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Down at Sea on the First Day of the War
When John Bernard and I sailed for Scotland from Boston on 14 June 1939, little did we dream that only one of us would return.
We were classmates at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The School had one traveling scholarship to award for the summer and resolved it by asking us if we could find a way to share it between us. No problem. We were both studying advertising design, we were compatible and we were sure that we could work out the economics of the situation.
Sharing a scholarship funded for one person required some harsh budgetary realities, which we tackled right at the start by arranging round-trip third-class passages aboard ships of the Glasgow based Anchor Line. Our eastbound passage was aboard the CAMERONIA. The location of our quarters is best defined by noting that the porthole was often awash with foam and the green sea. Our return was to have been aboard the CALIFORNIA, but that was not to be.
After landing at Glasgow on 22 June, we left the same day for Edinburgh by Flying Scotsman to London 700 miles away. There were evidences of war conscientiousness - enlistment posters, air raid precaution signs, bomb shelter displays and an occasional gun emplacement in the parks. We crossed to Paris on 1 July. John's Canadian French was very useful. On the 150th anniversary of Bastille Day, 14 July, Paris exploded in a celebration of France's national holiday with fireworks from the Eiffel Tower and dancing in the streets.
..................still no pervasive concerns about the imminence of war..............
We left Paris by midnight train on 24 July, traversed Belgium and arrived Amsterdam in late morning of 25 July.
|Next we went to Germany for ten
days in Berlin and Munich. A young German technical school student
with some English took us under his wing as guide and interpreter in
return for meals and a chance to practice our language.
Some troop movements discernable in the train stations, but nothing to be alarmed about. Then by train in Italy - first to Verona and then to Venice on 8 August. We stayed comfortably at the Pensione Dolomiti for 25 Lire per night for both of us - about 62 ˝ cents each. The Grand Canal was decorated with alternated Italian Flags and Swastikas, but people didn't seem to be giving it much though.
Again by train via Milan to Switzerland,
to Paris again, back across the Channel to London then on to Glasgow. It
was now 25 August and we were scheduled for an evening departure aboard
CALIFORNIA to arrive in Boston on 2nd or 3rd September.
We were soon to discover that CALIFORNIA had been commandeered by the British Government. Later sailings of CALEDONIA on 1 September or CAMERONIA on 8 September had been cancelled for the same reason. We were advised that passage could be transferred to the British liner ATHENIA. We retreated to the town of Strathaven, south of Glasgow, to wait for the scheduled sailing day of 1st September.
Toward the end of November 1939, I received a request from the State Department to provide an account in affidavit form, of my impressions concerning the causes of the loss of ATHENIA. At that point, there were no ships' logs available, no revelations from German sources, no war crimes testimony and no collections of comments of others involved. I could only report what I noted and experienced during a night when most of everyone's attention was narrowly riveted on staying alive and helping others do the same.
My affidavit follows, with commentary interspersed. Following is an account of the ATHENIA disaster given as conscientiously and accurately as possible, keeping close to that which was witnessed by me and omitting unsubstantiated rumors.
The ATHENIA left Liverpool, unescorted, on Saturday the 2nd of September. The ship was blacked out on Saturday night. By Saturday evening or Sunday noon at the latest, the estimated 1,200 passengers on board had been put through boat drill and had been shown their boat stations. The ATHENIA was a comfortable passenger ship built in 1923 for the Glasgow based Anchor-Donaldson Line. On this trip, she was carrying more than 1,400 persons, well over the usual complement of passengers and crew.
We sailed from Glasgow on the Clyde on Friday, 1 September - the day Hitler invaded Poland. Then we went across the Irish Sea to Belfast to pick up more passengers then back down to Liverpool to pick yet another large group. The sight of barrage balloons tethered over Liverpool were omens of events to come, but we weren't prepared for the speed with which these events moved.
We left Liverpool on Saturday, 2 September and headed around the north of Ireland to reach the open sea and set a course for Canada.
At about 11 o'clock on Sunday morning, a notice appeared on the bulletin board notifying the passengers that Great Britain was at war with Germany. The news was received rather calmly - there was no evident anxiety for the safety of the ship, since we seemed a reasonable distance from the hostile activity.
|By this time on
Sunday, 3 September, the ship had been fully blacked out and the normal
regulations were in force about showing lights on deck or doing anything
that would reveal the presence of the ship to enemy eyes at night.
Ironically, these precautions were seized upon by the commander of
U-30, Oberleutnant zur See Fritz Julius Lemp, as part of the
rationale for his decision to attack us.
NOTE - ATHENIA should not have been blacked out or running a zig-zag course. Had she been fully lit and steering a straight course, Lemp would have recognized her as a passenger liner rather than a suitable target and he would not have attacked.
A Cordon of U-Boats
Little did we realize that a cordon of German U-Boats including the U-30 had already been deployed to intercept enemy shipping - except passenger liners - on the western approaches. The ATHENIA's officers were certainly aware of the present threat but were hopeful we would be out of the major danger zone by late in the day.
I went to Sunday supper at either the 2nd or 3rd sitting (there were several sittings in 3rd class at mealtime due of course, to the large lassenger list), left the dining room after supper and went to the 3rd class lounge where I stayed for a few moments. I was returning to the open deck (the deck at the extreme stern of the ship) and had started to pass through the open doorway when the explosion occurred, opening a hole somewhat to the rear of center on the port side, throwing ne on my back and causing the ship to heel mightily to port. I slid very rapidly across the deck and crashed against the port rail. The explosion had caused the ship to heel over so far that water came onto the deck through the railing. Immediately a strong odor of burned gunpowder spread throughout the air while the ship was partially righting itself. The ship came to rest with a pronounced list to port.
There was considerable confusion, for all the lights went out instantly, leaving those who were below deck (many were seasick) in total darkness. There was still light on deck.
Cabin D26, which John Bernard and I shared, was on the lowest deck. As I went down there with the aid of a lighted match to get my lifebelt I noticed understandable hysteria among those who were below at the time of the explosion. I took my lifebelt and noticed that John had already gotten his and gone above.
My mind raced to the conclusion that we had been torpedoed. I never even toyed with the alternatives - an internal explosion, an attack by surface vessels, a mine, an aerial attack.....the only real probability had to be a torpedo. Oberleutnant Lemp had in fact, set in motion a chain of events that the German Naval Command wanted to avoid at all costs - an action against a passenger ship that would result in the loss of American lives and add to any pressure for the United States to enter the war.
|Meanwhile, Lemp kept
silent about the ATHENIA in contacts with his Naval
Command because the sinking was in violation of Commodore Dönitz'
specific instructions to his U-Boat fleet for treatment of passenger
liners. The British claimed a U-Boat attack from the beginning but
Germany, apprehensive but still not in possession of the full facts, was
quick to assert British sabotage of their own ship to look like a U-Boat
sinking in order to enlist American sympathy and pull the United states
into the war.
It was only after Lemp's return to Wilhelmshaven that the responsibility for the sinking of ATHENIA was clarified. The German High Command decided on a total cover-up.
Lemp (right) Dönitz (right) aboard U-30.
Back aboard ATHENIA, it was about 7:40pm and not yet dark when the torpedo struck. I went sliding to the rail, which was awash before the ship partially righted herself. I got a friction burn on my right elbow and wet feet but apart from that, I seemed to be all in one piece. My next thought was to get down to my berth, grab my life jacket and see whether John had gotten his. Using a book of matches, I made my way down and saw that John had already been there.
Persons on deck didn't seem to know or remember their precise boat stations, so that the system was somehow disrupted. Others were frantically searching for their children while little boys and girls wandered tearfully about, looking for their parents. There were some persons who had been unable to procure lifeboats because access to their cabins had been blocked.
John Bernard and I found one another and, noting a shortage of manpower, tried to assist in cutting loose liferafts and getting boats over the starboard side. There may have been boats lowered on the port side, but I think not. Within a few minutes of the explosion, the auxiliary generator in the shack on the top deck was operating, which gave me reason to believe that SOS messages went out immediately.
As I made my way about the top deck I saw that the whole series of hatch covers just aft of what I took to be the wireless room had been blown out - the top hatch was completely open with no sign of a covering in sight. Beside the hatch in a deck chair, sat a dead man, his face already covered with a handkerchief. Near him lay another man, his bloodstained hands making slight movements across his chest.
The filling of the lifeboats was quite orderly; the women and children receiving first attention. There seemed however, a dearth of men to assist in getting the lifeboats over the side. Some lifeboats went over very poorly manned, putting a tremendous burden on the women in the boat. One lifeboat full of people was upended before reaching the water, but most of the boats were set afloat safely. One woman, in her haste to get in a boat, jumped toward the boat just as it swung out from its davits and I saw her plunge from the boat deck, landing on a great beam which was floating in the water.
|Although our boat
station was on the port side, the ratio of the crewmembers to
passengers, three-fourths of whom were women and children, made it
necessary to enlist the help of as many men among the passengers as
could be rounded up to help people get into the boats wherever possible,
get the boats over the side, and man the oars as soon as the boats were
in the water. I later found out that boats were lowered
successfully on both port and starboard sides. Due to the ship's
list to port, the starboard boats were harder to lower and launch
because they sometimes wouldn't clear the hull of ATHENIA
as she rolled in the choppy sea.
ATHENIA had plenty of boats - thirteen to a side plus liferafts and a good supply of life jackets. The boat John and I boarded finally got away at about 8:30pm. It probably had over 90 people in it. Disaster almost struck early when the crew couldn't free the tackle at one end of the boat. That meant that the other end was in the water and falling away with the waves and swells while the fouled end was held up in the air. It was a dangerous few minutes and threatened to spill the whole boatload into the water, but the snagged gear was finally cut loose and we began our night on the open ocean some 200 miles west of the Hebrides.
The last boat got away about 9pm. Earlier, after the torpedoing, the emergency generator had been started while there was still some light. Emergency lights illuminated the boat stations and the wireless operator sent out a string of SOS calls. These were received by the Swedish yacht SOUTHERN CROSS and by a Norwegian merchant ship, KNUTE NELSON. Both of which were to play major parts in the rescue operation.
|Also receiving the SOS was the American freighter CITY OF FLINT (left), which was to play a major role in the rescue as well as a later role as prize of the German pocket battleship DEUTSCHLAND (right).|
We were fortunate in having a dry boat and
enough men to handle the oars. Many were clad however, only in thin and
inadequate clothing and suffered miserably from the cold. There were
occasional rain squalls accompanied by a strong wind which made it impossible to
make noticeable headway. The persons in the boat were also weakened by
seasickness. Nearly everyone was desperately ill. Our boat was
loaded past capacity, which made rowing difficult. There were whitecaps on
the sea and the waves towered far above the boat. It took all our strength
to remain near the lights of ATHENIA, making headway was nearly
2:50am - Into the Propellers!
At approximately 2am the following morning, we sighted two vessels coming to our rescue and immediately lighted red flares to show them our position. One ship was the Norwegian freighter KNUTE NELSON and the other was the Swedish yacht SOUTHERN CROSS. They both hove to and we laboriously pulled up to the KNUTE NELSON since it was nearest to us. There were other boats waiting their turn alongside her so we swung in next to her hull very near the stern. We were unable to manage the boat in such cramped quarters and soon it drifted a few feet astern and immediately over the propellers of the ship. The propellers broke water as the ship rose and fell in the roughs. Then, probably to maneuver the ship into a better position, the engines were started. Naturally those aboard weren't aware of our location and the propellers rose under us, smashing our boat and turning everyone into the water. That was at 2:50am, for my rusted watch still indicates that hour.
We had been rowing two to an oar for six hours by this time and weren't exactly in peak condition, but we were now concerned with fending ourselves away from the hull of the ship and trying to maintain our boarding position. We were slowly losing the battle, but weren't prepared for what was about to happen. Some said they thought the ship's propellers had been making slow turns. I thought they were idle but in any event they were breaking water as the KNUTE NELSON, high in the water, pitched and rolled. When the ship's engines increased speed, the results were catastrophic. I dove over the side and swam hard.
John Bernard and I swam to the remains of the lifeboat which was drifting away from the freighter, climbed inside and were joined by three or four other persons. By this time there were British and French warships in the vicinity. Some time later another full boat from ATHENIA came past us and we climbed into it from the wrecked boat.
|We were now nearer
the SOUTHERN CROSS than the KNUTE NELSON so
we headed in its direction. Again we got alongside and again, too
far astern. The boat became unmanageable and the projecting stern
of the yacht came down on the boat, crushing and overturning it.
I'm afraid that this accident took a disproportionate toll of lives.
I swam to the wreckage of a lifeboat - possibly the one just destroyed -
and clambered in soon to be joined by three or four others. Once
the body of a young woman who had no lifebelt floated up to the boat.
There was still life in her and she was saved. I looked about for
John Bernard, but he was not seen again.
Soon a lifeboat manned by Swedish sailors put out from SOUTHERN CROSS took us in and rowed us back to the yacht where we and about 200 others were treated with solicitude and generosity that defy description. It was probably between 4 and 5am when we were taken aboard.
It was miraculous that John and I had
managed to get into the same lifeboat originally and to hang onto the same piece
of wreckage. We thought the loaded ATHENIA lifeboat we
finally clambered into was our salvation. When it was smashed by the stern
of the yacht, I'm sure our survival instincts told us in some way that we'd find
each other again and take the next step, whatever it was, to get aboard a rescue
Lost at Sea - It was Not to Be
That was not to be. John did not survive the second boat accident. He was an only child and my later visit to his parents was a wrenching experience. In any event, those of us who had found another piece of wreckage to hang onto were picked up by an empty ATHENIA lifeboat now manned by Swedish sailors from SOUTHERN CROSS, and they returned us to the yacht. All in all, the KNUTE NELSON which had been bound for Costa Rica, took over 400 survivors aboard. SOUTHERN CROSS, bound for the Bahamas, took on nearly 300 and the British destroyers picked up some 600,
NOTE - SOUTHERN CROSS was bound for the Bahamas because her owner, Axel Wenner-Gren, owned most of what is now called Paradise Island just off Nassau. He had a mansion complex there and if you saw the James Bond thriller THUNDERBALL, the arched bridge that Bond was creeping around is on the old estate. At this time in history, Wenner-Gren was the world's wealthiest man and 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.
Around 9:30am on Monday, 4 September, the
freighter CITY OF FLINT with bold American Flags painted n her
sides, arrived. Captain Gainard offered his assistance which was quickly
accepted. They already had an unprecedented thirty passengers aboard.
Before the day was over, they had taken aboard some 235 ATHENIA
survivors, most of them from SOUTHERN CROSS.
Aboard the CITY OF FLINT the cook prepared to serve meals in five or six sittings, and the ship's carpenter supervised the construction of more than 250 bunks in the hold. Enough blankets were supplied to take care of our needs.
When we were still about two days out we were joined by the U.S. Coast Guard cutters BIBB (left) and CAMPBELL (right) who fell into place on either side of the CITY OF FLINT and stayed with us until our arrival in Halifax on 13 September to the booming of a 21 gun salute. The cutters were a very welcome sight after the many days when signs of danger, such as noting that our wake was zig-zagging, causing a lot of apprehension.
In Halifax, our every need was met
including transportation to our final destinations. The outpouring of
welcome and assistance was overwhelming. I was flown home to Maine
courtesy of the Bangor DAILY NEWS.
My own favorite souvenir, which I found in my coat pocket in a waterlogged assortment of papers, was this memorandum:
"Dear Sir or Madame,
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