Rhoda’s Story, SS Athenia – Part 2

In Part 1 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother was visiting her relatives in the town of Street in Somerset, England, in August, 1939, when Germany announced it signed a non-aggression pact with Russia. The pact cleared the way for Germany to invade its neighbor, Poland, a nation England had previously agreed to defend. War in Europe suddenly seemed a greater possibility. Rhoda’s account of these events continues: 

That evening I heard over the radio the warning to American citizens in Great Britain to leave for home immediately. I called the American Consul and asked his advice, and he told me if I could make arrangements to leave, to do so at once, for, he said, if war broke out and the American government sent ships to evacuate their citizens, we would be allowed to bring only one piece of hand luggage, and would be expected to carry warm clothing and enough imperishable food to last over a week. Having paid my return fare and having bought and packed numerous presents and souvenirs, and clothes I had brought with me in case cold weather set in before I got back in October, I thought the best thing I could do would be to try and make arrangements with the Cunard Steamship Line to transfer me to the earliest possible boat they could. Then I could bring my luggage with me.

Rhoda contacted her steamship company to arrange passage home to New York as soon as possible. After being transferred to a ship whose sailing was cancelled, she received passage on the Athenia, sailing Sept. 2 from Liverpool to Montreal. She arranged to take a train from Street to Liverpool on Friday, Sept. 1.

On Thursday [Aug.31], over the radio came the news that all the danger zones in England were going to evacuate their children [Sept. 1], and that people traveling by train were required to put off their trips if possible, as so many trains were to be taken over by the government for this purpose. I decided I would go by car. I believe it’s about 270 miles from Street to Liverpool, which is quite a journey by car in England.

However, I got in touch with an old acquaintance of ours who owned and operated a garage with cars for hire and they gave me a price, which I accepted, and after talking it over, I decided I would travel all night Friday to arrive in Liverpool early Saturday morning. …Thursday night I went to bed reconciled to the fact that the next night would see me traveling the first lap of my journey home. I don’t think I need try to tell you of the nervous tension we all were under, not knowing from day to day what the next dreaded news would be, trying to keep cheerful and be optimistic about everything. I kept telling my relatives that I knew God would protect us and all would be well.

Sept. 1, 1939, just before dawn, the German army began its invasion of Poland, making war in Europe almost inevitable.

Friday morning about 10:30, the father of the young man who was to drive me to Liverpool, called to tell me his son had been called for military duty and would not be able to drive the car. He told me he would telephone and find out if the Pine Express would be running that day, and if so, the best thing for me to do would be to try to catch it at Shepton Mallet, 13 miles away, where it would go through about 12 o’clock. He was assured that it was running as scheduled, and as quickly as I could I got ready, and without saying goodbye to most of my friends and relatives, I rushed off to try to catch the Express. We just made it. The train was crowded with people returning unexpectedly from their vacations, all looking doubtful as to the future, but trying to be brave and calm. As I think about it now, and remember how unified they were and how unresentful and reconciled to their fate, ready to do and to give up all their country demanded, I [have] to admire their courage.

Part 3: Rhoda boards Athenia, and wonders how the crowds of women and children will all find accommodation on the ship.   

Rhoda’s Story, Part 1: Joy of Reunion — Then ‘A Thunderbolt’ 

Rhoda with her brother, Albert Fisher, in Street, Somerset, August 1939.
Photo credit: Family picture

My grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was a passenger aboard the British liner Athenia when the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine Sept. 3, 1939, at the start of World War II. She survived the attack, was rescued, and returned home to her family in Rochester, NY, where she later wrote an account of these events she titled “Experiences of an Athenia Survivor.” My next several blogs will be devoted to Rhoda’s story, in her own words. 

July 29, 1939, I sailed on the new Mauretania from New York. It was with some misgivings that I said goodbye to home and family, especially my husband. As the ship sailed out of New York, something seemed to rise up and choke me and I wished I had never made up my mind to go. I felt like walking off the ship and returning home. Perhaps it was a foreboding of the terrible happenings that were to follow. However, it passed, and I soon found myself getting acquainted with my cabin mates and other passengers, and telling myself how foolish I had been to allow such a state of mind to possess me.

Rhoda arrived in England August 5th and was met by her brother and niece. They drove back to Street, the town in southwestern England where she had been born and raised. There she spent nearly three weeks gathering with relatives and old friends, enjoying shopping, teas, days at the seaside, and driving trips to the country. 

The time passed all too quickly. Our conversation and talks at time would center on topics concerning the possibility of war, and very few were of the opinion that there would be war. They had passed through such a crisis a year ago, worse than this and were sure a peaceful settlement could be reached. Therefore, they refused to worry over Hitler’s claim to Danzig and the Polish Corridor. England was negotiating with Russia and all in all they were sure Hitler would be afraid to start anything against such a powerful opposition. Then August 24, just like a thunderbolt, the news came that Germany had signed a non-aggression pact with Russia.

It was like a stab in the back for the English people. They seemed stunned, speechless, not knowing whether to blame their government or lay it to the treachery of Hitler and his aids. But one thing was certain:  that was war was inevitable.

In my next blog, advice from the U.S. Embassy sends Rhoda scrambling for passage back to America.

Contact Tom for speaking engagements: tomsanger@msn.com

Without Warning on Amazon: http://bit.ly/WithoutWarningonAmazon

Athenia Found?

 

        

After decades of obscurity, British science correspondent, Jonathan Amos, earlier this month published a story on the BBC’s website about the possible identification of Athenia‘s wreck on the sea floor of the Rockall Bank. The wreck is very near the location given repeatedly by Athenia‘s radio officer, David Don, after the ship was torpedoed Sept. 3, 1939.

Follow this link to read the BBC story:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-41503664

www.ThomasCSanger.com

Tom speaks about why he wrote his historical novel “Without Warning:”

“I first became interested in writing about Athenia, a British passenger liner sunk by a German U-boat, because my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was aboard the ship. Over the years, I found that many people knew of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a U-boat during World War I, but few had ever heard of Athenia, even though 30 Americans died in that attack, more than two years before Pearl Harbor. In researching the book, I read many inspiring and harrowing accounts written by other survivors and spoke to a handful of them who are still alive. What began as a project to remember my grandmother has become for me an effort to honor the memories of Athenia’s passengers whose heroism and sacrifices have been overshadowed by the war’s greater conflagrations.”

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

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/

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