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

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.

Meet the Character: Barnet Mackenzie Copland, A Modest Hero, Part 2

For nearly 15 hours after she was torpedoed by a German U-boat, the British passenger liner Athenia struggled to stay afloat. They proved to be the most fateful hours in the life of Barnet Mackenzie Copland, the ship’s chief officer (See blog “A Modest Hero, Part 1.” Sept. 15, 2014.)

Copland made a quick assessment of the damage to the ship immediately after the torpedo strike and believed Athenia would stay afloat long enough to launch all the lifeboats. Once all the boats had gone, Copland descended into the ship’s dark, dangerous passageways to make a more thorough evaluation of Athenia’s condition and concluded that she could not be saved. Two hours after all the passengers had left, Copland was among the last of the crew to abandon ship. He took over a dangerously overloaded lifeboat and saw it safely through the night, in spite of rising seas, to be rescued at dawn by a Royal Navy destroyer. Read More

Meet the Character: Barnet Mackenzie Copland, A Modest Hero, Part 1

One of the most widely recognized heroes of the attack on Athenia was the ship’s Chief Officer Barnet Copland, a 32-year-old merchant mariner who had spent more than half his life at sea. Copland was born in 1907 and grew up in Stepps, a northeastern suburb of Glasgow, Scotland. His father, Peter, was a railway clerk and his mother, Elizabeth Mackenzie Copland, was a housewife already raising two older children. While Peter eventually became a station agent for the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) Railway service, young “Barney” was more interested in the sea. Glasgow, a major port and shipbuilding center, must have been a powerful attraction. After leaving Glasgow’s Royal Technical College at age 15, he went to sea as an apprentice with the Donaldson Line, one of the city’s oldest merchant shipping companies. Copland proved to be capable and a quick study. By the age of 19 he had secured his Masters and Mates certificate as a second mate.

Fond of the outdoors, he often enjoyed walks in the rugged Scottish Highlands, which helped him maintain an athletic build on his 5’9” frame. By all accounts, Copland was Read More