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