My Personal Ties to Mac’s Web Log…

 

My grandmother, Rhoda ThomasI spent several days exploring the fascinating SS Athenia pages on Ahoy – Mac’s Web Log.

My interest in this site, dedicated to “All who went down to the sea in ships” in World War 2, was a personal one.

 

My grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was a survivor of the Athenia’s torpedoing by a German U-boat, and she left our family with a detailed account of her experiences that evening and beyond.

Rhoda Thomas was born in England, but immigrated to the United States with her husband and small family in 1914.

She had returned to England in August, 1939, to visit with friends and relatives but was advised by the American consulate toward the end of the month to return home as soon as possible.

Grandma boarded the Athenia in Liverpool. When the ship was attacked Sept. 3, 1939, she was on deck and, fortunately for her, wearing a heavy coat against the evening chill.

The lifeboat she entered was crowded and she had to stand for a good portion of the night. During this time, she was handed a baby to hold under her coat to keep warm. How I would love to know that child’s identity and what became of him or her!

Also in the lifeboat with by grandmother were Margaret Hayworth, a child who eventually died of wounds she received in the submarine attack, and her mother.

They were rescued by the Southern Cross and later transferred to the City of Flint and landed at Halifax.

While on the City of Flint, my grandmother met another survivor — a young man named John Garland.  They struck up an acquaintance because they were both from Rochester, New York.

Over the years, I found that many people knew of the Lusitania, a passenger ship torpedoed by a German U-boat during World War I, but hardly anyone had ever heard of Athenia, even though 30 Americans died in that attack more than two years before Pearl Harbor. My fascination with this ship, my Grandmother’s personal account and a collection of newspaper articles encouraged me to write my debut historical novel, Without Warning.  

In researching the book, I read many inspiring and harrowing accounts written by other survivors and I was able to speak to a handful of them who are still alive. What began as a project to remember my grandmother, became a personal effort to honor the memories of Athenia’s passengers, whose heroism and sacrifices have been overshadowed by the war’s greater conflagrations.

 

Meet the Character Rhoda Thomas: Resourceful Grandmother, Part 4

Rhoda Thomas and her fellow Athenia passengers had nearly given up hope of being rescued from their lifeboat when a bright light found them in the early morning darkness of Monday, Sept. 4, 1939. They had been drifting in the North Atlantic for hours following the attack on Athenia by a German submarine (see blog post June 1, 2015).

The light belonged to the luxury yacht Southern Cross, the second rescue ship to reach the scene of the attack. When the yacht came alongside Rhoda’s lifeboat, sailors threw lines to the passengers and pulled them up out of the boat one by one. Read More

The luxury yacht Southern Cross, owned by Swedish millionaire Axel Wenner-Gren, rescued 376 survivors, including my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas.
The luxury yacht Southern Cross, owned by Swedish millionaire Axel Wenner-Gren, rescued 376 survivors, including my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas. Photo credit: www.latecruisenews.com

Meet the Character Rhoda Thomas: Resourceful Grandmother, Part 3

It took the Second World War only a few hours to find Rhoda Thomas and her fellow passengers aboard the British liner Athenia when their ship was torpedoed by a German submarine on Sept. 3, 1939 (see blog post May 15, 2015). The ship had been on its way to Canada and was 250 miles northwest of Ireland when the U-boat attacked as night had begun falling in the North Atlantic.

With the cries of women and children all around her, Rhoda stood on the deck, knowing the ship was doomed and thinking of her home and family in Rochester, NY, wondering if she would ever see them again.

“Yet I didn’t seem to be afraid and felt quite calm,” she later recalled, expressing an equanimity felt by many other passengers. After helping one distressed woman into a lifeboat, my 54-year-old grandmother managed to climb some 20 feet down a rope ladder and drop off the end into a lifeboat riding on the ocean’s six-foot swells. The night was cold, the boat leaked, and a drizzling rain added to the discomforts for the survivors. Rhoda was grateful she had worn a warm coat on deck before the torpedo attack. Read More

evacuation2
Rhoda Thomas saw many scenes like this one of school children being evacuated from large cities and factory towns in anticipation of the war. Photo Credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk

Meet the Character Rhoda Thomas: Resourceful Grandmother, Part 2

Like many other vacationers in Great Britain in September of 1939, Rhoda Thomas scrambled to make last-minute arrangements to return home ahead of a war with Germany that now seemed certain. She had arranged a ticket for the passenger ship Athenia, leaving Liverpool Sept. 2, and managed to catch an express train in southwestern England to take her to the port city the day before departure (see blog post May 1, 2015).

It was a grim journey. My grandmother later recalled the train trip as being “crowded with people returning unexpectedly from their vacations, all looking doubtful as to the future, but trying to be brave and calm.” Many were British citizens and they seemed to Rhoda to be “unresentful and reconciled to their fate, ready to do and give up all their country demanded.”

In anticipation of war, the British government had begun a voluntary evacuation of school children from cities and factory towns all over England that Friday, Sept. 1. Rhoda saw the first group of evacuated children as her train passed through Gloucester, a sight she said she would never Read More

Rhoda Thomas with her brother Albert Fisher in Street, England. Rhoda’s visit in the summer of 1939 was cut short by the start of World War 2.
Rhoda Thomas with her brother Albert Fisher in Street, England. Rhoda’s visit in the summer of 1939 was cut short by the start of World War 2. Photo credit: Family photo

Meet the Character Rhoda Thomas: Resourceful Grandmother, Part 1

The threat of war was not a major consideration for my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, when she visited relatives and friends in her native England during the summer of 1939. Although German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was making territorial demands on Poland, few people thought the situation would lead to war.

Born in 1885, Rhoda had grown up in the little town of Street near Glastonbury in southwest England. She had met and married her husband, Frank Thomas, in Street and the couple had a son and a daughter before immigrating to the United States in 1914. Two more children were born in the U.S., where Rhoda and Frank became naturalized citizens in 1922. In the years that followed, Rhoda devoted herself to her husband, children, and grandchildren, and even in the most difficult days of the Great Depression she never lost her sense of humor or her trust in God,.

After her youngest daughter married in 1939, Rhoda left at the end of July for a two-month visit to Street. If she felt any hesitation boarding the ship in New York Harbor, it was because Frank, who worked for the State of New York Employment Office, could not accompany her. Read More