oars were very large.  I imagine that it would require at least two men to handle one.  At many of the positions we had three or four women doing their best but, I fear, badly out of phase with the other rowers.  If effect, we were only a drifting hulk.  The oars were only used to keep the boat heading into the wind in order to prevent it from capsizing.

The cold began to be felt a little while in the boat.  I doubt if anyone stayed dry in our boat due to the spray, water seepage and splashing oars.  During the night someone asked the crewman what had happened to the ATHENIA.  He said that he did not know.  Someone volunteered the possibility that her boiler blew up.  I spent my time in the lifeboat thinking that my predicament was caused by a mechanical failure.  Only when I was rescued did I hear that we had been torpedoed.

During our drifting, we encountered debris of many kinds - large patches of oil, life rings, furniture, broken cases of scotch whiskey.  After a while, we saw many red lights upon the ocean.  We thought our rescue was near.  Later we learned that they were red flares held by survivors in other lifeboats.  We did not find out own flares until nearly daybreak.

Later in the evening we were approached by a motor powered lifeboat.  We were asked by an officer if we could take on more people.  He was told an emphatic 'NO'.  We did ask for more crew members, since we were helpless.  The motorboat officer said that he would return after he had deposited some of the male passengers in the other boats.  He never returned.  Even if he had the best intentions, I am sure that it would have been virtually impossible to find us.  It was a clear, moonlit night with scattered clouds.  The ocean swell I mentioned earlier was still present, however, which made it impossible in a low boat, to see more than a few feet.

An eternity later, we saw the lights of a ship upon the horizon.  It is very nerve wracking to have to wait for a ship to approach from the horizon.  It got close enough for us to make out its detail.  then it stopped.  This meant we would have to go to it.  This was impossible for our boat anyway.  Fortunately we were approaching the ship naturally, thanks to a favorable wind drift.  We were close enough to recognize men on deck and other boats rowing alongside.  We then experienced despair when we saw that we were drifting astern of the rescue vessel, the Norwegian tanker KNUTE NELSON.

Now there were two sets of lights on the horizon - those of ATHENIA and also of KNUTE NELSON.  Later, we were aware of dark shapes moving about us.  These, we later discovered, were British destroyers.  They were completely blacked out except for a small red light on their stern.  As dawn broke, we could see them clearly as they went about their job of picking up stragglers like us.

We were still  drifting a few hours after daybreak.  The ocean was littered with abandoned lifeboats.  On the top of a wave we could see what appeared to be a large passenger ship - (it was ATHENIA), the tanker and at least two destroyers.  At long last, our turn arrived.  A destroyer closed in on us and slowly cast a line.  We were made fast with the aid of the seamen from the destroyer.  I think I was one of the first transferred up a ladder into many helping hands.

By this time, I was very cold, numb and tired.  My only vivid recollection of my arrival on the destroyer was being ushered forward to the forecastle and being placed in a hammock just recently vacated for this purpose.  I went immediately to sleep for about an hour.  Someone woke me up and said,
    
"She's going down.  Do you want to see her?"

I said no and went back to sleep.  I was too tired to care.

  About noon I again awoke and started to worry about my stomach.  I told one of the seamen present that I was hungry.  He took me to the galley where I was given a sandwich made from something like corned beef; also marmalade and a cup of tea.  I found out that I was on HMS ESCORT, a destroyer (photo left) and that ATHENIA had been torpedoed.

I cannot praise the officers and men of the ESCORT enough for what they did for me and the other survivors.  The ATHENIA had been crowded, but the ESCORT was packed.  It was difficult to find standing room much less sleeping room.

When the crew and my fellow passengers realized that I was alone, they made every effort to see that I was cared for.  I made an extensive search of the ship in an effort to find my parents, but without avail.

 


During my tour topside, I saw a large white yacht.  A lifeboat was passing from it to us, bringing on board more survivors.  It was my understanding that the yacht was dangerously overloaded with all the people she had picked up.  I did not know at the time, but my mother was probably on board her.  She was later transferred to the American freighter CITY OF FLINT, which took her to Canada.

  NOTE - On 14 November 1939, before the US entered the war, CITY of FLINT (left) was taken as a Prize of War by the pocket battleship DEUTSCHLAND (right) and sent to occupied Norway.  She was stopped en route by the minesweeper OLAV TRYGGVASON and released.  On 25 January 1943, CITY of FLINT was sunk by U-575 (Heydemann).  

Two other things remain in my memory about that topside trip.  The first centered around a pile of life jackets that had been cut from survivors as they were brought aboard.  I wanted one as a souvenir.  As I approached the pile however, I saw a pair of legs sticking out from under the body of someone who did not survive the sinking.  I decided that I could do without a souvenir..............

The second impression I retained is seeing a torpedo up close.....the destroyer-mounted torpedo tubes that were above decks.  The front of the torpedo impressed me with its stark, businesslike detonator and vanes.  I was now beginning to associate what I had been through with the torpedo.

On our way now to Scotland, I met the steward who had been in charge of the ship's library.  I told him that I doubted if I would return the book.  He said that there would be quite a few others in the same situation.  I later met our waited from the tourist-class dining room.  He said that he was lucky to be alive since the torpedo did extensive damage to the dining room.  This happened just about fifteen minutes after we left.  He doubted if there were many survivors from this portion of the ship.

I think it was the next morning that we made our landfall.  ESCORT tied up alongside her sister ship ELECTRA at Greenoch, Scotland.  Both ships were loaded with survivors.  It took a long time to unload us since it was difficult to climb from ship to ship and then to shore.  I noted many ambulances present at the dock.

I do not remember the details of being interviewed on shore but I was claimed by someone.  He was the man who had been quartered in my fathers stateroom on the ATHENIA.  He recognized me and told the authorities that he would look after me until someone better qualified would claim me.  He informed me that he met my father inside the ship.  Dad asked him if he had seen us.  He said that Dad left him, working his way toward the stern of the ship, i.e. the badly damaged section.

The Scots have a reputation for being thrifty.  After my one and only visit to Scotland, I remember them as the height of generosity.  We were quartered in the finest hotels in Glasgow.  I was taken to a large department store and given a complete set of clothes and accessories.  All my meals were furnished at the hotel.  It is my understanding that the expense for this was covered by the city of Glasgow.
 

Soon after arrival at the hotel, I was taken to the U.S. Consul's office in Glasgow.  He had someone with him from the U.S. Embassy in London named Kennedy who was helping the U.S. survivors straighten out their affairs.  I'd always thought that I had met Ambassador Joseph Kennedy.  Recently, on reading the book 'PT-109' I found out that it was the Ambassador's son who assisted the survivors - the future President John F. Kennedy.

 

At the consulate I was told that I would be sent to live with a Presbyterian minister and his family until they could decide what to do with me.  They felt that the Reverend Cameron and his wife could take better care of me in a family atmosphere.  This was agreeable to all concerned.  I spent about three weeks with this fine family who treated me as one of their own.

A few hours before I left the hotel I received a cablegram from Mrs. Jennie Alcorn, my mother's cousin, informing me that my mother had been rescued!  She had been picked up by the Swedish yacht SOUTHERN CROSS and later transferred to the American freighter CITY of FLINT.  She arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia about ten days after the sinking.

NOTE - SOUTHERN CROSS was the largest private yacht in the world, originally owned by multi-millionairre eccentric Howard Hughes.  A few years before the war, he sold the yacht to Swedish billionaire Axel Wenner-Gren who owned some five million acres of his native Sweden and he owned the Bofors Armament Company.  Almost every navy in WW II used Bofors AA guns on their ships.
     Soon after the sinking of ATHENIA, Italian Count Edmundo diRobilant and his new bride honeymooned aboard SOUTHERN CROSS (photo right) as he headed for his new assignment as Manager of the Italian airline L.A.T.I. in South America.  He was caught sending radio messages of Allied ship movements to the Germans and was imprisoned
     Shortly after the U.S. entered the war, Wenner-Gren's mistress Inga Arvad, who had been Adolf Hitler's companion at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, left his bed and became the mistress of the same John F. Kennedy who helped these survivors.  SOUTHERN CROSS had a strange history.
 

My recollections of Glasgow are of air raid drills, the blackout (a terrifying experience for a small child), gas rationing, food coupons, carrying a gas mask and regular church service.  After all, I was living with a minister.  In about two weeks, I was notified that the USS ORIZABA, an American passenger liner, was to take U.S. citizens home.  After taking leave of the Reverend and Mrs. Cameron, I was placed on board the ORIZABA into the care of the gentleman from my father's stateroom.

I remember how the ORIZABA stood out in the harbor.  She still had her peacetime white superstructure plus large U. S. Flags painted on her sides and top.  All the other ships in the harbor were painted wartime gray.  We must have been celebrities for as we got underway, many of the ships in the harbor tooted their whistles at us while their crewmen waved.

  The ORIZABA (photo left) was filled to overflowing.  I slept in one of the lounges on a cot.  I understand that the ship's swimming pool was drained and cots placed there also.  The next day we arrived at Galway, Ireland where the KNUTE NELSON had deposited her survivors.  One of the first passengers on board was Father O'Connor from Philadelphia.  He and his father were very glad to see me alive.  They said they had often wondered what had happened to us, and he promised to take me to Philadelphia if no one showed up for me in New York.

Happily for me, mother was there to meet me!  Her first words were;
               
"Daddy is gone."
We did afterwards hope that the end of World War II would find him in a German prison camp or that some other explanation of his whereabouts would come to light.  Unfortunately, only silence and the wide ocean remain.  A ship is sunk.  The survivors are counted.  He is among the missing.  We are forced to assume he is gone.

it is known that many crew members and male passengers were left aboard ATHENIA when the last boat.  He was probably one of these.  When the motorized lifeboat was put in working order, all remaining personnel left on board were transferred, a few at a time, to the other lifeboats.  At the time of her sinking, it is claimed, there were no living persons left on board the ATHENIA.  He may have been in the motor lifeboat that hailed our boat during the night.  One of ATHENIA's lifeboats was drawn into the propellers of the KNUTE NELSON during the night.  There were no survivors.  I feel this is the best explanation.

So ends my account of the first day of the war at sea.  ATHENIA was the first to be sunk.  Many others followed her.  The only rescue ship mentioned here to survive the was the SOUTHERN CROSS.


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