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Captain Joseph L. Gainard, Skipper of
CITY OF FLINT and his crew faced a seemingly impossible task.
Already the freighter had at least thirty more passengers then usual. Now
she had rescued about 220 exhausted, battered, shivering survivors from the
In the pitching sea we had struggled up the fearsome long side rope ladder onto the ship's deck. We were a bedraggled, unkempt, motley costumed collection of people with oil smudged faces and clothing and snarled, salt ridden hair. Our rummage sale attire varied from ripped dresses and waterlogged pajamas to grease and grime smeared slacks and trousers. Some survivors had only one shoe. Few had coats or jackets. Many were wrapped in blankets topped by lifejackets. I may have appeared more stylish than others in my recently acquired outsize pea jacket and white uniform, but I kept stumbling over my feet in the huge white sandals that Tare, the steward aboard SOUTHERN CROSS had given me.
Crewmen from the FLINT and some volunteer carpenters had already begun hastily constructing sleeping accommodations for us - tarpaulin covered, double tiered wooden bunk beds lined with brown wrapping paper for sheets. They were built into the ship's hold and anywhere else space could be found or invented. These makeshift beds were soon augmented by canvas hammocks strung up in corridors and passageways to be occupied by passengers and crew who had given up their own quarters to needy ATHENIA survivors.
The able bodied and uninjured like myself were directed to the ship's hold where I suddenly acquired some forty or fifty roommates of both sexes. The acrid smell of fuel oil was pervasive. I found a berth toward the center of a row of floor bunks and wearily dumped my jacket on it. I may have had a cup of soup before nightfall but most of us were too tired to care about eating. By early evening, we were in our bunks. Despite the restless sea, I dozed off quickly.
Not long after though, I was awakened by roaring winds and a perilously pounding sea. The North Atlantic had not finished with us, and now served up a savage squall of the type for which these particular waters are famous. Huge waves sloshed back and forth beneath our bunks. The noise was deafening, punctuated by shrieks and cries from terrified ATHENIA survivors. As the FLINT rolled, leaning so heavily and so long first to one side then to the other. I hardly believed she could right herself.
Water was pouring down the ventilators and eventually officers came down to close them and reassure us. But water continued to splash at our feet and slap against the sides of the hold as the FLINT bucked and pitched through the storm. With the ventilators shut, the airless, oily atmosphere grew more and more oppressive. I could not breath. I felt the bulkheads closing in on me. I stumbled out of my bunk and crawled to the far side of the hold. There I buried my head upon my knees and spent the entire night gasping for breath. Someone (I do not remember if it was a man or a woman) put their arms around me. As morning broke, a trembling man in a clerical collar asked us in a quavering voice to join him in thanking God for deliverance.
If any had doubted the violence of the storm, we had only to look at the tattered ensign of the FLINT. It hung in limp, sad shreds.....but at least it was still flying. It symbolized how I felt. The sky, though grey, looked promising. We were not going to capsize after all. And there was plenty of work to be done. Passengers, stewards, survivors and crew came together in an incredible commitment to coping.
|The FLINT's original passengers included a number of college professors, students, some professionals and a clutch of glamorous American sorority girls from the Southwest. They and the crew dug deep into their suitcases and lockers to provide extra clothing for survivors. Crewmen braided rope fibers and fashioned shoes, especially for the children, many of whom had been shoeless to begin with. Women slipped into trousers three sizes too big, tying them with rope around waists and ankles.|
Broadway and Times Square
Someone recruited volunteers to take a census of survivors, swab decks, clean quarters and mount watches in regular shifts. The hammock filled corridors were named so that we could find our way around the ship. I remember 'Times Square' and 'Broadway'. The Chief Engineer's small cabin became a gathering place where news broadcasts were transcribed and typed from his radio, then posted on an improvised bulletin board. Volunteer translators, some of them children, interpreted for those who did not speak English. They occasionally had to go through two languages to open communications, especially for the Slavic people. Worked combed the ship looking for anyone who knew even a few words of another language or who had a knack for sign language.
Many went to work helping the harassed, overworked mess stewards. Six to eight staggered sittings were arranged for our meals. I have no memory of what we are, but I have the impression there was always miraculously enough. The FLINT had taken on extra supplies from at least one other of the ships coming to the rescue of ATHENIA. I went back to the waitressing I had done in college and spent hours cleaning and washing up. Nearly three hundred were fed each day.
|A First Aid station
was improvised. Dr. Richard L. Jenkins, a psychiatrist returning
on the FLINT from a Glasgow convention, gave his services
as ship's doctor. Two graduate nurses and other volunteers also
worked as medical crew. Lula Sweigard, a physical education
specialist with medical experience and herself an ATHENIA
survivor, assisted Jenkins. The team worked around the clock
caring for the swollen ankles, bruises, sprains, fractures and
lacerations many had suffered jumping and tumbling in and out of
lifeboats or alongside rocking vessels. Fresh water had to be
concerned, but buckets of sea water were heated at the steam pipes to
soak the injured limbs. Jenkins later wrote that Sweigard once
worked thirty-six hours without stopping.
As the weather improved and the sun began to shine, soggy mattresses and blankets were hauled up to the deck and draped over brooms to dry. Cheers rang out as hand-scrawled cables brought news of missing friends and relatives who were now safe.
(left) ATHENIA going down after the torpedo.
An Amherst professor organized a ship's
newspaper. Other adults supervised games for the children on deck each
day, and at night there were sing-alongs. Someone put together a fashion
parade with survivors modeling greasy overalls and blankets, tattered sweaters
and old shoes. A Boston schoolteacher danced the hula-hula wearing a 'grass'
skirt of unraveled rope and a lei fashioned from brightly colored magazine
pages. A party was organized for the children. I helped paint the
hold and bathe the mate's dog.
But tragedy still rode with us. A little girl who had suffered a concussion developed symptoms of high fever and brain swelling. Despite Jenkins' and Sweigard's tireless efforts on her behalf, which included acquisition of additional medical supplies and a consultation at sea with another ship's doctor - the ten year old slipped into a coma and died one night shortly after midnight. The FLINT's Flag flew at half mast for the remainder of the voyage.
Stories about those who seemed to have lost touch with reality now began to surface. We heard about a man who had come aboard demanding a cabin with a private bath. He slept in the hold with the rest of us. And a woman who complained that people from tourist class were eating at her sitting. Even some of FLINT's original passengers, like the modish Texas sorority belles, seemed to have little perception of the tragedy that had come so close. Even now, reunited with close friends who had been on the ATHENIA, their thoughts remained elsewhere. I heard one drawl that she just couldn't wait to get back for the prom season.
While the sorority girls yearned for college dances, many other women had more serious problems. Regular menstrual cycles went amok and post-menopausal women began inexplicably to begin to menstruate again. I remember trying to comfort a weeping, hysterical woman who could not comprehend what was happening to her. Coast Guard cutters were coming out to meet us with medical supplies and toiletries. I remember my embarrassment as I struggled to explain to a supply officer that the women needed sanitary napkins more that cosmetics and toiletries. And when the BIBB (below left) and the CAMPBELL (below right) met us a few days later, they carried boxes of Kotex, unfamiliar cargo for Coast Guard men in those days. Six of the ATHENIA's most seriously injured were transferred to the cutters so they could obtain medical attention before we docked.
|USCGC BIBB||USCGC CAMPBELL|
As we neared Canada where most of us had
planned to disembark, excitement mounted. When Halifax came into view we
laughed and cheered and cried together. Survivors went down the gangplank
with spirits soaring, still carrying their blankets and life jackets from the
ATHENIA. The dock was crowded with Red Cross and Canadian
Mounties. The Mounties, without horses, did not quite measure up to my
youthful, movie derived image.
Reporters and photographers also swarmed the dock. The torpedoing of the ATHENIA was one of the first big stories out of World War II and those of us who still looked bedraggled were the object of reporters' inquiry. After I had exchanged Tare's clothes for a mosey green skirt and blouse from the Red Cross, I was not nearly as appealing to the journalists.
Along with five other ATHENIA survivors including Lulu Sweigard, I remained on the FLINT until she reached her next destination in Hoboken, New Jersey. Before leaving Halifax, the freighter took on fresh supplies and much needed water. I shall never forget the glow from that long, luxurious hot shower - the first I'd had in ten days.
Awaiting Captain Gainard in Canada was a cable of commendation from the Chairman of the Maritime Commission for:
"Outstanding services to humanity according to the finest traditions of the sea.
The arduous mission which you and your men undertook has contributed another
heroic chapter to the history of the American Merchant Marine."
At last Gainard, who had given up his cabin to passengers, could catch some much needed sleep.
With only a handful of passengers on board, the FLINT seemed nearly deserted. And our few days journey to the United States now took on some aspects of a leisurely cruise. Meals became Epicurean blood red roast beef, crunchy salad with mountainous pies and cakes. I no longer had to wash dishes, wait table or clean up. The night before we landed at Hoboken, we were feted in a farewell banquet. The academics entertained with limericks they had written about the crew and survivors. The one they wrote for Lulu Sweigard ended:
"When there's work to be done
We agree, we are one
That she merits her name;
She's a Lulu!"
Mine contained the immortal lines:
"They sunk her in the water
They hadn't of oughter."
I was sorry to be leaving the people who had given so much of themselves to others. They had indelibly stamped on my young mind how superbly human beings can function in a crisis. It was a lesson I would never forget. And when I went down the FLINT's gangplank for the last time after having been aboard for some twelve days, I carried other reminders to keep memory bright - Tare's uniform and jacket which still hangs in my closet, addresses of new friends and cables from England and the U.S. My most important cable was from a wise and witty American engineer whom I had casually dated before I left America but with whom I had lost touch. His was the only cable I actually received at sea. A few days later in New York, my engineer was on the phone. It was the beginning of a relationship that was to last some forty years until his death in 1980. For, on a misty Friday the 13th in the year of Pearl Harbor, I married him. My disaster at sea had brought us back together.
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