Chamberlain’s Anguished Decision, Part 1

 

German soldiers march into Poland, Sept. 1, 1939.

In the early morning of Friday, Sept. 1, 1939, Poland faced the highly mechanized “blitzkrieg” of the German army and air forces in the opening hours of World War II. For help, the Poles looked to France and England, which had signed an earlier agreement to come to Poland’s aid in the event of such an attack.

Yet the two allies did not respond for 48 hours. Why did it take two days to condemn Adolf Hitler’s brazen invasion?

The answer involves the etiquette of diplomacy, colliding interests of allies, and a fervent desire to avoid war.

Differences first arose following the invasion when the British suggested to the French on Friday afternoon that the two countries jointly withdraw their ambassadors to Germany as a gesture of protest. French demurred, claiming such an act might doom the faint remaining hope for peace.
That evening in Parliament, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the members that the British ambassador to Germany would deliver “a severe warning” to the German foreign minister later that evening in Berlin. Germany, he said, should not doubt that Britain would fulfill its agreement to defend Poland and was resolved to meet force with force.

When the British message was delivered, it contained no specific demands on Germany and no deadlines. Hitler decided not to respond, believing England would not follow through on its warning.
On Saturday, Sept. 2, a full day after the German invasion, events began to speed up. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini proposed to convene a five-power conference, to include England and France, to settle the current crisis once a cease-fire could be brokered. That afternoon, Chamberlain met with his government ministers and resolved that German troops would have to leave Polish soil before such a conference could begin.

At this same meeting, the ministers discussed a request by France to hold off sending any ultimatum to the Germans for another 48 hours. Most of the ministers believed the warning delivered the previous evening had put Berlin on notice that Germany was risking war, and that such notice should end at midnight that night.

But it would be another 16 hours before Britain took a definitive stand.

Read more in our next blog.

HOMECOMING!!! The Exciting Conclusion of the Russell Park Story Part 13

September 27, 1939

A cold, drizzling rain greeted Orizaba sailing into New York Harbor on the afternoon of September twenty-seventh. As the ship tied up to a berth at Manhattan’s West 18th Street Pier, young Russell Park was surprised to see cheering crowds as big as those that had welcomed the Athenia survivors in Glasgow three weeks earlier.

“Can you see my parents?” Russell asked Father O’Connor, who stood behind him at the railing. The priest had promised to accompany the boy safely home to Philadelphia if there were no relatives to meet him in New York.

“No I don’t, Russell, but it’s a big crowd,” O’Connor said. “Once we get off the ship, I’m sure we’ll find them if they’re here.”

Russell was glad the priest stayed with him as they walked down the gangway and into a large terminal building. O’Connor steered him to a line of people that ended at a booth with a man in a blue uniform seated inside. It took several minutes to reach the front of the line, which the priest told him was an immigration checkpoint. The man in the uniform checked Russell’s name on a list then asked him where he was born and where he lived.

“Welcome home, son,” the man said after Russell answered his questions. “If people are meeting you here, they will be in a waiting area to the left after you go out the door.”

Past the booth, they walked through a door and into a large room filled with people and noise. A crowd stood on the left side of the huge hall and Russell saw several men with notepads and pencils talking to some of the passengers. Here and there flash bulbs burst in tiny explosions of light. He scanned the people hoping to see his parents, an aunt or an uncle, someone he might know. Before he could study all the faces carefully, Russell heard someone shouting to him.

“Sonny, over here.” There were two men holding notepads and wearing raincoats with shoulders darkened by the drizzle outside. “Were you on board the Athenia, son?”
Russell nodded as he tried to look beyond the two men, searching for his mother and father.
“Great. What were you doing when the torpedo hit the ship?” one man asked.
“Yeah,” said the other man, a pencil poised over his notepad. “What do you remember about the attack and your rescue?”

Russell wanted to find his parents, but the two men seemed very interested in talking to him. He looked around for Father O’Connor’s advice, but the priest was talking to another man holding a notepad.
“Come on over here, son. Tell us what you saw.” He decided he shouldn’t be rude to the men, so Russell stepped closer to answer their questions.

“I was with my dad in the lounge when the torpedo hit,” he said. The two men began scribbling hurriedly on their pads. “I was thrown and hit my head against something. All the lights went out, but I got up again and saw that something made dad limp.” Russell couldn’t remember exactly, but thought his father might have been hurt when the torpedo exploded. “Then dad went to get my mother, who was sick in bed, and I didn’t see my parents after that.”

“What’s your name, son, and where do you live?” asked one of the men, who didn’t look up from his pad. Russell responded, adding that he was eleven years old.
“Now all I want is to go by train with somebody who will let me off in West Philadelphia. Then I can find my own way home.”

“Russell!”

He looked up at the sound of his name and saw the stout figure of his mother hurrying toward him. She was followed by four aunts and uncles all rushing to greet him.

“Mom,” he called, feeling an overwhelming happiness that made his eyes water. He told himself he couldn’t cry in front of all these people, as he ran to his mother, threw his arms around her and felt her warmth envelop him. He was safe and no longer alone. Over his mother’s shoulder he saw his Uncle Robert and Uncle Bill and the familiar faces of a few other family friends, but his father was not among them. Before Russell could sort through his jumble of emotions, Rebecca bent toward him with tears in her eyes.
“I’m so sorry to tell you this, darling,” she said. “Daddy’s gone.”

It took Russell a few moments to understand what his mother had just told him. Confusion, disbelief and a profound sadness washed over him in quick succession as he realized he would never see his father again.
“I’m sorry, Mama, so sorry,” he sobbed. It was all he could think to say, and he hugged his mother even tighter. Russell had often daydreamed about adventures he and his father might share that would be the envy of the other boys in his neighborhood. It never occurred to him that adventure could come with such tragic consequences.

It would take several years for Russell to give up the faint hope that his father might somehow reappear, but for the rest of his life he would wonder what might have happened to Alexander Park on that fateful September night in 1939.

Read the entire story of Russell Park:

www.thomascsanger.com

Purchase your copy of “Without Warning” http://bit.ly/WithoutWarningonAmazon

 

 

The Russell Park Story, Part 12

The American passenger ship SS Orizaba

September 20, 1939

A few bright stars shone in the twilight sky as the American passenger ship Orizaba sat anchored in Galway Bay on Ireland’s west coast. Eleven-year-old Russell Park, who had boarded the ship in Glasgow, Scotland, with the first group of Athenia survivors, stood at the ship’s railing to watch the final group of passengers come aboard. The crowded little ship would set sail that night, bound for New York Harbor.

While in Glasgow, Russell learned his mother was rescued by an American freighter and had returned home to Philadelphia, but there was still no word about his father. In the absence of Russell’s parents, he was being looked after by Charles Van Newkirk, who had been in the same cabin with Russell’s father, Alexander, when they were aboard Athenia. Although Alexander Park wasn’t listed among the Athenia survivors landed in Galway, the boy couldn’t keep himself from looking for his father’s slight figure among the boarding passengers.

“Just a few more minutes and we should go below for our dinner seating,” Van Newkirk told Russell after glancing at his pocket watch.

“Okay,” Russell responded, his focus remaining on the people coming aboard. He was not alone. Several passengers stood by, scanning the new arrivals for a loved one or close friend from whom they had been separated during the rescue operations. Every so often a new shout of recognition would announce an impromptu reunion as a husband and wife or mother and child found each other.

Russell’s body stiffened when he recognized a young priest stepping on board.

“Father O’Connor!” the boy shouted and began waving. “Father O’Connor, up here!”

The priest followed the sound of his name and looked up to find Russell at the railing above the main deck. His face broke into as wide smile as he waved back at the boy.

“Stay there,” he called to Russell. “We’re coming up.” Russell was thrilled to see Father Joseph O’Connor, who had been with him and his father briefly when Athenia dropped anchor in Liverpool. His parents and the priest had first met on the ship that had carried them to Ireland from America in early August.

Moments later, Father O’Connor, who was traveling with his father, Charles, arrived on the upper deck and Russell rushed to give the priest an enthusiastic hug, which he returned in kind.

“How are you, son?” O’Connor asked. “We were so worried about you and your parents.”

“I’m good, Father. I was rescued by a destroyer and they took us back to Scotland.”

“And what about your parents? Are they on board, too?”

“No, they’re not here.” Russell tried to hide the disappointment in his voice. “My mother was rescued by another ship that went to Canada last week.”

“That’s wonderful. And your father?”

“Um, I don’t know where he is. Maybe he’s already home.”

“Yes, of course. We’ll pray that wherever he is, your father is safe and well.”

The young priest turned to introduce himself and his father to Van Newkirk, who explained to the priest that he had volunteered to look after Russell for the duration of their trip to New York. Russell watched the two men talk without really listening to their conversation. He felt reassured by the priest’s familiar presence. Maybe his life, which had been knocked so askew ever since the torpedo struck Athenia, was beginning to come together again.

“Russell?” Father O’Connor turned toward the boy. “If it’s alright with you, Mr. Van Newkirk has agreed that when we arrive in New York, dad and I will accompany you off the ship. Since we’re all going back to Philadelphia and your friend is going to Boston, we can travel together if your mom and dad aren’t able to meet the ship. What do you think?”

“That would be great,” Russell said. “Are you sure that’s okay, Mr. Van Newkirk?”

“It’s fine with me.”

Though the daylight was fading quickly, the world seemed brighter to Russell. He turned his gaze back to the arriving passengers and thought how wonderful it would be to see his father step aboard Orizaba.

In our final, blog: Reunion awaits in New York Harbor.

For all the parts of the Russell Park Story:  www.thomascsanger.com

Did My Parents Survive? The Russell Park Story, Part 11

Survivors from the Athenia arrive in Glasgow following their rescue at sea.

Tuesday, September 5, 1939

A long line of single and double-decked buses, led by several ambulances, threaded their way through Glasgow’s suburbs. Filled with survivors of Athenia’s sinking, the buses were arriving several hours after the survivors had been expected to disembark in the city. A dense fog lingering on the River Clyde had forced the rescue ships to dock at Greenock, twenty-five miles west of Glasgow.

All along the route from Greenock, small groups of people stood by the roadway to cheer and wave at the pale yellow city buses with their green and orange trim. The crowds grew larger and louder as the vehicles approached the center of the city.

“Why are they all cheering?” eleven-year-old Russell Park asked.

“I don’t know,” answered the man seated next to him. “Maybe they want to make us feel good after all we’ve been through, or let us know they’re happy we survived.”

“I wish Mom and Dad were here.”

“So do I,” the man said softly. Russell knew the man, Mr. Van Newkirk, had shared the cabin with Russell’s father, Alexander, aboard Athenia. Mr. Van Newkirk had stepped forward in Greenock when Russell was processing off H.M.S. Escort to say he would look after the boy until his parents could be located or someone better qualified took over.

“Did I tell you I saw your father after the torpedo hit us?”

“Really? Where was he?” Russell ached for any news about his parents.

“He was on our deck in the starboard passageway. I was headed up to my muster station when and he stopped me. He asked if I had seen your mother and I told him no. He thanked me and kept on heading aft. I didn’t see him after that.”

“But you saw him after he left me. That’s good.” Russell’s father had left him on the Boat deck stairway to find Russell’s mother. While there had been no information about his father since then, the thought that someone had seen him gave Russell hope. From his window seat he waved back at the people lining the streets. Several buses went off in a different direction as they entered the center of the city and moved slowly down a wide boulevard.

“It looks like this is our stop,” Mr. Van Newkirk said, as their bus and three others pulled up in front of a tall gray building. Russell read the name “Beresford Hotel” above its entrance. They climbed down from the bus and walked toward the hotel through a corridor lined with reporters, photographers, policemen, and well-wishers. Russell saw flashbulbs popping and heard questions being shouted, along with applause and cheering from all the people. A few men and women were crying. He thought he might ask them what was wrong, but they were smiling and, besides, Mr. Van Newkirk kept steering him straight ahead, through a set of revolving doors and into the hotel lobby, which provided a sanctuary from the clamor outside.

Russell took a seat on a tufted bench near a large potted plant, while his companion looked after arrangements for their room. He looked around for a familiar face, but saw no one he recognized. Adults stood in small groups, talking in hushed tones. Russell was surprised to see so many of them looking disheveled, their hair still windblown and wearing ill-fitting outfits or still clutching blankets around their shoulders. Several women wore mismatched dungarees and work shirts that seemed too big for them, with sleeves and pant legs rolled up. He guessed they had been borrowed from sailors on the destroyer, and it saddened him to see adults looking so vulnerable and tired.

Ten minutes later, Mr. Van Newkirk returned with a room key and some news.

“I asked about your mother and father at the desk,” he said, sitting down next to Russell. “They told me there’s no complete list of survivors yet. A Norwegian rescue ship is supposed to arrive today in Ireland, and there is an American freighter taking a bunch of survivors to Canada, I believe. They could be on one of those ships. But it will probably be another day, maybe two, before we know. I’m sorry, Russell. I wish I could tell you more.”

Russell nodded and sat back on the bench, feeling exhausted.

“Now, would you like something to eat? The hotel set up a buffet for all of us in a room down the hall.”

“I don’t know.” The lack of any more news about his parents, combined with the sleep he had missed over the past few days, had taken the edge off Russell’s appetite. “I’m kinda tired. Maybe I could take a nap and get something to eat later?”

“Good idea,” Mr. Van Newkirk said. They stood and headed for the elevator.

In our next blog: A familiar face at last.

For the entire Russell Park story, see www.thomascsanger.com

A Fruitless Search! The Russell Park Story, Part 10

HMS Electra, the sister ship of HMS Escort, which rescued Russell. Electra assisted Escort in the rescue of the SS Athenia survivors.

HMS Electra, the sister ship of HMS Escort, which rescued Russell. Electra assisted Escort in the rescue of the SS Athenia survivors.

Monday, September 4, 1939

A gnawing hunger roused eleven-year-old Russell Park from troubled dreams. He rolled out of his hammock and stood, unsure how long he had slept, but keenly aware food was now a priority. Adapting to the ship’s roll, he moved carefully among several swaying hammocks to exit the temporary sleeping quarters. In the narrow passageway, he found a sailor who escorted him to the ship’s galley where a tall man in a white apron handed him a corned beef sandwich and a hot mug of tea.

Seated at a long table with a few other Athenia survivors, Russell ate his sandwich and learned he was aboard H.M.S. Escort, that the explosion on Athenia had been caused by a torpedo, and that the ship finally sank an hour ago. All of this was of passing interest to the boy, who took his last sip of tea from the white china mug and headed up on deck to look for his parents.

Russell stepped onto Escort’s busy main deck in a hazy noonday sun. Looking up and down the narrow gray ship, he saw little room to spare for the Athenia survivors standing on its main deck. They congregated on its bow and stern, smoking and talking in small groups, and stood two by two in the destroyer’s narrow walkways along her port and starboard railings. He sidled through the crowd, taking his time and looking carefully into doorways and down passages to make sure he didn’t miss anyone. A half-hour later he returned to his starting point, certain his mom and dad were not on deck.

He went below decks again to the forward compartment where he had slept. Checking each of the occupied hammocks, he quickly determined his parents were not there. When he began his search, Russell had been certain his parents were aboard the ship. Now his disappointment at not finding them sent a queasy sensation through his body. He walked back out on deck to search again for his parents, but this time he had to brush away his tears as he looked for their familiar faces.

“Here now, what’s this all about?” A sandy-haired man in a blue-black double breasted officer’s uniform approached him.

“I don’t know where my mom and dad are.” Russell choked back a sob.

“Were they in the lifeboat with you?”

Russell shook his head.

“What are their names, son?”

“Alexander and Rebecca Park.”

“Do you want me to look with you?”

“No sir.” Russell swallowed hard. “I’ve already looked everywhere, even the people sleeping downstairs.”

The man stepped forward and put a hand on Russell’s shoulder.

“They’re probably on another ship, son,” the man said. “There are three others besides us.  We’ll sort it all out when we get back to Glasgow. You’ll probably find them there.”

The sound of the man’s voice, his words, and his hand on Russell’s shoulder all reassured the boy that someone cared about him.

“Listen, I have a few minutes before I go on duty. Would you like me to show you around the ship?”

“Yes, sir,” Russell said. “Thank you.” He welcomed the opportunity to see the ship, but the absence of his parents tempered his excitement.

“Good,” the officer said. “What’s your name, son?”

“Russell.”

“Very nice to meet you, Russell.” The officer shook Russell’s hand. “I’m Leftenant Christopher. I think I’ve got something you might find interesting.” He steered Russell through the crowd until they were standing by a long gray cylinder half as tall as the boy. Lieutenant Christopher explained that it was a torpedo tube and that the destroyer sometimes used torpedoes to attack enemy ships. They walked to the open end of the tube and Russell looked in to see the front of the torpedo, a steel missile painted the same gray color as the rest of the ship.

“What’s that bump?” Russell pointed to a round knob on the middle of the torpedo’s nose.

“That’s the detonator. When the torpedo hits a ship, the detonator causes the warhead to explode. That’s what causes the ship to sink.”

“Is this like the torpedo that hit our ship?”

“Quite likely, I’d say.”

Russell felt a chill looking at the same kind of device that had hit Athenia and caused so much chaos. For a moment, he recalled the loud roar and the terrifying feeling of flying through the air. He heard the screams of the people in the darkened room where he had been reading with his father. The officer’s hand on his shoulder brought Russell back to the present.

“I’ll bet it was pretty frightening, wasn’t it? Do you want to hear a secret?”

Russell nodded, as the image of his father walking away from him on the stairs faded from his imagination.

“I’ve been in the Royal Navy for nearly three years, and I’ve never been torpedoed. Never even been shot at. When the time comes, I hope I can be a brave as you.”

Russell smiled. Maybe he had been brave, at least some of the time.

“I have to go now, Russell. We’re taking on some passengers from the yacht over there and I’m in charge of the boarding operations.” He knelt to look the boy more squarely in the eye. “We’ll find your parents. Don’t you worry.”

“All right,” Russell nodded. The officer stood, brushed the boy’s dark brown hair from his forehead, and headed away in the direction of Escort’s stern. Russell looked over a slate gray sea of splashing whitecaps in the direction of the large white yacht. He wondered if it was the other rescue ship whose lights he had seen last night. With a start, he realized his parents might be on that white ship.

Maybe they will be coming with the passengers transferring to the Escort

His hopes soaring once again, Russell ran to the ship’s railing where he would be able to watch the transfer operations.

In our next blog: Russell comes ashore in Scotland and a new friend looks after him.

For the whole story see:  www.thomascsanger.com

 

Mysterious Lights: The Russell Park Story, Part 9

escort

Monday Dawn, September 4

Even though he was tired, eleven-year-old Russell Park had not slept since his lifeboat’s near miss with the rescue ship Knute Nelson. Splashing oars, constant efforts to bail out the boat, and spray from the white-capped waves kept sleep at bay. At least the misty rains had stopped and the half-moon, now in the western sky, was a more constant companion, only occasionally ducking behind fast running clouds.

Driven by the rising wind, the ocean’s swells had steadily grown. Each time their boat started up another wave, Russell worried that the wall of water might throw them over backwards. Yet somehow they always gained the crest without anyone falling out. He would feel the boat come level briefly before sliding down the back of the wave at such a steep angle the bow seemed to fall away below his feet. In the trough between waves, passengers resumed their efforts at bailing or working the oars to align themselves for the next wave.

Over and over the routine repeated itself until Russell forgot his fears and began to watch the distant rescue operations with greater interest. Each time the boat topped a wave, he looked to the west for the Nelson’s lights and to the southeast where a second, brightly lighted ship sat like a large white seabird on the ocean. Once when they came to the crest of a wave, he noticed a distant red light in the east that he hadn’t seen before. It was still there when they rose on the next swell. Two waves later a second red light appeared on the water. Soon he could make out two dark shapes moving with the lights.

“Are those rescue ships?” he asked the steward, who was the only Athenia crew member in their lifeboat.

“Could be.”

“Why are they so dark?”

“Maybe they’re worried about German subs.”

“But the ships with the lights aren’t worried.”

“No they ain’t. That big ship we slipped by, that’s from Norway. Norway’s a neutral country. She’s not at war with Germany, so she’s not worried about being sunk. The other one with the bright lights is probably a neutral, too. So I’m guessing those dark ships way over there are our navy. Of course, they could be German raiders.”

“Really?”

The steward gave Russell a long look and smiled.

“Nah, more ‘n likely they’re Royal Navy. At least I hope so, for our sakes, laddie.”

The man gave Russell the task of tracking the movements of the dark ships with the red lights on their sterns and reporting to him if one of them veered in their direction. For an hour, he dutifully watched the ships, and noted they were making a large circle around the rescue operations. When a third dark ship arrived, he reported one of the ships entered the circle and was using its spotlight to find lifeboats and pick up passengers.

“Now we’re getting somewhere, laddie,” the steward said. “Let me know if she keeps coming closer.”

Russell had been so intent on following the ships he hadn’t noticed the clouds in the eastern sky brightening to a pearl gray. When he realized dawn was about to break, his fears began to retreat with the night. In the morning light the boy thought the rescue ships would have a better chance of seeing their disabled lifeboat.

“They have to come for us now, don’t they?” he asked the waiter.

“Aye, it’ll be our turn soon enough.”

Russell waited for the next swell to resume his lookout duties, but when they rose to the top of the wave he was surprised to see a third large rescue ship that he hadn’t seen come up in the night.

“Where did that ship come from?”

“That’s Athenia, laddie.”

“But I thought it sank last night.”

“And so did I. Probably her generators shut down and all the lights went out so we couldn’t see her anymore. But she’s still there.”

If Athenia didn’t sink then Mom and Dad had time to get off the ship. I could be with them later today.  

“I’ll tell ya something else,” the steward said. “Those ships with the red lights you been watching? They’re definitely Royal Navy destroyers.”

Realizing he was about to be rescued and reunited with his parents, Russell’s outlook brightened with the eastern sky. His spirits lifted even more when one of the destroyers methodically made its way toward them, picking up survivors from two other boats before finally coming alongside.

Sailors aboard H.M.S. Escort threw down a line to secure the lifeboat’s bow along their ship’s hull. Next came a rope ladder and several safety lines. Someone put the loop of a safety line under Russell’s arms and helped him onto the ladder, where he was practically lifted aboard the destroyer. Standing on Escort’s deck, he felt heavy and unsteady, unexpectedly overcome by the weight of the sleep that eluded him for most of the night. He wanted to search for his parents, but when a sailor asked if he was tired, all Russell could do was respond with a nod. The sailor took him forward below decks, to a narrow room where several hammocks swayed lazily with the motion of the ship. He helped Russell into one of the hammocks where the boy quickly fell asleep, unaware of the snoring presence of other Athenia survivors.

In our next blog: Russell searches the ship for his parents.

For the series of blogs please visit www.thomascsanger.com

The Russell Park Story: Where are my Parents? Part 8

The KNUTE NELSON passenger ship

The KNUTE NELSON:  Cargo Ship

Monday 1:00 – 3:00 a.m., September 4

Misty rains came and went throughout the night and into the early morning hours, leaving eleven-year-old Russell Park and his fellow passenger in Lifeboat 7A feeling cold and wet. The combination of leaks in the boat, splashing oars, and salt spray from the cold wind and rising waves kept him huddled down on his side bench. He had begun to notice debris floating in the water – life rings, papers, pieces of wooden deck furniture, and boxes with writing on them. When he spotted sparkling red lights bobbing on the ocean, Russell thought they were rescue ships until the steward in charge of their lifeboat told him they were flares from other lifeboats. No one could find the flares in Russell’s boat. Someone asked the steward what had happened to the Athenia, but he said he didn’t know.

The boat continued to drift. The people at the oars responded to the steward’s orders as he sought to keep their bow pointed toward the approaching waves while staying in sight of Athenia. Russell closed his eyes and lost track of the time.

“She’s gone,” someone said.

He sat up and looked around, wondering who had gone? Did one of the passengers fall out of the boat? When he scanned the horizon he realized Athenia’s lights were nowhere in sight. The ship must have finally sunk and with it, his hopes for his parents. Did they get off in time? Loneliness enveloped him once again. He crouched further down on his bench, closed his eyes and let the tears roll down his cheeks, trying to cry as quietly as possible.

* * *

Voices in the air around him droned, words became distant and indistinct. He found himself sitting in a rowboat with his mom and dad. They had managed to get off the ship! They were on a lake and the sun was shining down, warming his neck and shoulders. His parents were talking to him about the big book sitting on his lap with pictures of trains.

“When we get home, we’ll make sure you get to ride with the engineer,” his father said.

“And blow the whistle,” his mother added. “That would be fun, wouldn’t it?”

Russell noticed water – rain drops – falling on his book and he tried to protect the pictures. He looked up to see the sky had grown dark. The sun was a bright light on the horizon.

“It’s a ship.”

The voice did not belong to his mom or dad.

“It’s coming this way,” another voice said. Russell struggled to understand and saw people in his rowboat talking and pointing to the horizon. Where were his parents? As voices around him began to rise, he realized he was still in the lifeboat. His disappointment quickly gave way to the excitement in people’s voices. Away on the southwest horizon he saw two bright points of light on the water. When the steward in charge said the lights probably belonged to a rescue ship, Russell caught his breath. Maybe his parents were on the ship.

“I think it’s stopped.” A woman sitting near the bow made the initial observation, and in a few more minutes it became apparent that the ship wasn’t coming any closer. Several people in the lifeboat groaned. Russell realized they would need to somehow get themselves to the ship if they were going to be rescued.

“I can help row,” he said to the steward.

“Thanks, laddie, but it’s too far,” the man responded. “Besides the wind is blowing us in the right direction so we can save our strength for now.”

Boat 7A drifted slowly toward the rescue ship, whose silver-gray hull rode high on the water. After half an hour they approached close enough for Russell to count its three masts and single smoke funnel. The ship’s bright lights illuminated figures moving around the deck, throwing lines to other lifeboats pulling up alongside.

“Now,” the steward called to his rowers. “Everyone put your backs into in. Pull for all you’re worth.”

The oars splashed into the sea, but the boat responded sluggishly. The steward attempted steer a course using his surplus oar. Despite everyone’s desperate efforts, Russell saw clearly the current and the wind that had brought them so far were now pushing them beyond their rescue opportunity. He and his fellow passengers began shouting to the sailors on the rescue ship. They were close enough for Russell to see a big red flag with a blue cross and to read the name “KNUTE NELSON” across the ship’s stern.

But no one on the big ship’s deck seemed to hear their calls or see their lifeboat as they slowly drifted past the big ship and into the night.

In our next blog: Russell spies mysterious red lights on the horizon.

Read the whole story:  www.thomascsanger.com

Russell Park Part 7: On The Lifeboat!

At Sea In a Lifeboat : After the Sinking of the SS Athenia

At Sea In a Lifeboat : After the Sinking of the SS Athenia

Sunday, 9:10 – 11:00 a.m., September 3

Everything on board Lifeboat 7A seemed chaotic and worrisome to Russell. Seated on the starboard side behind the last cross-bench, he discovered he could reach over the gunwale and put his hand in the cold ocean. He thought it was dangerous for the boat to be riding so low in the water and worried about how he would survive without a lifejacket if they sank.

Russell’s biggest concern was the water inside the boat. In addition to the missing plug for the rainwater drain, there were several other leaks in the wooden hull. As passengers discovered the leaks, they tore off bits of clothing to wedge into the cracks, but still the water seeped in. The bailing bucket wasn’t enough, so a few of the men used their shoes to dump out water, while some women bailed water with their purses. It was exhausting work and after fifteen minutes or so, people began to slow down or take a breather, at which point the water level slowly began to rise and the frantic activity started all over.

The only Athenia crewman aboard was an older man who worked as a waiter in the Tourist dining saloon, someone had said. Russell wondered if his lack of experience was the reason why he struggled to guide the boat and direct the people at the oars. The passengers in the boat had only been able to find three of its eight oarlocks, leaving the port side of the boat underpowered. Without a tiller, the steward used one of the extra oars to try to steer the boat, but Russell didn’t think it had much effect.

On the cross-bench ahead of him, he watched two women struggle to work one of the oars. Coordinating their actions in response to the steward’s directions looked difficult and they were often out of synch with the starboard oar of the people ahead of them.

“Starboard side stop rowing,” the steward at the back of the boat called out. “You ladies on the right side of the boat stop for a moment and let the portside come around.” They stopped rowing, but Russell could see the confusion in their faces. One woman let go of the oar altogether while the second one turned around to look at the bow. At that moment, a wave swept the oar out of the oarlock and it fell overboard as the first women screamed in surprise.

Russell quickly reached over the gunwale and got a hand on the heavy oar, keeping it from drifting away from the boat.

“Don’t let go, sonny,” someone shouted. Several passengers seated near him reached out to pull the oar back into the boat and secure it the oarlock, where the two women once again took possession of it.

“Good work, laddie,” the steward called out.

“Well done.”

“Quick thinking, son.” Several people offered congratulations and a few clapped him on the shoulder with their thanks. Even though there were other unused oars in the boat, Russell felt genuinely appreciated by the adults. A sense of belonging began to replace the loneliness that had accompanied him into the lifeboat.

In our next blog: A rescue ship appears in the night.

For the series of blogs please visit www.thomascsanger.com

Russell Park & the SS Athenia Part 6…

Painting of the SS Athenia Sinking by W.J. Burgess

Painting of the SS Athenia Sinking by W.J. Burgess

Sunday, 8:15 – 9:10 p.m., September 3, 1939

One after another, Russell watched several lifeboats depart from Athenia’s Boat deck.  Each time a boat descended, he moved to another station. He promised his father he would go once the boats were ready, even if his father and mother had not yet returned, but he couldn’t bear the thought of getting into a lifeboat without his parents. Russell was certain they would return at any moment, so he hung back in the crowd.

Once while moving to a new station he saw two men in the water swimming to a lifeboat that had already been launched. He noticed they were wearing lifejackets and realized with a start that he didn’t have one. Even though he couldn’t swim, Russell didn’t want to search for a lifejacket for fear he might miss his parents. With the crowd thinning, however, he was becoming more conspicuous.

Something else also was becoming conspicuous. Athenia’s deck leaned more and more down toward the port side of the ship. If it kept up, everyone would slide off the deck into the ocean. It had been an hour since his father left. Where could they be?

Finally, there was only one lifeboat left – number 7A on the starboard side. The lifeboat tilted slightly inwards and would not come off its blocks, despite the efforts of several crewmen pulling on the ropes to lift its bow and stern. They tried to rock the boat by leaning on its gunwales, but it didn’t budge. The delay in launching the stubborn boat gave Russell hope his parents would arrive in time to leave with him.

He watched three crewmen place a long piece of lumber under the boat and over the railing that separated the lifeboat from the rest of the deck. They tried to lever the heavy lifeboat with several men on the long end of the wooden beam but succeeded only in breaking the metal railing. In a final act of desperation, a few men grabbed fire axes and began chopping away at the blocks under the boat. After several minutes it seemed to come free, settling on its keel with a gentle rocking motion. As the men with the axes stood back in triumph, Russell was the only one on deck not cheering their accomplishment.

He watched the now familiar routine as the crewmen hauled on ropes at either end of the boat to raise it off the deck, crank the davits to swing it out over the side of the ship, and lower it level for loading. The surge of passengers carried Russell forward. He turned to search frantically for any glimpse of his parents, but they were nowhere in sight. To keep from being trampled, he stepped into the boat and found a seat on the far side behind the last cross-bench. Everything was happening too fast.

The Boat deck disappeared above him as 7A began descending, scraping down the side of Athenia’s hull because of the way the ship leaned to port. Three feet from the water, the boat came to an abrupt stop. Russell wondered if the ropes were too short, when suddenly the boat dropped into the ocean with a loud splash, accompanied by shouts from the people up on deck.

“Good luck.”

“Well done.”

“See you in the morning.”

Russell wondered if his father and mother were among the people shouting. Maybe they came up on deck just as the lifeboat was launched. But this was the last boat and he felt guilty to be leaving his parents aboard, along with several members of Athenia’s crew.

“What about them?” Russell cried, pointing to people shouting and waving on the Boat deck.

“Don’t worry about them, laddie,” a man in a white coat sitting in the stern responded. “There are two motor launches to take them off.” The casual note in the man’s voice as much as the words themselves gave Russell hope that he would be back with his parents soon.

But as the lifeboat pulled away from Athenia, he began to have second thoughts about leaving the ship. First, the people in the lifeboat found only a few of the oarlocks needed to hold the oars for rowing, nor could they find the tiller that moved the rudder to steer the boat. Worst of all the boat was leaking because the wooden plug for the drain in the bottom had been dislodged when they hit the water.

Earlier in the afternoon, Russell had imagined commanding the sturdy little wooden boat on the high seas. Now it didn’t seem like such a good idea. The cold, dark night closed down around him and the boat didn’t feel so sturdy, leaking and bobbing up and down on big rolling waves. Athenia’s steel deck seemed much more substantial, no matter how awkwardly it was tilted. From a distance the big ship looked safe to him, with its emergency lights providing a haven in the darkness. How he wished now he could be back on board with his parents.

In our next blog: Russell’s quick action saves an oar and earns praise from his shipmates.

For all the blogs about Russell Park in this series, please visit www.thomascsanger.com  

 

Russell Park & the SS Athenia, Part 5

atheniasink

Sunday, Early Evening, September 3:  Russell Park and his father, Alexander, returned from the first dinner seating in the Tourist dining saloon and knocked softly on the cabin door where Russell and his mother were staying with two other women on B deck. Rebecca had decided to skip the evening meal because of her upset stomach.

“Come in,” she called. They entered to find her alone, looking pale and still in bed.

“Do you want to see the doctor?” Alexander asked.

“Let’s wait until morning.” She smiled. “I’m afraid I’m not very good company right now. You two should go for a walk before it’s dark. I’ll probably be asleep by the time you bring Russell back.”

“Are you sure you’ll be all right for now?” Alexander put the back of his hand on his wife’s forehead. “You don’t feel like you have a temperature.”

“No, I think it’s the ship’s motion. I’m just going to have to get used to it.”

“I hope you feel better, mom.”

“Thanks, sweetie.”

Russell and his father took a brief turn on the aft end of the Promenade deck and watched  the last of the orange sunset fade to gray in the clouds overhead. Then they went inside to the Tourist lounge, where his father suggested Russell could check out a book from the ship’s library. Russell chose an oversized book about trains from the children’s shelf, and followed his father to two comfy looking chairs by a large glass-topped table.

“Why don’t we sit here for a few minutes,” his father suggested. “You can look at your trains and I’ll read this magazine.” Alexander picked up a copy of Time lying on the table, while Russell settled into the chair next to him. The train book was so big its pages reached across Russell’s lap to both sides of the chair. He stared at a dramatic illustration with a dangerous looking gray sky hanging over a long dark shape surrounded by several swooping splashes of white. It took him a moment to work out the picture of a steam locomotive plowing through a snowstorm.

After a few pages, Russell had trouble keeping his eyes open. His head had just begun to nod when a deafening roar filled the room and everything went black.

“Something’s happened.  Something’s happened,” a voice shouted in the darkness. Russell lay pinned to the floor by a weight resting on top of him. The air smelled like burned paint. Sounds of shattering glass and splintering wood gave way to the screams of men and women.

“Something’s happened.” Russell heard the voice again. It was his voice, except that it sounded ragged and loud. He was screaming.

“Russell. Russell, where are you?” He recognized his father’s voice.

“I’m here Dad,” he shouted. A moment later he felt the weight come away from his chest and his father helped him stand up.

“Are you oaky?”

“I think so.” Russell felt dizzy. He wanted everything to slow down so he could understand what was happening. Just enough light shone through the room’s tattered blackout curtains for Russell to see an expression he had never seen before in his father’s face—fear.

He followed his father out of the shattered Tourist lounge into bright glow of an emergency light atop the ship’s stern mast. Above them, on the Promenade deck, Russell recognized the muster station where he and his mother were supposed to go in an emergency.

“Dad, that’s our lifeboat up there,” he said.

“Let’s see if your mother is already there.”

Rebecca was not on the Promenade deck, and there were no sailors at Russell’s muster station. Alexander said they should go up to the Boat deck where more lifeboats would be available. Heading for the stairs, Russell was surprised to see the cover missing from the hatch where he had relaxed that afternoon. They walked by the open cargo hold and he saw its exposed interior sides were blackened, as if there had been a fire earlier. Maybe all the water in the hold was used to put it out, he thought. Trying to make sense of it all, another strange sight startled him.

A charred bundle of rags lay in a pile near the base of the stairs, but after taking a few steps closer, he saw the bundle was the badly burned body of a man. A woman mounting the stairs accidentally bumped the man with her foot and he moaned, but no one paid him any attention. Russell wasn’t sure what to do and he slowed, but he felt his father’s grip tighten on his arm and hustle him past the burned man and up onto the stairs.

“Ladies and gents, we are putting the lifeboats in position for lowering,” said a large steward who blocked the top of the stairway. “As soon as they are ready, I will let you up. It’ll be women and children first, so please maintain your order. And don’t worry. We’ve plenty of room for everyone.”

Russell’s father turned him around on the stairs to face him and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders. The thick glasses magnified the intensity of his father’s eyes.

“Listen to me, son. I want you to wait here. I’m going down to your cabin to find mother and bring her back up.”

“I want to come with you.” Russell felt panicky at the thought of being left alone.

“No, son, it’s too dark and crowded. I might lose you.” Russell heard the firmness in his father’s voice and knew the decision was final.

“Now, this is important. If the lifeboats are ready before I get back, I want you to go ahead and get in. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Daddy.” Russell wondered what had happened to change his life so suddenly. He wished he could go back to this afternoon when he happily explored the ship. Maybe he could have made things turn out differently.

He watched his father push his way back down the stairs and disappear into the crowd. Standing on the stairway surrounded by dozens of people, Russell Park had never felt more alone in his life.

In our next blog: Will Russell be able to leave Athenia with his parents?

Image of SS Athenia courtesy http://www.39-45war.com/athenia/

Read the whole story!  Visit my website and read the past blog posts.