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.

* * *

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

www.thomascsanger.com

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

 

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

war-headline2

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.

* * *

war-headline

 

*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.

 

11 Year Old Russell Park Boards the SS Athenia: Pt 1

Russel Park and Parents

After researching and writing my forthcoming World War 2 historical novel, Without Warning, I made several manuscript revisions to sharpen its focus and pacing. The book is fiction but based on actual people and events related to the sinking of the British passenger ship, Athenia, at the start of the war. Revising a manuscript can involve painful decisions regarding what to delete. The most difficult part of this process for me was deciding to cut Russell Park, one of the book’s characters, from the final draft. Happily, Russell doesn’t have to be lost, thanks to this blog. What follows is the first of a 13-part series featuring my fictional account of Russell’s experiences as he lived through the first hours and weeks of World War 2.

* * *

Friday Evening, September 1, 1939

A cold, wet evening breeze swirled around the broad-beamed tender ferrying more than a hundred passengers to the ocean liner Athenia, laying at anchor in the wide bay east of Belfast Harbor. Eleven-year-old Russell Park stood at a crowded window in the tender’s lounge, looking past the droplets of mist on the glass for his first glimpse of the big ship they soon would board.

Russell and his parents, Alexander and Rebecca Park, had spent three weeks visiting relatives in Ireland. Like many other Americans vacationing in the British Isles, their plans were altered by the growing threat of war on the Continent. Russell understood war concerns had something to do with changing the ship they would sail back to America. The new ship would take them to Canada instead of New York City, and from there they would take a train home to Philadelphia. His father wasn’t happy with the change because it would cost him a few extra days away from his job at the Navy Yard, but Russell thought it all sounded like a great adventure.

“See anything yet, Russ?” his father asked.

“Nothing.”

“Come here a minute.” Russell turned to see his father patting an empty seat next to him. The boy sighed in anticipation of another lecture about not bothering people, one his mother had delivered an hour earlier when his father was checking their luggage onto the passenger tender. Nevertheless, he dutifully took the seat next to his father.

“We’re going to be on a very crowded ship when we sail for home tomorrow,” Alexander said. Russell nodded to show he was paying attention. “I want you to promise me that you won’t go running off on one of your explorations before checking with me or your mother. I’m not worried about you getting lost. I’m worried about you being a nuisance. A lot of people are concerned about what’s happening on the Continent right now and they won’t have much patience with a boy poking around where he doesn’t belong, even a boy with your innocent round face.”

Russell allowed himself a brief smile.

“I mean it, Russell.” Alexander was not a big man, but he wore very thick glasses that magnified his eyes, and when those eyes narrowed, as they were now, Russell knew a smart remark or sideways glance would deny him one of his favorite activities, to explore a new location on his own.

“Yes sir,” he said with all the sincerity he could muster.

“Okay.” His father’s baleful gaze eased and his voice moderated. “I want you to stay close to us tonight. We need to sort out our accommodations and see what’s happening.  Tomorrow there will be hundreds more passengers coming aboard and a lot of confusion. But maybe Sunday, when things have settled down, we’ll see if you can have some time to explore.”

“Thank you, daddy.”

“All right, young man, back to your lookout post.”

When he reclaimed his place at the window, Russell spotted a long gray cloud hanging above the water in the distance. The cloud gradually formed itself into the superstructure of a ship. He could barely distinguish the ship’s big black hull against the dark headland beyond. It had to be the Athenia, but something about its appearance disturbed Russell.

A few minutes later, standing on the deck of the tender with his parents, Russell realized he could not see any light from Athenia’s portholes.

“Dad, there are no lights on. Is something wrong?”

“I don’t think so, Russ.” Alexander said. “The ship’s probably blacked out. I’m sure the lights are on inside.”

“Why is it blacked out?”

“It’s probably just a precaution. Don’t worry about it, son.”

He wanted to ask if the precaution had anything to do with the war, but his father didn’t sound eager to discuss it. Holding his mother’s hand at her insistence, Russell crossed from the bobbing tender to a platform attached to Athenia’s hull. As they climbed a stairway up the side of the ship to an opening in its hull, Russell peered into the nearby portholes but saw no trace of light.

When they entered the side of the ship through heavy curtains, however, Russell found himself in a brightly lit passageway. A man in an official-looking blue jacket checked their embarkation card and began talking with his father.

“Hello there, young man.” Russell looked up at the sound of a familiar voice to see the smiling face of a youthful priest in a black suit and shirt with a white clerical collar.

“Father O’Connor,” Russell cried. “Are you on this ship?”

“I certainly am.” The Parks had become friends with Father Joseph O’Connor when they met on the ship sailing from America to Ireland a few weeks earlier and realized they shared a Philadelphia connection. Russell turned to tap his father’s arm.

“Dad, its Father O’Connor.”

Alexander greeted the young priest with an enthusiastic handshake and they began a discussing their mutual travels in Ireland. Russell wanted to look around the ship and see how it was blacked out, but he knew he needed to stay with his parents.

“Dear, the steward is waiting to direct us to our cabins,” Rebecca said, interrupting her husband and the priest. They ended their discussion with a promise to meet tomorrow.

On the way to their cabin, Russell learned he and his mother would be in a different cabin from his father. Alexander explained the shipping company wanted to fit more people aboard, so four passengers were being assigned to every cabin.

“Is this because of the war?”

“I’m afraid so, son. It looks like everything is going to be more unsettled than we thought.” With a stern glance, his father added, “Just remember what I told you about staying close.”

As he lay in his bunk that evening, Russell worried the crowded conditions and concerns about war would cause his parents to be even more cautious than usual. Maybe the crossing to Canada would not be the grand adventure he had expected.

In our next blog: An amazing sight greets Russell in Liverpool.

The Famous and Future Famous Sailed on Athenia’s Last Voyage!

Ernst Lubitsch and baby Nicola

Baby Nicola with her parents, Ernst Lubitsch and Vivian Gaye

Movie star Edward G. Robinson missed his chance to board the ill-fated British liner Athenia at the start of World War 2 (see blog post, Jan. 30, 2017), but Athenia’s passenger manifest already included a few famous names when she sailed from Liverpool, England, Sept. 2, 1939.

One of the most recognizable names was “Lubitsch.” Famed movie director Ernst Lubitsch was not a passenger, but his      10-month-old daughter, Nicola, was aboard, accompanied by her nurse Carlina Strohmayer.

Lubitsch’s wife, the British actress Vivian Gaye, lived in London at the time with their daughter and the nursemaid. Heavy demand for passage to North America to escape the threat of war meant Vivian only could acquire two tickets for Athenia’s crossing to Canada. To keep her daughter safe, Gaye sent Nicola and her nurse off on the ship to join her husband, Ernst, in Hollywood, where he was directing the film “Ninotchka,” starring Greta Garbo.

Athenia never made it to Canada. A German submarine torpedoed the ship the evening of Sept. 3rd. Strohmayer and the baby made it into a lifeboat, but during rescue operations the boat capsized and they were thrown into the sea. For nearly an hour the nurse held little Nicola on her shoulders while treading water to stay afloat. They were picked up by the crew of a luxury yacht and eventually arrived safely in Hollywood nearly two weeks later.  

Also aboard the ship was Andrew Allan, a gifted and prolific writer, returning to Canada after more than a year of producing radio programming in London. He became the head of radio drama for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and would be credited with helping develop a Canadian “voice” in North American drama.

Traveling with Allan was his father, the Rev. William Allan, who had gained a significant following throughout Canada with a series of radio sermons produced by his son. Also with the younger Allan was his one-time fiancée, Canadian actress Judith Evelyn, who went on to win plaudits for two starring roles on the Broadway stage in the 1940s. She moved on to Hollywood and enjoyed a steady career of character roles in movies and television.

Evelyn and Allan were among the few survivors of a tragedy that destroyed a second lifeboat during rescue operations. That accident killed Allan’s father and left them clinging to a fragment of their lifeboat for several hours before being rescued at dawn on Sept. 4.

Some of Athenia’s passengers were unknown to the public at the time, but would go on to earn fame in their chosen fields.

Music teacher Barbara Cass-Beggs and her husband were separated from their three-year-old daughter while escaping Athenia and did not know for nearly three weeks that their little girl survived until they arrived in Canada. Later in life, Barbara enjoyed a distinguished international career in early childhood education using music as a teaching tool.

Prof. John H. Lawrence, returning to his Berkley, California, home from a London Conference, would later be hailed as the father of nuclear medicine.

Finally, Harold Etherington, a talented engineer returning home to Milwaukee with his wife and son after visiting relatives in England, would go on to help design the engine that powered the U.S.S. Nautilus, America’s first nuclear submarine. He later would be recognized as one of the fathers of nuclear power.

 

A Famous American’s Brush With Death: Edward G. Robinson

robinson-edward-gThis tough-guy actor, Edward G. Robinson,  and his family were traveling in Europe in 1939 when word came that the German army was preparing to invade Poland—an act that signaled beginning of World War II. Like many other Americans, they decided to get packing.

As Robinson tells the story in his 1958 autobiography, My Father, My Son, the ship they had in mind was the British ocean liner Athenia. “But something went wrong, the boat was crowded or left early,” he wrote. “Anyway, I remember the best we could do was to get a single cabin on an American ship, the S.S. Washington.”

Their accommodations on the Washington may have been cramped, but the Robinsons would have been even less comfortable on the Athenia.

On September 3, 1939, it was stuck by a torpedo from a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland, becoming the first British ship sunk by the Germans in World War II. Of the roughly 1,400 passengers and crew on board, a reported 112 died, including 28 Americans. The rest were rescued, in part because the ship took 14 hours to sink. Fearful that the incident would mobilize the then-neutral U.S., Nazi propagandists denied any involvement and tried to blame it on the British.

The S.S. Washington arrived safely in New York with a passenger list that not only included the Robinson family but Sara Delano Roosevelt, mother of the president, and one of his sons, James. Robinson went on to make some of his best movies, including Double Indemnity, Key Largo, and The Stranger. He died in 1973 at the age of 79.

This blog first appeared on www.Smithsonian.com

Her Career Started with A Bang: Star Reporter Claire Hollingworth 1/15

Claire HollingsworthClare Hollingworth, a British journalist whose career as a war correspondent spanned more than four decades, died earlier this month in Hong Kong at age 105. She covered conflicts from Europe to the Mideast to Vietnam, but it was her reporting during her first week on the job that became the touchstone of her career and the reason for this blog’s interest in her.

The child of well-to-do parents, Hollingworth was drawn to writing at an early age. She eschewed the life of a housewife to pursue a career in journalism, scandalizing her mother. In the 1930’s, her freelance articles began appearing in the New Statesman, a British political and cultural magazine.

After Hitler annexed the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the 26-year-old Hollingworth went to Warsaw to work with Czechoslovak refugees. From March to July 1939, she helped thousands of people escape German occupation by securing visas for them to cross into Poland. Her experience in Eastern Europe led the editor of The Daily Telegraph in London to hire Hollingworth as a reporter in August 1939 to cover the growing tensions in Poland.

On the job less than a week, she somehow convinced the British Consul-General in Katowice, Poland, to loan her his car so she could drive over the border into Germany, thanks to the vehicle’s Consular plates. While touring German roads just over the border on August 28, she observed a massive German build-up of troops, tanks and armored cars. Back in Poland, she telephoned her bureau chief in Warsaw and told him what she had seen. The front page story in the Telegraph the next day scooped the world’s news media.

Three days later in Katowice, the rumble of airplanes woke Hollingworth at 5 a.m. She ran to her window and saw planes approaching and bursts of anti-aircraft fire. What appeared to be incendiary bombs began falling in a nearby park.

“It’s the beginning of war,” she shouted into the phone to her bureau chief at the other end of the line.

“Are you sure, old girl?” he asked her. In response, Hollingworth held the phone receiver out the window so he could hear the explosions.

On the way to the British Consul-General’s office in Katowice, she began having second thoughts. Had she witnessed a military exercise and not the start of war? If so, her promising career as a journalist would be short-lived.

At the Consulate she received news confirming the German invasion. The date was Friday, Sept. 1, 1939, and the Telegraph’s “cub” reporter had again scooped her colleagues with an eyewitness account of the start of World War 2.