Did My Parents Survive? The Russell Park Story, Part 11

Survivors from the Athenia arrive in Glasgow following their rescue at sea.

Tuesday, September 5, 1939

A long line of single and double-decked buses, led by several ambulances, threaded their way through Glasgow’s suburbs. Filled with survivors of Athenia’s sinking, the buses were arriving several hours after the survivors had been expected to disembark in the city. A dense fog lingering on the River Clyde had forced the rescue ships to dock at Greenock, twenty-five miles west of Glasgow.

All along the route from Greenock, small groups of people stood by the roadway to cheer and wave at the pale yellow city buses with their green and orange trim. The crowds grew larger and louder as the vehicles approached the center of the city.

“Why are they all cheering?” eleven-year-old Russell Park asked.

“I don’t know,” answered the man seated next to him. “Maybe they want to make us feel good after all we’ve been through, or let us know they’re happy we survived.”

“I wish Mom and Dad were here.”

“So do I,” the man said softly. Russell knew the man, Mr. Van Newkirk, had shared the cabin with Russell’s father, Alexander, aboard Athenia. Mr. Van Newkirk had stepped forward in Greenock when Russell was processing off H.M.S. Escort to say he would look after the boy until his parents could be located or someone better qualified took over.

“Did I tell you I saw your father after the torpedo hit us?”

“Really? Where was he?” Russell ached for any news about his parents.

“He was on our deck in the starboard passageway. I was headed up to my muster station when and he stopped me. He asked if I had seen your mother and I told him no. He thanked me and kept on heading aft. I didn’t see him after that.”

“But you saw him after he left me. That’s good.” Russell’s father had left him on the Boat deck stairway to find Russell’s mother. While there had been no information about his father since then, the thought that someone had seen him gave Russell hope. From his window seat he waved back at the people lining the streets. Several buses went off in a different direction as they entered the center of the city and moved slowly down a wide boulevard.

“It looks like this is our stop,” Mr. Van Newkirk said, as their bus and three others pulled up in front of a tall gray building. Russell read the name “Beresford Hotel” above its entrance. They climbed down from the bus and walked toward the hotel through a corridor lined with reporters, photographers, policemen, and well-wishers. Russell saw flashbulbs popping and heard questions being shouted, along with applause and cheering from all the people. A few men and women were crying. He thought he might ask them what was wrong, but they were smiling and, besides, Mr. Van Newkirk kept steering him straight ahead, through a set of revolving doors and into the hotel lobby, which provided a sanctuary from the clamor outside.

Russell took a seat on a tufted bench near a large potted plant, while his companion looked after arrangements for their room. He looked around for a familiar face, but saw no one he recognized. Adults stood in small groups, talking in hushed tones. Russell was surprised to see so many of them looking disheveled, their hair still windblown and wearing ill-fitting outfits or still clutching blankets around their shoulders. Several women wore mismatched dungarees and work shirts that seemed too big for them, with sleeves and pant legs rolled up. He guessed they had been borrowed from sailors on the destroyer, and it saddened him to see adults looking so vulnerable and tired.

Ten minutes later, Mr. Van Newkirk returned with a room key and some news.

“I asked about your mother and father at the desk,” he said, sitting down next to Russell. “They told me there’s no complete list of survivors yet. A Norwegian rescue ship is supposed to arrive today in Ireland, and there is an American freighter taking a bunch of survivors to Canada, I believe. They could be on one of those ships. But it will probably be another day, maybe two, before we know. I’m sorry, Russell. I wish I could tell you more.”

Russell nodded and sat back on the bench, feeling exhausted.

“Now, would you like something to eat? The hotel set up a buffet for all of us in a room down the hall.”

“I don’t know.” The lack of any more news about his parents, combined with the sleep he had missed over the past few days, had taken the edge off Russell’s appetite. “I’m kinda tired. Maybe I could take a nap and get something to eat later?”

“Good idea,” Mr. Van Newkirk said. They stood and headed for the elevator.

In our next blog: A familiar face at last.

For the entire Russell Park story, see www.thomascsanger.com

Mysterious Lights: The Russell Park Story, Part 9

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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

The Story of Russell Park and the SS Athenia Continues* Part 3

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Sunday Morning, September 3, 1939

With the conclusion of Father Joseph O’Connor’s Holy Mass for several dozen Catholics aboard Athenia, Russell was on his feet. The morning service had seemed interminable as he sat with his mother, Rebecca, and the other worshipers in the ornately domed Tourist class smoking lounge on the Promenade deck. The combination of the ship’s motion and the room’s warm, still air made his stomach feel funny, and he did not want to be sick. His mother, Rebecca, finally relented after he had pleaded his case for nearly twenty-four hours. Russell would be able to explore the ship after lunch.

“Don’t go running off yet, young man,” Rebecca said. “We’re meeting your father for lunch.”

“I know.” Russell managed a smile and imagined he felt better now he was moving.

On their way down to the Tourist class dining saloon, Russell saw a group of people in the passageway on A deck looking at something on the wood-paneled wall. A low, anxious murmur filled the hall as a few individuals ran to join the group, while others walked away looking worried and unhappy.

“What is it?” Rebecca asked an older woman coming away from the growing crowd.

“England’s at war with Germany. The prime minister announced it this morning,” she said. Russell saw tears in the woman’s eyes.

“Oh no,” Rebecca said. She squeezed Russell’s hand, but did not start down the stairs.

“What do we do now?” Russell asked. His mother didn’t answer. She seemed rooted to the carpet.

“Mom?” Rebecca stared straight ahead. She looked worried and that concerned Russell. “Mom!”

“What?” she said, finally looking at him.

“Do we have to go back to England?”

She shook her head. “I’m not sure. Let’s find your father, he’ll probably know more.”

* * *

The Tourist Dining Saloon was not crowded for the midday meal; several tables sat unoccupied, their crisp, snowy linens and gleaming place settings abandoned. The Parks occupied three seats at the end of a rectangular table for eight. An older woman at the opposite end was the only other diner at their table. Russell sensed a somber mood in the room’s subdued conversations, and he feared it would make his parents even more cautious than usual.

He knew his mother and father were older than the parents of other boys his age, and he sometimes wondered if that was the reason for their caution. His father never joined in when other dads played ball with their sons on the street in front of their house. While Russell didn’t care much for sports, he often wished that he and his father shared an activity the other boys would admire, like big game hunting or stunt flying. His mother always kept a close eye on him and constantly warned Russell to be careful, even when he wasn’t doing anything dangerous. He thought her caution resulted from what his father called “her delicate health,” which could keep her bedridden for weeks at a time.

As they waited for their lunches, Russell’s father, Alexander, admitted he didn’t know much more about the morning’s announcement, although he seemed confident Athenia would continue on to Canada rather than sail back to England. When lunch arrived, Russell’s mother picked lightly at her food, saying she didn’t feel hungry. Russell hoped to counter the mood by cleaning his plate in a show of vitality he hoped would convince his parents to let him explore the ship as promised. But when Rebecca raised the subject with her husband, Russell realized she was wavering. He adopted his most fervent tone in hopes of saving his afternoon exploration.

“But mom, if they’re not going to turn the ship around they must not be worried. I’ll be real careful.”

“I’m not worried about you being careful,” she said. “I’m worried about something happening to the ship and not knowing where you are.”

“Okay, I know where our room is. I can come back right away to meet you if anything happens. Please…”  He knew if he had enough time, he could wear his mother down, but that could take the rest of the day and he was eager to get started.

“I don’t think there’s much danger of anything happening, dear,” Alexander said. “It’s broad daylight and we are obviously a passenger ship, not a wartime target. Besides, a state of war has only just been declared. The Germans probably aren’t even in a position to attack at this point.”

Rebecca looked tired, and when she spoke, Russell heard a note of resignation in her voice that meant he’d won his case.

“Before I would let you go anywhere on this ship, you’re coming with me back to the cabin to change into your oldest clothes.”

Russell nodded enthusiastically.

“And you would have to promise me two things. First, that you won’t bother any other passengers. And second, that you won’t go anywhere you are not permitted.”

“I promise.” He certainly didn’t plan to bother anyone, and he had no intention of breaking his promise. But going where he wasn’t permitted ran counter to what explorers did.

* * *

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*While Athenia sat at anchor Saturday, Sept. 2, 1939, in Liverpool’s Mersey River (see blog post March 15, 2017), 546 passengers boarded the ship before she sailed for Canada late that afternoon. The German army had marched into Poland Sept. 1, but despite an Anglo-French agreement to come to Poland’s defense, neither country had taken any action by early Sunday morning.

In our next blog: Russell makes a new friend.

 

The Curious Case of SS Athenia Passenger Gustav Anderson

Thirty Americans died when the British passenger liner Athenia was torpedoed on Sept. 3, 1939. Charges and counter-charges flew back and forth between England and Germany regarding responsibility for the sinking. The British said a German U-boat had attacked the defenseless ship without warning. Germany denied responsibility and accused Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, of planting a bomb on board the ship to kill Americans and bring the United States into the war.

While the German claim sounded preposterous, the U.S. had declared its neutrality and the strength of popular isolationist sentiment made American officials hesitant to jump to conclusions. In an effort to sort out the cause of the sinking, the U.S. State Department asked surviving American passengers to submit their observations in the form of affidavits explaining exactly what they saw. Read More

The U-30 Attack on Athenia: A Question of Torpedoes

We will never know exactly why the commander of U-30, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, decided to attack an unarmed British passenger ship on the first day of World War II — the central event in my book, Without Warning. Lemp’s motivation, however, isn’t the only element of this event that is shrouded in mystery. In keeping with the “fog of war” that tends to cloud witness perceptions, descriptions of U-30’s attack on Athenia come in many versions and in varying degrees of detail. This presented a challenge for me to write a vivid and credible description of the attack. Read More

SS Athenia Torpedoed: When Eyewitness Accounts Collide

I am sure every major historic event since the advent of printing and mass communications has been accompanied by a record of conflicting eyewitness accounts. People see and hear things differently, their perceptions often being colored by the rush of events, past experiences, or prejudices. So it’s not surprising that the sinking of the British passenger ship Athenia with more than 1,400 people on board — the events depicted in my novel Without Warning — resulted in conflicting descriptions of what happened. Read More