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|I do not dream of it
anymore. Sometimes whole days go by and I do not even think about
it. But then something pricks the memory pictures of dives to the
TITANIC (left), an article about the LUSITANIA
(right) or an old film about the war at sea and my mind travels back to
1939 and the day that World War II began - the day I almost became a
casualty of the first submarine attack of the war.
It was almost by chance that I was on
board the SS ATHENIA. Alarm bells had gone off in Europe and
I had rushed back to my London flat from a holiday in Yugoslavia. Italian
nationals were stopped at the border and in Paris, telephone connections with
England were abruptly cut off in mid-sentence, London was a city frantic with
preparations for war. Hitler had invaded Poland. An ultimatum from
Prime Minister Chamberlain was underway, British reserves had been called up,
children were being evacuated, railroad terminals were jammed with people
fleeing the city and some underground stations were shut down. Sandbagging
was persuasive; activity in backyard air raid shelters frantic. I had not
left in earlier crises such as Munich, but this was different. Still, I
was reluctant to abandon the country where I had worked since leaving college in
In the end, I opted to investigate the availability of trans-Atlantic passage. With the unlikely possibility of getting a booking at this zero hour, the decision would be out of my hands. This put me at the counter of a heavily besieged travel agency only a day before the 14,000 ton Donaldson liner ATHENIA was to depart from Liverpool. The fluke that landed me on board her was a last minute cancellation. I sometimes wonder about the person who cancelled. But I ponder even more often the words of the booking agent who said, with impatience uncharacteristic of the British:
"Do you want the ticket or don't you? There are thousands ready to snatch it up. Besides, don't you know there's no better way to die than by drowning?"
He could not know of course, how
devastatingly close he came to prophecy for I was to spend only a single night
in my hastily acquired berth. Two hundred miles off the coast of Ireland
on Sunday 3 September 1939, less than twelve hours after England and France
declared war on Germany, the ATHENIA was torpedoed by a German
submarine, the U-30. When the first count was in, at least
112 lives were lost - among them sixty-nine women and sixteen children.
The news that the Germans had attacked an unarmed passenger vessel carrying
mostly women and children sent a wave of horror around the world.
There were 1,102 passengers and a crew of 315. We came from all walks of life and many countries - Canada, the United States, Poland, other middle eastern nations and the British Isles. There were sad faced kerchiefed Slavic peasants with half naked shoeless children and innumerable bundles and baskets resembling steerage immigrants of the early twentieth century, blooming Texas sorority girls, typical middle class professionals and many securely affluent of the cabin class.
|Some luxury liners had already
been decommissioned in anticipation of war. The small unimpressive
ATHENIA was overbooked and overcrowded. The ship's
gymnasium had been turned into a dormitory; crew members gave some of
their quarters to passengers and other passengers were doubling up.
Meals were rescheduled for three sittings instead of the customary two.
ATHENIA had been partially blacked out even before she left Glasgow for New York on Friday, 1 September with brief stops at Belfast and Liverpool. Crewmen had painted over portholes and placed wooden shields on public room windows.
On Sunday, I stood at the bulletin board
and read a curt typewritten note stating that Hitler had ignored Chamberlain's
ultimatum and that Great Britain and Germany were at war. Total blackout
orders were now in effect - no cigarettes, matches or lights of any kind were
permitted on deck. Passengers walked outside at their own risk. A
lifeboat drill was scheduled before noon.
Some passengers joked about rusty davits and refused to go to their boat stations but Jim and Charles, two young American passengers who had been working in the Liverpool offices of the Donaldson Line, urged me to attend saying, "What can we lose?" Obediently, I went to the drill feeling discomfort at the fact that the lifeboat seemed to balk at clearing the side of the ship. I was a strong swimmer but even as a child, I had been terrified of drowning.
The atmosphere on board had been tense before the drill. Afterward it became doubly charged. Fear, if not on the lips of the passengers was in their faces. Shunning the real horror, the war, people joked nervously about everything else - food, crowds and the weather......but Charles and Jim shared my concerns about submarines. After the drill we met again and toured the upper decks searching for guns or other signs of military preparedness. There were none. The only visible change from a peacetime voyage was that the lifeboat covers had been stripped off. In another ten hours, Charles assured me, we would be too far out for submarines to follow. We decided to celebrate with drinks at the ship's bar before dinner.
|I anticipated a happy
evening. I had found two new friends and one of the ship's
officers had invited me to dine at his table. Back in my cabin, I
made a special effort to purge anxiety. I dressed with extra care
- a flashy black cocktail dress flecked with gold, paper thin long
stemmed sheer stockings and delicate high heeled evening sandals.
The final touch was a curious black and gold chunky bracelet from Paris,
embossed with small seahorses - the gift of a British beau.
The dining room, dotted with evening gowns and tuxedos, was vibrating with edgy high-pitched conversation. It was a late sitting. Most of the children had already been put to bed. The predominantly Scottish staff continued to work as it had been since we had weighed anchor with stiff, restrained commitment. There must have been music. The officer, a soft witless, self possessed young man, rose and pulled out the chair beside him as I arrived at his table. Then he leaned close to tell me he liked his job because he met,
"........so many interesting people - and pretty girls."
At a nearby table someone toasted the
king. Another officer assured his guests that in one more day we should be
clear of the danger zone. At my side, the young officer was coming on
"You must let me look after you,"
he said, unctuously squeezing my hand. A moment later my world would change forever.
There was no warning...........no emergency call, no ship's bells - just a crazy bang, an explosion like the slamming of en enormous steel vault bank door and the deafening sound of a dead weight hitting the side of the ship, then inky black and pandemonium. The ship lurched, dishes crashed to the floor, glasses and silverware slid of the table, soup slopped into my lap and the gilt trim of the officer's sleeve slipped from my hand. I called to him but never saw him again. The dining room became alive with people screaming; the floor a mass of scrambling legs and feet.
Somehow I stumbled from the table
toward the staircase, dragged and pushed by bodies pressed against me.
We moved slowly upward in the gloom like a great lumbering human
mastodon. Here and there matches flickered briefly. The air
filled with thick, lung choking acrid soot. I thought of the
LUSITANIA (left) but quickly stifled the thought.
I went back to the open part of the main
deck where most of the deck chairs were located. They were overturned now,
steamer rugs trailing aimlessly on the deck. A stewardess collected
blankets to take to the lifeboats. People rushed helter skelter in all
directions. Looking across to the other side, I saw a man seated on one of
the chairs, staring into space. Someone covered his head. Only then
did I realize he was dead. I turned and bumped into my friend Jim whom I
had last seen at the bar. He looked at me and cried,
"You have no life jacket! Stay here. I'm going below."
"God no!" I yelled back. "Don't go below! You don't know how badly we're hit. We might be sinking fast."
Noting on earth could have driven me to descend into the claustrophobic depths to collect a life preserver from my cabin. My claustrophobia extends, in moments of crisis, to others. But Jim had raced off. I waited, panic rising. Some of the lifeboats were being lowered. I could hear the screech of rusting pulleys. I could no longer stand still, waiting. My legs, against my will, raced back to my lifeboat station. A stewardess was there handing out blankets. I climbed into the boat but refused a blanket. Obviously others, older and with children, needed them more urgently. Below us another lifeboat hung, its cables taut, its keel only a few feet above the water.
"We'll be swamped!" a cry floated up. The bow cables suddenly loosened, leaving the boat half suspended with its prow sloshing in the waves.
Our boat swung out, half-filled, and I saw other lifeboats brimming with people, hanging in mid air, moving neither up nor down. "Cut the cables" yelled an officer. Only those in boats near the water dared to obey. Our boat landed with a 'POSH' and I felt the water moving underneath as the boat slid away from the ship's side. Looking back at ATHENIA, I saw two women clinging hopelessly to a rope ladder dangling from the steamer's side.
"Pull away, for Christ's sake!" screamed someone in our boat.
"Backwater, damn ye!" countered a commanding Scottish voice. The order came from our coxswain whose name we learned, was MacIntosh.
"There's hundreds still aboard. We're standing by to help." and we turned back to take on more passengers from overcrowded lifeboats.
|It seemed that we
stayed there forever, never less than a few yards from the side of the
ship. Her lower decks were now under water. If ATHENIA
turned turtle, we would be sucked down with her. My throat muscles
contracted with fear and I choked down the rising panic. The sun
had dropped below the horizon by this time and the sky was flushed with
darkening clouds. People begged 'Mac' to pull away.
We sighed with relief when he finally gave the order.
NOTE - OTTO KRETSCHMER (122-1985) proved that the old belief that a sinking ship creates a suction that pulls down everything around her is false. He stood at attention on the bridge of U-99 as it sank out from under him. He told Sharkhunters President HARRY COOPER (1-LIFE-1983), "You see Harry, I did not desert my ship. My ship deserted me!" 'Silent' OTTO was like that.
Rowing became increasingly difficult in
the choppy sea. Most of those on the oars were not crewmen but passengers,
untrained civilians, many of them refugees who understood little or no English.
The oars dug in as the boat crested a wave then missed the water entirely.
"We need two to an oar. We haven't enough men." shouted Mac.
Bravery was not what prompted me to volunteer. Work was a merciful release from sitting by helplessly and aimlessly. Close to an oarlock, I climbed over onto the narrow seat, grabbing the big oar. My hands weren't big enough for a full grip. Nest to me was a ship's steward named Jack, wearing a life vest from ATHENIA. He cursed quietly as we struggled to keep the oar in the water. At our feet another crew member kept yelling that Mac was crazy,
"Didn't know nothing about running a lifeboat."
"Shut up!" a woman shouted at him. "You too!" she added to another whimpering man huddled with a group of refugee men, too seasick and terrified to lend a hand. none of the half dozen children made a sound except for one youngster whose childish treble joined his other to cheer us on. "That's it now. Chins up. Got to keep going. All together now - heave!"
I shivered in my fancy dress. White capped waves rolled up against us, their crowns glistening in the peculiar misty light. A high wave sent a spray of water into the boat, nearly capsizing it. A woman whipped a wet sweater off her child and folded him in her blanket. I spotted a young woman from my cabin in the lifeboat. In the distance we could see ATHENIA, a gigantic searchlight on her top deck sending a piercing shaft of light across the black waves. It rained occasionally, a gentle rain like mist. The only sounds were the swish of waves, creaking of the oarlocks, grunts from rowers and the omnipresent moans and retching from the seasick. Jack interrupted his cursing to announce that he had been a crewman aboard ATHENIA for sixteen years;
"When I get back I'll sign up! It's the Navy for me. Goddamn Nazis!"
Mac began shouting at us from the stern.
"No etiquette here. No parlor manners. Need anything? Yell for it. You have
to go - do it overboard. For the ladies, here's a bucket. Forget manners.
Hell with 'em. The pain'll kill you otherwise."
The boat was pitching more violently now. The retching and heaving increased. Straining on my oar, I fought down nausea. Mac continued;
"We've got rations. This is a cabin boy; name's Seabiscuit. He'll hand them out later.
Now pull them oars. Keep in sight of ATHENIA. If rescue ships come, they'll come near her."
Rafts floated by, then the sight of an overturned lifeboat sent shudders through everyone. Could it happen to us? A baby continued to sleep peacefully in its mother's arms. The moans and groans from the refugees at our feet grew more frantic. Jack left me alone on our oar as he reached down to drag one of the men to the oarlock,
"We need two on all the oars to keep afloat. You too!"
he scowled at the man, who stared up at him, uncomprehending. The new oarsman worked sullenly for a few minutes, hanging his head down. A woman near him cried, "After all they have done; this too!" then she screamed and vomited over the side.
"Give 'em the bailer, not the bucket." Mac ordered. "We need that ourselves."
Then he called across the water, "We'll take some of your people."
The sea was too choppy for us to take on many more passengers. Two children tumbled over the bow into our boat while Mac, Seabiscuit and another man struggled to hold the lifeboats together with their hands. A girl came aboard, huddling to herself. A woman urged her to sit close to her and get warm. "Can't. Covered with oil." the girl said, her teeth chattering. "I smell awful. Damned lie about grease and oil keeping you warm. I'm frozen!" A girl in a coat who had already given up her blouse to another shivering victim, now took off her skirt and gave it to the newcomer.
In a desperate struggle to stay afloat, internal time clocks had stopped when someone announced that it was 2am. I could not believe that seven hours had gone by since the explosion. Still there was no rescue ship in sight. Seabiscuit passed out rations,
"Anybody want a biscuit?" he asked. A man's hand shot up and he screamed "Where? Where?" and
a woman passed him the hardtack. "Oh God, oh God!" his voice sobbed in disappointment, "thought
you said whiskey!" Some even smiled. I bit into the hardtack. It tasted like dog food.
In the distance we saw red rocket flares from other lifeboats. Mac said it was wasteful to release them so soon - we would wait. The sea continued to chop and churn. The energies of everyone in the boat merged into a single effort, staying afloat. But now other lights were beginning to appear. Jack grabbed my arm,
"There it is! There's one! They got the S.O.S. It's a rescue ship!"
Mac was not persuaded. Jack persisted,
"It's the Navy. I know it's the Navy! Pull everybody!"
Then there was another light, a great piercing white beam blinding everything in its path. Mac, still skeptical, warned that it was another false alarm. Still, we could make for it anyway. But the wind had turned against us. The harder we rowed, the farther away the light seemed to move. Our muscles were taut. We were at the point of exhaustion, our breathing labored. One oarsman dropped his hands and laid his sweating face against the oar.
"It's no use; no use."
In a second the boat sprang to life with voices clamoring for action.
"Pull! We're almost there! Pull everybody!"
The hulks of two ships loomed herby. Jack, straining and sweating heavily in the cumbersome life jacket he had worn all night, suddenly tore it off and was about to drop it overboard. I reached for the preserved, put it on, and tied the straps. It was the first time I had worn a life jacket since our ordeal began. The bulky vest made rowing harder, but we were drawing close to one of the ships, a destroyer - big and dark and ugly.
"Careful. Might be Nazis." Mac warned cautiously even though a Norwegian Flag hung from the mast. Sailors hallooed. Mac shouted that we were making for the other ship.
|The second vessel was a slim,
smooth, glistening white yacht lying like a mammoth gull upon the water,
her decks ablaze with lights. She flew a Swedish Flag. She
was the SOUTHERN CROSS, once the property of Howard
Hughes, now owned by Axel Wenner-Gren, a Swedish millionaire
industrialist known as the 'Electrolux King'.
NOTE - It must be remembered that he founded the Electrolux Vacuum Cleaner Company.
Near the yacht's stern, half swamped in
the heavy sea, a lifeboat was bobbing up and down. The sea drove us up
against the boat and its half-dozen frantic passengers grabbed our oarlocks and
fastened on with boat hooks. Mac yelled at them to let go and ordered us
to push off sideways but they clung on desperately and began to jump into our
lifeboat. Lifelines had been thrown to us from the yacht. In the
dangerous swelling sea, we were now firmly locked together, perilously close to
the yacht's stern. Finally, all but one girl had jumped from the sinking
lifeboat. She lunged toward us, slipped and fell between the two boats.
I reached for her, but she had disappeared.
By now, we had drifted under the counter of the SOUTHERN CROSS and at this moment a terrified man elected to make his personal bid for safety. He tried to climb up one of the lifelines. There was a scream behind me. We were being dragged closer and closer under the overhanging stern. Mac yelled at the man and twice tried to pry him loose from the lifeline. As the yacht pitched and fell, the counter drew still closer. I looked back. Our boat was teetering on its side at a forty-five degree angle.
The yacht's stern crashed down on us and the next thing I knew, I was in the water surrounded by churning bodies, thrashing arms and legs. I pushed out, kicking violently, and came up alongside our boat. It had turned turtle. Mac was straddling the keel, reaching out to us in the water. A shower of life rings rained down from the yacht but the current carried them quickly away from us. My memory jolted back to junior lifesaving classes and I went under, struggling to unbuckle the straps f my shoes.
At that moment, someone grabbed my neck underwater in a frantic stranglehold. It was a woman, twice my size. I could feel heavy breasts against my body. Her maniac, massive strength dragged me under twice, choking me, leaving me gasping for air. We were going down for the third time when I made my final pitch for life. I fought to the surface, cupped her chin and at last broke the stranglehold. I was free. I reached for her but the waves carried her out of reach. The swell was carrying us all farther and farther away from the SOUTHERN CROSS.
Motorized lifeboats had put out from the yacht and their occupants were pulling aboard those they could reach. I treaded water and yelled,
"Wait for me!"
A wave hit me in the face. Suddenly, two powerful arms mercifully lifted me out of the water and I found myself in a lifeboat - wet, gasping, retching sea water and covered with oil. A young man was picked up next. Then another who still had his legs over the side when he spotted a flash of white in the waves. He grabbed for it, caught hold of a tiny leg and lifted a baby into the boat.
A women next to me said quietly, "I've lost my boy. I'll take the baby." She cradled the infant and its cries subsided. Others were picked up. Then another woman. She screamed when she saw the baby, "That's my baby! Give me my baby!" As quietly as she had taken him, the first woman, dazed and staring straight ahead, gave up the infant. Then a boy's voice was heard shouting, "Mummy! Mummy!" and a woman yelled "Geoffrey!"
Before anyone could stop her, the woman jumped overboard. We could hear her son crying to her, directing her to him. He had surrounded himself with life rings and was treading water. They came back together and were pulled aboard. Neither had worn an ATHENIA life jacket. It was nearly dawn by the time the lifeboat returned to the yacht. Less than two thirds of our original boatload had been rescued. Two children were missing. So was Seabiscuit. I never again saw the young woman from my cabin. Another man, badly mangled by the blow from the counter, had lost his best friend.
No one spoke as the sailors from the SOUTHERN CROSS fixed ropes around our waists. As the sea swell lifted the lifeboat to the landing level, we were quickly hoisted aboard. Soup and food were ready for us. Tarpaulins covered the once luxurious parquet floors in the lounges. Weary, bedraggled survivors, some severely injured, lay everywhere. Shivering, dripping oil and grease, I wandered aimlessly. I was exhausted and finally I found a small space and squeezed myself up against a column. A young Swedish steward from the yacht pushed a cup of soup into my hands. We began to talk in a mixture of English and French. Staring at my oil-soaked dress. He told me to wait there - as if I could go anywhere - and he left. Soon he returned with gifts; his own white mess jacket and trousers, huge white sandals and his heavy blue wool pea jacket. I was to live in his clothes for nearly two weeks. In my new clown-like, oversized uniform I helped pass out trays of soup.
As the morning wore on, I went out on deck. The sun had risen fresh and clear. My friends Jim and Charles reappeared, both safe and uninjured. In the distance the ATHENIA was still partially afloat. As we watched, she turned vertically on her end and then slowly disappeared beneath the waves. Nearly fifteen hours had passed since the explosion.
"At least we didn't pay our bar bills." Jim said.
"My typewriter got torpedoed." I said.
It was Labor Day, though none of us remembered.
|Among the ships that
had picked up the distress call from ATHENIA was the 3,000
ton American freighter CITY OF FLINT. Three times in
the past her Skipper, Captain Joseph L. Gainard, had been on vessels
that were torpedoed. Although his ship already carried more than
five times its usual complement of passengers, he told them he was
changing course to help rescue survivors.
Manning their lifeboats, crew members from the FLINT began ferrying victims from SOUTHERN CROSS over to the freighter. The trained sailors expertly handling their oars were spectacular in comparison to the fumbling and recalcitrant crew of our ATHENIA lifeboat. I decided we must have stayed afloat through the night by some miracle.
As we neared the FLINT, I
was overjoyed to see the U.S. Flag. But in the next moment the sight of
the long, scary rope ladder hanging down from the freighter's side transformed
my joy into fear. I remembered those who had slipped between the boats the
night before and the injuries many had suffered trying to board other rescue
ships or other lifeboats.
I ground my teeth, clung desperately to the ladder determined to look up, not down. The climb was not as long as I had feared. Soon strong arms tumbled me over the rail and onto the deck of CITY OF FLINT.
I was safe aboard an American ship, and America was not at war............not yet.
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