Photo credit: wreckhunter.net
In Part 3 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother boarded Athenia in Liverpool, England, on Sept. 2, 1939. The next day, Sept. 3, word reached the ship that Britain had declared war on Germany. While Rhoda was concerned about the danger posed by German submarines, she and many other passengers believed they would be out of danger before anything might happen.
Her story continues:
Just before the evening meal, I went down to my cabin, washed, and changed my dress for dinner. I took my coat and hat with me as I decided to come back up on deck right after. Mrs. Townley said she didn’t feel well, but she ate dinner and we both went up on deck and found a seat [on the] starboard side of the hatchway. About fifteen or twenty minutes past seven, as we sat there, a terrific explosion suddenly occurred. Something struck the port side of the ship, and she seemed to keel over on her side and the water came over the deck. The lights went out all over the inside of the ship and a dense cloud of gas-filled smoke seemed everywhere. I was thrown down and as I picked myself up and turned around, I saw out on the water about a half a mile away, a long-shaped dark object with black smoke around it, and in a flash I knew what had happened.
The panic, the screaming and cries of the women and children [were] terrible. …The officers and men were shouting and hurrying to get the lifeboats lowered. I just stood there, knowing the ship was doomed and thinking of my home and family and wondering if I should ever see them again, and yet I didn’t seem to be afraid and felt quite calm. I turned to a panic-stricken woman, put my arms around her and said, “Don’t be afraid, God will save us; let us put our faith in him.”
She said, “If there is a God, why did He let this happen?”
I said, “This is the devil’s work, and God is mightier than the devil. He’ll save us,” and I led her to the side of the ship, and saw her get into a lifeboat.
I cannot describe all the scenes around me just then. It seemed such a scramble and so much shouting and screaming, especially when we heard another shell fired which seemed to burst overhead. I only remember climbing over the side of the ship and down a rope ladder, [then to] drop off the ladder into the lifeboat. I also remember hearing a boy cry, “There’s my mother on the ladder. Oh, please wait for my mother.” But they said the boat was overloaded and pulled away. I turned around to see a gray-haired woman clinging to the ladder, and her two children, a boy, 15, and a little girl, nine, pulling way in our lifeboat. They both cried for their mother all night long.
After we got clear of the Athenia, it became very dark and began to rain, and we found water coming in the boat. …We found a pail in the boat and started to bail out the water. …I was glad I had a warm coat on, as there were those in the boat that only had a thin dress on and some only night clothes, and it was very cold. I took the bottom part of my coat and wrapped it around a poor shivering woman who stood by me crying, with just a thin dress on… [I] tried to comfort her by repeating the 23rd Psalm. By that time, I was standing ankle deep in oil and water. Then someone asked me to please take a baby under my coat to keep it warm, as it had only a little shirt on. I took the baby; I judged it to be about eighteen months old. The baby was asleep.
The sea was heavy and at times I thought we would capsize. …I got very tired. [T]he baby lay a dead weight in my arms, and as I was standing, every time the boat lurched, I had difficulty keeping my balance, then one of the boys [who was] rowing called for someone else with a coat to take the baby and give me a rest. Finally a girl sitting on the other side of the boat took [the infant] from me.
In my next blog, Rhoda witnesses a tragedy.
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