Ruth Etherington and her family checked into their Liverpool hotel the evening of Sept. 1, 1939, concluding a five-week holiday with relatives in Great Britain and preparing to depart the next day for Canada aboard Athenia. Germany’s invasion of Poland that same morning brought a sense of urgency to their voyage home as war between the British and Germans now seemed imminent. Ruth had no way of knowing she was about to become one of the first targets of that war and one of its first heroes (as featured in my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning).
Born 35 years earlier to a Scottish mother and Welsh father, Elesa Ruth Ashton grew up in England’s West Midlands. At the University of Wales, she studied mathematics, chemistry, and botany on the way to earning a degree in education. A petite and energetic beauty, Ruth also enjoyed playing romantic and comedy roles in student theater productions. She graduated “magna cum laude” in 1925 and took a teaching job in northern Wales before meeting Harold Etherington, a brilliant mechanical engineer who was nearly four years her senior. They married in early 1928 and their son, Geoffrey, was born that December.
Ruth and the baby moved to Sverdlovsk, an industrial city in Soviet Russia’s Ural Mountains, where Hal worked as the superintendent of a steel plant run by an Anglo-American consortium. The impact of harsh winter conditions and limited food supplies on baby Geoffrey’s health were a concern for Ruth, but the family persevered for nearly two years until the Soviet government withdrew all foreign concessions and the Etheringtons were forced to leave the country.
The family moved to the United States in 1930 and settled in Milwaukee, where Hal worked as an engineer, first for the A.O. Smith Co. and two years later for Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Co. Ruth again set about making a home for her family, becoming involved in the community and helping young girls with physical disabilities. In May, 1939, Hal became a naturalized American citizen and in July the family returned to England to visit relatives.
On their return voyage to America, a German U-boat torpedoed the Athenia less than 10 hours after war had been declared with Germany. The family was separated during lifeboat evacuations, with Ruth and 10-year-old Geoffrey departing in one of the first boats launched. Eight hours later, as their lifeboat approached a rescue vessel in the dark of morning it capsized and Geoffrey disappeared. Cold and tired from lack of sleep, Ruth swam back and forth calling out for her son but received no reply. Finally, sailors in a rowboat from the rescue ship hauled her from ocean.
Though exhausted from her ordeal, Ruth refused to give up hope. Geoffrey had learned to swim the previous year, but he wasn’t wearing a lifejacket and she had no idea how long he would be able to tread water. Then she heard Geoffrey’s voice faintly in the distance calling for help. Ruth shouted to her son that she was coming and before anyone could stop her, she dove into the water. When she finally found Geoffrey he was clinging to an oar, tired, scared, and chilled to the bone. With the help of the sailors, she got her son into the rowboat.
On board the rescue ship, Geoffrey was taken to the engine room to warm up and Ruth was reunited with Hal, who had been in one of the last lifeboats to leave Athenia and one of the first to be picked up. The Etherington’s celebrity as Athenia survivors would last only a matter of weeks, but the family’s subsequent achievements would last for decades to come, as we will see in our next blog.