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.

 

 

“The Writing Life” – My 2016 Journey…

 

the writing life journeyThe end of the year typically is a time to reflect on the twelve months just passed.

For me, 2016 has been a very significant year, and not just because of the endless drama that accompanied the presidential election. It was a year that saw my historical novel, Without Warning, draw closer to publication, and I thought it might be interesting to share the ups and downs of this journey with you.

After three years of research, interviews and writing, I completed the first draft of my manuscript by the end of January, 2014, and considered it accomplished enough to begin querying agents. Agents are gatekeepers. No major publishing house will consider a manuscript unless it is represented by an agent.

What followed was two years of rejection notices from agents, manuscript revisions, attendance at writing workshops, more revisions, more rejections, and intermittent soul-searching about the viability of my skills.

As this year dawned, I had completed six drafts of Without Warning, but something wasn’t working. While I had written for most of my life, nearly all of my output was non-fiction. Perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate the difference between fiction and non-fiction.

After attending a workshop on creating fictional characters, reading a book about narrative voice, and recharging my batteries at a local writers conference, I did a seventh draft. I clearly delineated the story’s protagonist, gave him a character arc, and added a new ending. Eager for more constructive feedback than the form-letter rejection notices from agents, I recruited five readers to critique this latest draft.

By early April, I received their feedback. They were kind, but their comments followed a pattern: not enough drama, most of the characters sounded like me, and the book took too long to get started.

Gut check time.

Was it worth all the work I was putting into this book to collect more rejection letters from agents and body blows to my ego? After a brief hiatus I returned to this question and realized my answer was, “yes.” The manuscript had improved from the first through the seventh draft. I still wanted to tell this story and believed that fiction would be the most compelling format for readers. Besides, the novel’s characters now seemed like old friends and I didn’t want to strand them in the middle of their voyage.

From late spring through early fall, I went through two more re-writes, differentiating characters’ insights, making their efforts to escape Europe ahead of the war more dramatic, heightening their fears as they faced their mortality after the torpedo strikes Athenia, and giving more detail and color to the book’s final chapter.

Beginning in October I polished my query letter to agents and sent out a dozen more. When these efforts failed to produce any interest, I decided to try the smaller publishers that accept queries directly from authors.

Within weeks I received an encouraging note. A publisher in Texas was interested in my book. They plan to get back to me in a few more weeks with a detailed evaluation of my manuscript and the work needed to bring the strongest possible book to market.

My long journey isn’t over, but at least the destination is in sight!

 

The SS Athenia: A Different Way to Write About this Tragedy.

 

Thomas C. Sanger - Author of Without Warning - photo

The S S Athenia: I chose a different way to write about this tragedy.

When I decided in 2010 to write about the Athenia tragedy (see blog post “Origins of a Book, Part 1, Sept. 1, 2016), my first step was to find out what had been published on the subject.

There were two non-fiction books written about the sinking: Tomorrow Never Came, by Max Caulfield, published in the U.S. in 1959, and Three Days in September: The Last Voyage of the Athenia, by Cay Rademacher, published in Germany in 2009. The older book was no longer in print (though copies were for sale on the Internet) and there were no plans to publish the German book in English.

And so the journey for a new book on the Athenia began.

To differentiate my effort from the previous books, I determined to write a historical novel about the sinking. I thought fiction would be the best way to make the emotional connection with readers that I sought.

I began by reading the Caulfield book. Then I scoured the Internet, where I found a great deal of material, including many first-hand accounts of Athenia’s sinking.

Rather than invent my characters, I decided to fictionalize the experiences of real people, imagining their thoughts and conversations as they experienced events before, during and after the torpedoing by a German submarine. Following 18 months of research I settled on ten people – eight passengers, the Athenia’s second-in-command and the submarine commander – whose experiences would allow me to tell the most complete story of Athenia’s last voyage.

With two years invested in my project, my heart sank late in 2012 when I opened a catalogue and found a new Athenia book had just been published: Athenia Torpedoed: The U-Boat Attack That Ignited the Battle of the Atlantic, by Francis M. Carroll! I ordered a copy and discovered an up-to-date, concise, thoroughly researched and well-written non-fiction account of the attack on Athenia and its aftermath.

Had I chosen to write a non-fiction book on the subject, like the Athena, I would have been sunk!

Thankfully, my idea for a historical novel remained afloat. All I had to do was write it….

Without Warning by author Thomas C. Sanger - book cover image

City of Flint Captain Joseph Gainard. Photo credit: Yankee Skipper: The Life Story of Joseph Gainard, Captain of The City of Flint.

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 2

The American freighter City of Flint was less than a day into its voyage from Scotland to New York Harbor on Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939, when a radio message relayed news that England and Germany were at war. The ship’s captain, Joseph Gainard, did not expect City of Flint to be a target of hostilities because America had declared its neutrality. But the state of war injected an element of uncertainty into an already stressful Atlantic crossing (see blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 1, Sept. 15, 2015).
Read More

Historical Fiction vs Narrative Nonfiction: What’s in a Genre?

When I began to consider finding a book agent to represent my forthcoming book, Without Warning, I needed to determine the genre for my book, which tells the true story of the Athenia, a British passenger ship torpedoed by a German U-boat on the first day of World War 2 in 1939.

One possible genre for the book is “narrative nonfiction.” It’s a popular format for book-length journalism and recent history, and includes titles like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Narrative nonfiction tells a factual story with a beginning, middle and end, written in a literary style that includes a narrative arc, characterizations, scenes and dialogue.

The information in these books is as accurate and verifiable, but the language and narrative techniques provide readers with a more literary experience and presumably a greater emotional connection with the book’s content. Read More

The Russian Invasion of Ukraine: Echoes from World War II

Soldiers massed along a border, threatening an invasion to protect their ethnic brothers from harm. A referendum in which citizens decided to become part of a larger, more powerful neighboring country. A once-proud nation, moving boldly to regain its influence over a region of Eastern Europe.

These developments could be taken from today’s headlines involving the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but they also are echoes from nearly a century ago, when the principal actor was not the Russian bear, but the German eagle. Read More