“Rhoda’s Story” Part 3 – Boarding the SS Athenia


British schoolchildren await evacuation to the countryside on Sept. 1, 1939, to escape cities that might become targets in wartime.
Photo credit: BBC

In Part 2 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother took a train on Sept. 1, 1939, headed to Liverpool, where she would board the passenger ship Athenia the next day to begin her journey home to Rochester, NY. That same day, Sept. 1, Germany invaded Poland and England began a long-planned evacuation of school children to the countryside from large cities likely to be targets of German bombers. As Rhoda’s train passed through stations in the countryside, she recorded her observations: 

At Gloucester, we saw the first group of evacuated children. I shall never forget it. Torn away from their homes, all with their little knapsacks on their backs, their gas masks over their shoulders, and bands with numbers on their arms, in [the] charge of one or more teachers from different schools; little tots not knowing what it was all about, some crying and some laughing, unconscious of the danger they were fleeing from. It was then all the women in my compartment gave way to tears and we began to realize how serious the situation had become.

The next day, Saturday, Sept. 2, Rhoda boarded Athenia just before noon and found the ship was “terribly crowded” with many children and babies. Her narrative continues:

A lot of extra help had been taken on, but even then they seemed to have difficulty in coping with so much more luggage and so many more passengers than usual; everything seemed to be off schedule and out of the ordinary. I was fortunate in having a very nice cabin with three other ladies. One of them had only been over four days and seemed very unhappy to have to return so soon, as she hadn’t seen her people for twenty-five years….

At the noon lunch, we sat where we could find room, but as there was to be three sittings, we had to line up for our place cards at meals, and I was fortunate to be at the first sitting. That evening the orders had been posted up that all the lights on the ship would be blacked out, and positively no smoking or striking of matches would be allowed on deck. I stayed on deck with another lady named Mrs. Townley for a little while after dark, then decided to go down to my cabin and go to bed. I didn’t sleep much that night, I don’t know why. It wasn’t that I was afraid, but I had left my friends and relatives so hurriedly, and with the thought of war so close to them, I guess I had lots to think about.

The next morning was Sunday. I got up, dressed and went up on deck quite early. After breakfast I became acquainted with more passengers and learned we were to have our passports examined, so I had to go up to the lounge and wait my turn for this procedure. I stayed on deck all morning. The weather was fair, the sea a little heavy, but I felt fine, although … quite a number of passenger had started to be seasick.

At lunch the steward told us war had been declared and when we came upstairs we found a bulletin posted outside the purser’s office to that effect. We all felt rather blue and I must admit that try as I would, I could not help thinking of the German submarine danger. I guess we all thought alike but were of the opinion that we should be out of the danger zone before anything could possibly happen. After all, we argued, why would Germany want to attack a passenger ship with so many Americans aboard and Germans too. It was silly even to think about it.

In my next blog, the unthinkable happens.

Catch up on Parts 1 and 2:  www.thomascsanger.com

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

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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:



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.”

Chamberlain’s Anguished Decision Part 2 


By Saturday evening, Sept. 2, 1939, German ground and air forces had been pounding military and civilian targets in Poland for more than 36 hours. Despite an agreement calling for Britain and France to come to Poland’s aid in the event of such an attack, neither country had taken any action to counter the German aggression.

That evening in London, the House of Commons convened to hear from the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. If the members were expecting a rousing call to arms, they were sorely disappointed. Chamberlain recounted his Cabinet’s discussion to reject an Italian peace proposal because it anticipated negotiations while Germany occupied Polish territory. But, he added, if Germany were ready to withdraw its forces, England would be “open to discussion between the German and Polish governments on the matters at issue between them…”

Several of Chamberlain’s cabinet ministers were stunned by his remarks. They had expected the Prime Minister to announce a midnight deadline for German withdrawal from Poland. At the same time, members of Parliament were aghast. They feared Chamberlain was about to back away from the Polish agreement in accord with his practice of appeasement, a move they believed would prove disastrous for British foreign relations.

After the session adjourned, several of the cabinet ministers met with Chamberlain and warned him of the members’ concerns. Chamberlain was surprised by Parliament’s shift in mood. He noted the difficulty of synchronizing Britain’s efforts with the French, who wanted another 48 hours before taking any action against Germany. His ministers insisted that if Chamberlain wanted to dispel the members’ negative impression of his remarks, he needed to act swiftly. The situation would not “hold” for 48 more hours, they told him.

Chamberlain returned to his residence at 10 Downing Street. Following a phone call to the French Foreign Minister in Paris and a meeting with the French ambassador in London, the Prime Minister called a meeting of his cabinet ministers for 11 o’clock that night. The session began with an angry demand for action by several of the ministers, who warned they would “destroy” him if he failed to act. The meeting only calmed down when Chamberlain acknowledged the depth of his ministers’ convictions. He vowed to act the following morning, with or without the French.

Sunday morning, Sept. 3, 1939, at 9 o’clock Berlin time, the British ambassador to Germany, Sir Nevile Henderson, delivered his government’s ultimatum to the German Foreign Minister’s office. In essence, the notice stated that unless Germany was prepared to cease hostilities in Poland by noon, Berlin time, that same day, a state of war would exist between Britain and Germany.

The noon deadline (11 a.m., London time) came and went without any word from the German government. Fifteen minutes later, Chamberlain went on the radio to tell his fellow citizens that Britain and Germany were once again at war, bringing to a sad close the most agonizing 48 hours of deliberation in the Prime Minister’s political career.

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Image courtesy:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/learning/schoolradio/subjects/history/ww2clips/speeches/chamberlain_declares_war


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.”


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:


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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

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?”


“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


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.”


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