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.

 

Russell Park on the SS Athenia: Part 2

 

WW2 Barrage Balloons

WW2 Barrage Balloons

Saturday Morning, September 2, 1939

A gray overcast held off the early morning sun as Athenia made her way slowly up the Mersey River into Liverpool. Russell and his father, Alexander, leaned on the portside railing where they anticipated having a good view of the action when the liner tied up at the Albert Docks. Russell’s mother, Rebecca, had decided to remain in bed to nurse an upset stomach.

Instead of heading for the docks, the liner came to a stop and dropped anchor a few minutes past seven a.m. in the middle of the river. Russell hardly noticed the unexpected anchoring. He was intrigued by something he had never seen before. Floating on long tethers high above the city were dozens of floppy silver balloons the size of school buses, with two fins on either side of a tapered tail. To Russell, it looked as if the circus had come to town.

“They’re barrage balloons,” his father explained.

“Can people go up in them?”

“Oh no, Russ, they’re to protect the city from bombers, in case England goes to war with Germany.”

“Do the bombs bounce off of them?” Russell thought that might be an interesting sight.

“Nope. If the enemy planes come in low to drop their bombs they’ll be tangled up in the balloon cables and crash. That means they have to fly higher, where the English anti-aircraft gunners can shoot them down.”

“Wow, the German bombers don’t stand a chance, do they?”

“There you are.” A familiar voice interrupted Alexander’s response.

Russell and his dad turned to see Father O’Connor strolling toward them, a white clerical collar visible above the leather buttons of his dark cardigan sweater. They exchanged greetings and learned the priest and his father were staying in a Third class cabin on D deck, four decks below, sharing a small cabin with two other men who were German refugees and spoke no English.

“Dad’s sound asleep, so I decided to see if I could find you,” O’Connor said. “Quite a sight, isn’t it?” The priest nodded in the direction of the large balloons.

“A sad one, I’m afraid, Father,” Alexander said. “Now Hitler’s marched into Poland, war seems unavoidable.” Russell turned his attention back to the balloons, but kept an ear cocked to the adults’ conversation.

“Such a tragedy,” O’Connor agreed. “I can’t understand how Hitler can be so blind to his own ambition that he’s willing to plunge Europe into another war.”

“I just hope we can stay out of it.”

“I agree. When you look at what happened in Spain, I’m afraid there’ll be little distinction between soldiers and civilians in the next war.”

“Maybe we should change the subject, Father.”

With a pause in the conversation, Russell shifted his attention to the hazy Liverpool skyline and the big gray building on the shore directly across from the ship. Two reddish stone towers, one facing the river and one at the opposite end of the building, rose above the rest of the structure. A large, greenish-gray statue of a bird with its wings outstretched topped each tower. Apparently Father O’Connor noticed them as well.

“You see the two birds on the building over there?” O’Connor asked Russell’s father. “Do you know how to tell if they are male or female?”

“Can’t say as I do, but I have a feeling you know.” Russell could almost hear a smile in his father’s voice.

“As a matter of fact, I do. The one facing us, looking out to the river, that’s a female. She’s looking to see if her boyfriend is coming in on the next ship. The bird looking away from us, toward Liverpool?  He’s a male.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Because he’s looking to see if the pubs are open yet.”

“Sounds like a very sensible bird,” Alexander chuckled.

“There’s another local legend about those birds, but it’s not appropriate for young ears.”

Russell kept his gaze on the building and the balloons, hoping for further discussion of the subject in spite of his young ears. But after a moment of silence, his father introduced a new subject, one that didn’t involve the legend of the birds.

“I heard last night that we’re carrying five million pounds sterling in gold bars. A fellow in the lounge told me he saw the steel boxes come aboard under guard in Glasgow. I asked him how he knew what was in the boxes, but he claimed it was common knowledge on board.”

“Well, I heard something last night, too, but I have some trouble believing it,” O’Connor said. “A couple of people told me the crew has never been to sea before. They said the regular crew had all been mobilized by the Royal Navy.”

“That doesn’t make much sense, Alexander said. “A ship this size isn’t going anywhere without experienced seamen aboard.”  After a brief pause, Russell heard his dad speak again.

“I’m afraid we have to go, Father, before we miss our breakfast. You’re welcome to join us if you think your collar will let you into the Tourist dining saloon.”

“Thank you, but I think I’ll head back downstairs and check on dad. Give my regards to Rebecca.”  With a wink and a wave, the priest headed for the stairway.

“Are we really carrying five million dollars of gold?” Russell asked.

“Not dollars, son. They’re British pounds, and I don’t know. But if I were you, I wouldn’t go looking for it.” His father’s comment raised Russell’s hopes that he still might be allowed to explore the ship on his own, and it started him thinking: How big would steel boxes have to be to hold five million dollars in gold bars?

*In Part 1 of Russell Park’s story (see blog post Feb. 28, 2017), 11-year-old Russell and his parents boarded the British passenger liner Athenia in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the evening of Sept, 1, 1939. Overnight, Athenia sailed back across the Irish Sea to Liverpool, England, her last port of call before sailing for Canada.

In our next blog: Events threaten Russell’s plans to explore Athenia.  

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.