“Rhoda’s Story” Part 3 – Boarding the SS Athenia

 

British schoolchildren await evacuation to the countryside on Sept. 1, 1939, to escape cities that might become targets in wartime.
Photo credit: BBC

In Part 2 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother took a train on Sept. 1, 1939, headed to Liverpool, where she would board the passenger ship Athenia the next day to begin her journey home to Rochester, NY. That same day, Sept. 1, Germany invaded Poland and England began a long-planned evacuation of school children to the countryside from large cities likely to be targets of German bombers. As Rhoda’s train passed through stations in the countryside, she recorded her observations: 

At Gloucester, we saw the first group of evacuated children. I shall never forget it. Torn away from their homes, all with their little knapsacks on their backs, their gas masks over their shoulders, and bands with numbers on their arms, in [the] charge of one or more teachers from different schools; little tots not knowing what it was all about, some crying and some laughing, unconscious of the danger they were fleeing from. It was then all the women in my compartment gave way to tears and we began to realize how serious the situation had become.

The next day, Saturday, Sept. 2, Rhoda boarded Athenia just before noon and found the ship was “terribly crowded” with many children and babies. Her narrative continues:

A lot of extra help had been taken on, but even then they seemed to have difficulty in coping with so much more luggage and so many more passengers than usual; everything seemed to be off schedule and out of the ordinary. I was fortunate in having a very nice cabin with three other ladies. One of them had only been over four days and seemed very unhappy to have to return so soon, as she hadn’t seen her people for twenty-five years….

At the noon lunch, we sat where we could find room, but as there was to be three sittings, we had to line up for our place cards at meals, and I was fortunate to be at the first sitting. That evening the orders had been posted up that all the lights on the ship would be blacked out, and positively no smoking or striking of matches would be allowed on deck. I stayed on deck with another lady named Mrs. Townley for a little while after dark, then decided to go down to my cabin and go to bed. I didn’t sleep much that night, I don’t know why. It wasn’t that I was afraid, but I had left my friends and relatives so hurriedly, and with the thought of war so close to them, I guess I had lots to think about.

The next morning was Sunday. I got up, dressed and went up on deck quite early. After breakfast I became acquainted with more passengers and learned we were to have our passports examined, so I had to go up to the lounge and wait my turn for this procedure. I stayed on deck all morning. The weather was fair, the sea a little heavy, but I felt fine, although … quite a number of passenger had started to be seasick.

At lunch the steward told us war had been declared and when we came upstairs we found a bulletin posted outside the purser’s office to that effect. We all felt rather blue and I must admit that try as I would, I could not help thinking of the German submarine danger. I guess we all thought alike but were of the opinion that we should be out of the danger zone before anything could possibly happen. After all, we argued, why would Germany want to attack a passenger ship with so many Americans aboard and Germans too. It was silly even to think about it.

In my next blog, the unthinkable happens.

Catch up on Parts 1 and 2:  www.thomascsanger.com

Rhoda’s Story, Part 1: Joy of Reunion — Then ‘A Thunderbolt’ 

Rhoda with her brother, Albert Fisher, in Street, Somerset, August 1939.
Photo credit: Family picture

My grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was a passenger aboard the British liner Athenia when the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine Sept. 3, 1939, at the start of World War II. She survived the attack, was rescued, and returned home to her family in Rochester, NY, where she later wrote an account of these events she titled “Experiences of an Athenia Survivor.” My next several blogs will be devoted to Rhoda’s story, in her own words. 

July 29, 1939, I sailed on the new Mauretania from New York. It was with some misgivings that I said goodbye to home and family, especially my husband. As the ship sailed out of New York, something seemed to rise up and choke me and I wished I had never made up my mind to go. I felt like walking off the ship and returning home. Perhaps it was a foreboding of the terrible happenings that were to follow. However, it passed, and I soon found myself getting acquainted with my cabin mates and other passengers, and telling myself how foolish I had been to allow such a state of mind to possess me.

Rhoda arrived in England August 5th and was met by her brother and niece. They drove back to Street, the town in southwestern England where she had been born and raised. There she spent nearly three weeks gathering with relatives and old friends, enjoying shopping, teas, days at the seaside, and driving trips to the country. 

The time passed all too quickly. Our conversation and talks at time would center on topics concerning the possibility of war, and very few were of the opinion that there would be war. They had passed through such a crisis a year ago, worse than this and were sure a peaceful settlement could be reached. Therefore, they refused to worry over Hitler’s claim to Danzig and the Polish Corridor. England was negotiating with Russia and all in all they were sure Hitler would be afraid to start anything against such a powerful opposition. Then August 24, just like a thunderbolt, the news came that Germany had signed a non-aggression pact with Russia.

It was like a stab in the back for the English people. They seemed stunned, speechless, not knowing whether to blame their government or lay it to the treachery of Hitler and his aids. But one thing was certain:  that was war was inevitable.

In my next blog, advice from the U.S. Embassy sends Rhoda scrambling for passage back to America.

Contact Tom for speaking engagements: tomsanger@msn.com

Without Warning on Amazon: http://bit.ly/WithoutWarningonAmazon

Athenia Found?

 

        

After decades of obscurity, British science correspondent, Jonathan Amos, earlier this month published a story on the BBC’s website about the possible identification of Athenia‘s wreck on the sea floor of the Rockall Bank. The wreck is very near the location given repeatedly by Athenia‘s radio officer, David Don, after the ship was torpedoed Sept. 3, 1939.

Follow this link to read the BBC story:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-41503664

www.ThomasCSanger.com

Tom speaks about why he wrote his historical novel “Without Warning:”

“I first became interested in writing about Athenia, a British passenger liner sunk by a German U-boat, because my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was aboard the ship. Over the years, I found that many people knew of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a U-boat during World War I, but few had ever heard of Athenia, even though 30 Americans died in that attack, more than two years before Pearl Harbor. In researching the book, I read many inspiring and harrowing accounts written by other survivors and spoke to a handful of them who are still alive. What began as a project to remember my grandmother has become for me an effort to honor the memories of Athenia’s passengers whose heroism and sacrifices have been overshadowed by the war’s greater conflagrations.”

Chamberlain’s Anguished Decision, Part 1

 

German soldiers march into Poland, Sept. 1, 1939.

In the early morning of Friday, Sept. 1, 1939, Poland faced the highly mechanized “blitzkrieg” of the German army and air forces in the opening hours of World War II. For help, the Poles looked to France and England, which had signed an earlier agreement to come to Poland’s aid in the event of such an attack.

Yet the two allies did not respond for 48 hours. Why did it take two days to condemn Adolf Hitler’s brazen invasion?

The answer involves the etiquette of diplomacy, colliding interests of allies, and a fervent desire to avoid war.

Differences first arose following the invasion when the British suggested to the French on Friday afternoon that the two countries jointly withdraw their ambassadors to Germany as a gesture of protest. French demurred, claiming such an act might doom the faint remaining hope for peace.
That evening in Parliament, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the members that the British ambassador to Germany would deliver “a severe warning” to the German foreign minister later that evening in Berlin. Germany, he said, should not doubt that Britain would fulfill its agreement to defend Poland and was resolved to meet force with force.

When the British message was delivered, it contained no specific demands on Germany and no deadlines. Hitler decided not to respond, believing England would not follow through on its warning.
On Saturday, Sept. 2, a full day after the German invasion, events began to speed up. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini proposed to convene a five-power conference, to include England and France, to settle the current crisis once a cease-fire could be brokered. That afternoon, Chamberlain met with his government ministers and resolved that German troops would have to leave Polish soil before such a conference could begin.

At this same meeting, the ministers discussed a request by France to hold off sending any ultimatum to the Germans for another 48 hours. Most of the ministers believed the warning delivered the previous evening had put Berlin on notice that Germany was risking war, and that such notice should end at midnight that night.

But it would be another 16 hours before Britain took a definitive stand.

Read more in our next blog.

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

The Russell Park Story: Where are my Parents? Part 8

The KNUTE NELSON passenger ship

The KNUTE NELSON:  Cargo Ship

Monday 1:00 – 3:00 a.m., September 4

Misty rains came and went throughout the night and into the early morning hours, leaving eleven-year-old Russell Park and his fellow passenger in Lifeboat 7A feeling cold and wet. The combination of leaks in the boat, splashing oars, and salt spray from the cold wind and rising waves kept him huddled down on his side bench. He had begun to notice debris floating in the water – life rings, papers, pieces of wooden deck furniture, and boxes with writing on them. When he spotted sparkling red lights bobbing on the ocean, Russell thought they were rescue ships until the steward in charge of their lifeboat told him they were flares from other lifeboats. No one could find the flares in Russell’s boat. Someone asked the steward what had happened to the Athenia, but he said he didn’t know.

The boat continued to drift. The people at the oars responded to the steward’s orders as he sought to keep their bow pointed toward the approaching waves while staying in sight of Athenia. Russell closed his eyes and lost track of the time.

“She’s gone,” someone said.

He sat up and looked around, wondering who had gone? Did one of the passengers fall out of the boat? When he scanned the horizon he realized Athenia’s lights were nowhere in sight. The ship must have finally sunk and with it, his hopes for his parents. Did they get off in time? Loneliness enveloped him once again. He crouched further down on his bench, closed his eyes and let the tears roll down his cheeks, trying to cry as quietly as possible.

* * *

Voices in the air around him droned, words became distant and indistinct. He found himself sitting in a rowboat with his mom and dad. They had managed to get off the ship! They were on a lake and the sun was shining down, warming his neck and shoulders. His parents were talking to him about the big book sitting on his lap with pictures of trains.

“When we get home, we’ll make sure you get to ride with the engineer,” his father said.

“And blow the whistle,” his mother added. “That would be fun, wouldn’t it?”

Russell noticed water – rain drops – falling on his book and he tried to protect the pictures. He looked up to see the sky had grown dark. The sun was a bright light on the horizon.

“It’s a ship.”

The voice did not belong to his mom or dad.

“It’s coming this way,” another voice said. Russell struggled to understand and saw people in his rowboat talking and pointing to the horizon. Where were his parents? As voices around him began to rise, he realized he was still in the lifeboat. His disappointment quickly gave way to the excitement in people’s voices. Away on the southwest horizon he saw two bright points of light on the water. When the steward in charge said the lights probably belonged to a rescue ship, Russell caught his breath. Maybe his parents were on the ship.

“I think it’s stopped.” A woman sitting near the bow made the initial observation, and in a few more minutes it became apparent that the ship wasn’t coming any closer. Several people in the lifeboat groaned. Russell realized they would need to somehow get themselves to the ship if they were going to be rescued.

“I can help row,” he said to the steward.

“Thanks, laddie, but it’s too far,” the man responded. “Besides the wind is blowing us in the right direction so we can save our strength for now.”

Boat 7A drifted slowly toward the rescue ship, whose silver-gray hull rode high on the water. After half an hour they approached close enough for Russell to count its three masts and single smoke funnel. The ship’s bright lights illuminated figures moving around the deck, throwing lines to other lifeboats pulling up alongside.

“Now,” the steward called to his rowers. “Everyone put your backs into in. Pull for all you’re worth.”

The oars splashed into the sea, but the boat responded sluggishly. The steward attempted steer a course using his surplus oar. Despite everyone’s desperate efforts, Russell saw clearly the current and the wind that had brought them so far were now pushing them beyond their rescue opportunity. He and his fellow passengers began shouting to the sailors on the rescue ship. They were close enough for Russell to see a big red flag with a blue cross and to read the name “KNUTE NELSON” across the ship’s stern.

But no one on the big ship’s deck seemed to hear their calls or see their lifeboat as they slowly drifted past the big ship and into the night.

In our next blog: Russell spies mysterious red lights on the horizon.

Read the whole story:  www.thomascsanger.com

Russell Park Part 7: On The Lifeboat!

At Sea In a Lifeboat : After the Sinking of the SS Athenia

At Sea In a Lifeboat : After the Sinking of the SS Athenia

Sunday, 9:10 – 11:00 a.m., September 3

Everything on board Lifeboat 7A seemed chaotic and worrisome to Russell. Seated on the starboard side behind the last cross-bench, he discovered he could reach over the gunwale and put his hand in the cold ocean. He thought it was dangerous for the boat to be riding so low in the water and worried about how he would survive without a lifejacket if they sank.

Russell’s biggest concern was the water inside the boat. In addition to the missing plug for the rainwater drain, there were several other leaks in the wooden hull. As passengers discovered the leaks, they tore off bits of clothing to wedge into the cracks, but still the water seeped in. The bailing bucket wasn’t enough, so a few of the men used their shoes to dump out water, while some women bailed water with their purses. It was exhausting work and after fifteen minutes or so, people began to slow down or take a breather, at which point the water level slowly began to rise and the frantic activity started all over.

The only Athenia crewman aboard was an older man who worked as a waiter in the Tourist dining saloon, someone had said. Russell wondered if his lack of experience was the reason why he struggled to guide the boat and direct the people at the oars. The passengers in the boat had only been able to find three of its eight oarlocks, leaving the port side of the boat underpowered. Without a tiller, the steward used one of the extra oars to try to steer the boat, but Russell didn’t think it had much effect.

On the cross-bench ahead of him, he watched two women struggle to work one of the oars. Coordinating their actions in response to the steward’s directions looked difficult and they were often out of synch with the starboard oar of the people ahead of them.

“Starboard side stop rowing,” the steward at the back of the boat called out. “You ladies on the right side of the boat stop for a moment and let the portside come around.” They stopped rowing, but Russell could see the confusion in their faces. One woman let go of the oar altogether while the second one turned around to look at the bow. At that moment, a wave swept the oar out of the oarlock and it fell overboard as the first women screamed in surprise.

Russell quickly reached over the gunwale and got a hand on the heavy oar, keeping it from drifting away from the boat.

“Don’t let go, sonny,” someone shouted. Several passengers seated near him reached out to pull the oar back into the boat and secure it the oarlock, where the two women once again took possession of it.

“Good work, laddie,” the steward called out.

“Well done.”

“Quick thinking, son.” Several people offered congratulations and a few clapped him on the shoulder with their thanks. Even though there were other unused oars in the boat, Russell felt genuinely appreciated by the adults. A sense of belonging began to replace the loneliness that had accompanied him into the lifeboat.

In our next blog: A rescue ship appears in the night.

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.

Russell Park’s SS Athenia Adventure Part 4: Russell Explores a Lifeboat!

The nested configuration of lifeboats aboard Athenia visible on the builder's model of the ship...

The nested configuration of lifeboats aboard Athenia visible on the builder’s model of the ship*

Sunday Afternoon, September 3, 1939

Dressed in an old, olive-drab sweater, short brown trousers and sneakers, Russell climbed the stairs to the open Tourist class area at the stern of the Promenade deck. He had spent more than an hour walking the cramped Third class cabin passageways, wandering the busy lounge and empty dining saloons on C deck, and poking into the barber shop, beauty salon, and ship’s printing facility. His hands and knees were grimy with the oily dust of the spare anchors he had found and explored on B deck in a chain locker near Athenia’s stern.

Some people stood at the Promenade deck’s railing gazing at heavy, round-shouldered clouds scudding toward the expansive blue horizon. Others sat in chairs napping or reading in the shade of the wide covered galleries that ran along each side of the deck’s central structure. Mothers sat on blankets on the deck and watched their children play. Russell thought all the activity would distract the adults from his explorations. He saw the canvas covers had been removed from the set of lifeboats near the stairs and noted the top lifeboat had been lifted high enough on its davits to allow access to the lower boat, which sat on the deck.

Russell strolled over to the boat for a closer look at its white clapboard hull and the looping rope grab lines that hung in small semi-circles from its polished brown gunwales. He climbed through the railing that separated the passenger space from the lifeboats and peered over the side of the lower boat. A bench ran all the way around the inside of the lifeboat’s hull. Across the central opening there were four wide cross-benches where he knew the oarsmen would sit. After a casual glance over his shoulder, he boosted himself up, put his foot on a grab line loop, and climbed over the gunwale into the boat.

Crouched on the lattice decking in the bottom of the lifeboat, he listened for footsteps that might indicate he had been seen. When he heard no worrisome noises he began to look around. In the bottom of the boat he found six sets of oars, each oar twice as long as he was tall. Russell thought at least two men would be needed to handle such a big oar. He found several coiled ropes, bottles of water, a box marked “Condensed Milk” and a curious looking bucket with a handle on one side. Best of all, however, was a latched box marked “Flares.” Inside the box he found several eight-inch long red cylinders that he knew, when ignited, burned bright enough to illuminate the night. But he easily imagined they could be sticks of dynamite and saw himself commanding this little vessel, sneaking up on a large sailing ship and forcing its surrender by threatening to toss one of his lighted dynamite sticks aboard.

“What’s down there?” a voice asked.

Russell looked up to see a boy’s blue eyes peering at him from under a mop of red hair. He had no idea how long the boy had been watching him, but he was certain to attract some adult’s attention at any moment.

“There’s some really good stuff here,” he said. “Climb in.”

The boy responded without hesitation, throwing a leg over the gunwale and rolling quickly into the boat. He appeared to be a year or two younger than Russell and said his name was Billy.

“Did anyone see you?”

“I don’t think so,” Billy said.

“Good.” Russell directed Billy’s attention to the flares, handing one of the cylinders to the boy, who hefted its weight with both hands.

“It’s a stick of dynamite,” Russell said. Billy’s eyes grew wide and he thrust the cylinder back toward Russell.

“No, no. I’m kidding.  It’s really just a flare.”

“What’s a flare?” The boy still appeared apprehensive about the object in his hand.

Russell was about to explain how a flare worked when he heard a woman’s voice call out in a peevish tone.

“Billy, what are you doing in there?”

“Nothing, Mum,” Billy said, rolling his eyes skyward.

“Come out of there this instant.”

Russell quickly replaced the flare in its box, and the two boys climbed out of the lifeboat. After introducing himself to Billy’s mother, Russell suggested he and his new friend might walk partway up the starboard gallery and look for other ships at sea. Minutes later the boys stood in the covered gallery where the sign on a rope across the walkway indicated the space beyond was reserved for Cabin class passengers. They stopped to look out at the broad expanse of ocean, but there was no sign of another ship.

“I bet we could see more from the top deck,” Russell said.

“But we can’t go up there.”

“Sure we can. They won’t mind.” Russell slipped under the rope and continued forward a few paces before he realized Billy wasn’t with him. “Come on,” he said, “we’ll only be up there a few minutes and we’ll come right back.” With a quick glance over his shoulder, Billy bent under the rope and caught up with Russell. They walked past several seated adults who paid no attention to them. At the end of the gallery, they climbed the outside stairway to the Boat deck.

Adults talked or dozed in their deck chairs, taking no notice of the two boys. The view between the lifeboats presented a wide horizon in all directions. A bright afternoon sun slipped in and out of the clouds, while a stiff breeze tousled Russell’s brown hair as he squinted out across the rolling ocean. Looming above the boys was the black tower of Athenia’s lone smoke funnel wrapped in its single white stripe. The breeze carried the dark diesel exhaust over the portside and trailed it away in a long black ribbon.

Walking toward the ship’s stern, Russell spotted an unattended bowl of fresh fruit. He casually picked up an apple, took a big bite, and savored its firm, juicy flesh.

“Stop staring, Billy. The trick is to look like you belong.” Russell held the apple out to his friend. “Do you want a bite?” Billy shook his head. “Suit yourself, but it’s a really good apple.” They walked a few more steps before hearing an adult voice hail them.

“Are you boys supposed to be up here?” A white-coated steward carrying an armful of blankets walked toward them. Russell smiled at the man.

“We’re looking for other ships.”

“And what’s your stateroom number, laddie?” the steward asked.

“B-one seven five,” Russell answered innocently.

“You boys belong in Tourist class. This deck is for Cabin passengers only,” the steward said, his voice taking on a gruff edge. “Run along, now.”

“Thank you. Can we go that way?” Russell pointed toward the stern.

“Go on with ya,” the steward barked.

The boys walked quickly toward the stern of the Boat deck. Russell disposed of his half-eaten apple in a trash bin before they hurried down the external stair to the Tourist haven on the Promenade deck.

“Are we in trouble?” Billy looked worried, and Russell felt a pang of pity for his companion who seemed so ready for adventure but unsure how to handle it.

“No, that man won’t do anything. We left when he told us to, didn’t we? Besides, I’m not staying in B-one seven five.” Russell couldn’t tell if Billy’s expression was one of disbelief or admiration.

“I better go find my mum,” he said, backing away from Russell.

“We had fun, didn’t we?”

Billy nodded and a smile grew across his freckled cheeks before he turned to leave.

“See you tomorrow,” Russell called, but Billy had disappeared into the crowd.

A few minutes later, Russell found space on the Number 5 hatch cover where several people were sunning themselves. He stretched out with his hands behind his head. It had been a fine, adventurous afternoon, he thought. Russell hadn’t found the five-million-dollar strong box, but a sense of accomplishment enveloped him as he watched the clouds blow across the bright blue sky.

* Sunday morning, two full days after the German Army invaded Poland, England declared war on Germany (see blog post March 30, 2017). Though not unexpected, the news stunned many Athenia’s passengers, including young Russell Park’s mother. By early afternoon, however, consensus began to form that the ship had sailed beyond the reach of the new war, and Russell’s father agreed to let him explore the ship on his own.

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In our next blog: Russell’s world turns upside down.

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*Builder’s model is located in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, Scotland