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

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Members of City of Flint’s crew pose with the Nazi banner that flew over the ship while she was under German control. Photo credit: “Yankee Skipper: The Life Story of Joseph Gainard, Captain of the City of Flint.”

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 7

Within hours of leaving Russia in late October 1939, the American freighter City of Flint again entered Norwegian waters heading south toward Germany and a blockade of British warships. The ship continued to be operated by her American captain, Joseph Gainard, and his crew, but it remained under the control of the German prize crew and its commander, Leutnant Hans Pushbach. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 6, Dec. 1, 2015.)

With an escort of two Norwegian warships, City of Flint stayed within Norway’s territorial waters to avoid capture by Royal Navy ships waiting just beyond the three-mile limit.

The closer City of Flint sailed toward the southern limit of Norwegian waters, the more Capt. Gainard’s hopes of getting free of the Germans diminished. When a crewman accidentally injured his shins, Gainard sensed an opportunity. Though the sailor’s injury wasn’t serious, Gainard asked Pushbach to signal for a doctor from one of the Norwegian warships, and the German obliged.

When the doctor came aboard, he was accompanied by a line officer from the Norwegian escort. While the doctor bandaged the sailor’s shins, Gainard took the officer around the Flint, making sure he noted how many Germans were aboard and the location of their quarters. He explained to Pushbach that he wanted the officer to be able to describe the ship’s condition should such a report become necessary if the ship was damaged or lost.

Flint’s radio remained out of order, so the German officer could not directly contact his superiors and receive orders on how to proceed and avoid the British ships waiting in the open sea south Norway. As City of Flint approached the southern Norwegian port of Haugesund, a German cargo ship sailing north came close enough for someone on the bridge to shout across in German that Pushbach should anchor in the port and see the German consul there.

Pushbach was in a difficult position. To anchor he needed some sort of emergency on board Flint or risk violating neutrality laws. He asked Gainard if the ship could have engine trouble, but Gainard refused to go along with such a ruse. In his memoir, he described what happened next:

I suggested that Russia, a large neutral country, favored the German nation. ‘Surely Norway, a small neutral nation, would not care to antagonize your country… You have been ordered to anchor, by all means anchor.’

He said, ‘I will anchor.’

I replied, ‘Do you order me to come to anchor?’

“’Yes, we must anchor.’”

City of Flint thus sailed into Haugesund harbor and anchored on the orders of Leutnant Pushbach.

Early the following morning, Nov. 4, while most of the German prize crew slept, the Norwegian Navy sent across an armed boarding party, which took over City of Flint without firing a shot. The Germans were informed they had lost their rights by anchoring without legal cause and they were taken into custody. City of Flint was returned to her crew.

“The crew was hilarious,” Gainard wrote. “At the moment they could be hostile to the Germans, they very graciously helped them over the side and said goodbye to them as if they were old friends…”

City of Flint’s nearly month-long ordeal was over, but not her odyssey. Her journey concludes in our next blog.

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Passengers aboard the cargo ship City of Flint prepared for arrival in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo credit: Athenia Torpedoed: The U-Boat Attack That Ignited the Battle of the Atlantic.

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 3

When Captain Joseph Gainard pointed City of Flint’s bow toward Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Sept. 4, 1939, his 20-year-old freighter had never carried so many passengers – 265 people, all but 29 being survivors of the torpedoed British passenger ship Athenia. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 2, Oct. 1, 2015.)
Gainard and his crew faced a voyage of nine days and the captain immediately set about organizing his ship for the long haul. To oversee passenger matters, he set up a small “cabinet” that included two of Flint’s original paying passengers, her chief officer, and her steward.

“We had to figure things to do to keep all that crowd occupied,” Gainard later wrote. “We didn’t have any space for them to play games so we doubled up on some of the jobs, two sweepers to a broom; anything to keep them busy to take their minds off their troubles.” To the captain’s great satisfaction, nearly everyone aboard volunteered to take up some duty.

With help from several passengers, City of Flint’s carpenter completed building 250 bunk beds on the Shelter deck by the next evening, Sept. 5. To help find their way through the maze of beds, passengers put up names to identify various locations. Polish and Czech survivors occupied the “Polish Corridor” and “Sudetenland;” Canadians gathered in “Montreal” and “Quebec;” while names like “Madison Avenue,” “Times Square” and “Seventh Avenue” identified American sections.

Dining was a particular challenge. Before sailing, City of Flint’s steward had arranged enough food to feed 60 people for 90 days, never imagining how fortuitous his planning would prove. But the sheer number of passengers to be fed three times a day threatened to overwhelm the ship’s two small dining facilities. The cabinet set up a system of seatings, similar to the dining arrangements on a passenger ship. Diners picked up their plates and utensils, had a time limit to finish their meals once they were served, and carried their dirty dishes to the washroom. Other passengers, working in shifts, cleaned the plates and utensils for the next set of diners.

Passing ships helped to augment short supplies on City of Flint, sending across blankets, milk, fresh vegetables, medical supplies, and toys and candy for the children.

The cabinet established an entertainment committee, which organized passenger talent shows featuring singers, magicians, and story tellers. A dance instructor from a women’s junior college did the hula to the rhythm of a drum made by stretching canvas over an empty trash can. Passengers also held a limerick contest and conducted a fashion show featuring various “models” wearing their most outlandish makeshift outfits.

One of the passengers, a baker from Albany, NY, fashioned a cake for a party for the children on board, complete with presents of toys and candy supplied by a generous passenger on one of the passing ships. The children also put on a talent show to rival the adults.

Sadly, early on the morning of Sept. 9, the 10-year-old girl, Margaret Hayworth, who had received a head wound in the torpedo attack on Athenia, succumbed to her injury. Not wishing to add to the grief of the survivors who already had been through so much, Gainard decided not to announce the child’s death to the general population of passengers.

On the morning of Sept. 10, two U.S. Coast Guard cutters met City of Flint and took up positions on either side of the cargo ship to escort her the rest of the way to Halifax. The cutters took on board 10 injured survivors so they might enjoy less crowded conditions and have more medical personnel to look after them.

Three days later, City of Flint entered Halifax Harbor to little fanfare. “There were no welcome boats dashing about the harbor, no launches or hollering or shrieking tugs—no whistles,” Gainard said. “This was in line with my request the night before, and was, in fact, appreciated by the Canadians who did not feel that the sinking of the Athenia was any occasion for a celebration.”

As his passengers disembarked, Gainard might well have thought that he could slip back into the welcome anonymity of a merchant mariner. Fate, however, had different plans for the colorful captain and his ship. More about that in our next blog.

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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

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American freighter City of Flint Photo credit: www.snipview.com

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 1

With the threat of war hanging over Europe at the end of August 1939, passenger space on ships leaving England for North America was in great demand. For one ship in particular, the U.S. freighter City of Flint, that demand would unexpectedly swell its passenger manifest from zero to more than 250 in a most unexpected fashion.

When City of Flint’s captain, a crusty New Englander named Joseph Gainard, brought his ship into Glasgow, Scotland, on Aug. 31, he was told by the ship’s agents ashore that the U.S. Maritime Commission in London wanted to talk to him. Unable to get through to the commission, Gainard phoned the U.S. Ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had once helped him resolve a difficult situation with a crew on another ship when Kennedy was chairman of the Maritime Commission. Read More

David Jennings, University of Toronto, 1940.  Photo credit: Jennings family photo.
David Jennings, University of Toronto, 1940. Photo credit: Jennings family photo.

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man

The late summer of 1939 had been a very enjoyable time for David Jennings. A senior at Canada’s University of Toronto, he had spent August traveling with two friends up and down the British Isles, visiting relatives, seeing the sights and sampling some of Britain’s finer eating establishments. Though conscious of the threat of war on the Continent, Jennings had no idea he was enjoying the last few idyllic days the world would know for the next six years.

Davidson Cumming Jennings was the youngest of four brothers born to a prominent Toronto family. His father, John, was a very successful lawyer for Guinness Brewing Co. in Canada. Young Jennings grew up in what might be termed “well-to-do” circumstances. Every evening in the family’s large home, the butler laid out dinner clothes for David and his three older brothers, who were expected to dress for dinner. David was a serious young man and a dedicated student (studying engineering at the university), who also possessed a very dry sense of humor. He enjoyed socializing and loved to sing a variety of Irish songs at parties and family gatherings. 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

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Cover illustration for a 1958 book about the ATHENIA torpedoing depicts the tragedy that befell Judith Evelyn's lifeboat. Photo Credit: Ebay

Meet the Character Judith Evelyn: An Act of Survival, Part 2

In the early afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939, Judith Evelyn experienced a grim premonition. A Canadian stage actress, Evelyn was returning home aboard the British passenger liner Athenia. She had just learned that England and Germany declared war, and when she saw Athenia’s crewmen provisioning the ship’s lifeboats, the thought came to her that, “We shan’t be out of this without being the lifeboats.”

Evelyn had made a last-minute decision to join her fiancé, Andrew Allan, and his father, William Allan, a Presbyterian minister, on the voyage home after she and Andrew had spent more than a year pursuing their careers in London (see blog post March 1, 2015, Judith Evelyn, Part 1). Read More

Canadian Actress Judith Evelyn
Canadian Actress Judith Evelyn Photo credit: famousdude.com

Judith Evelyn: An Act of Survival, Part 1

Judith Evelyn, a 30-year-old Canadian stage actress, boarded the British passenger liner Athenia with a sense of foreboding the morning of Sept. 1, 1939, in Glasgow, Scotland. That same morning the German army invaded Poland, and England launched a nationwide emergency evacuation of schoolchildren from cities likely to become targets if Britain went to war.

The circumstances appeared bleak for this bright and ambitious actress from Canada’s Prairie Provinces who had pushed her career from humble beginnings to unexpected heights.

Judith Evelyn was born Evelyn Morris in Seneca, South Dakota, but grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, with a step-father who was a successful stage actor. Young Evelyn fell in love with acting, working with her step-father in the Chautauqua shows of rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan. When she changed her name from Evelyn Morris to Judith Evelyn there was no doubt she intended to make acting a career. Read More

Meet the Character: Ruth Etherington, An Unlikely Hero, Part 2

Ruth Etherington returned with her husband, Harold, and their ten-year-old son, Geoff, to their home in Milwaukee following their rescue from the torpedoed Athenia. Ruth would never again experience the intensity of the emotions she felt saving her son’s life (see Ruth Etherington, An Unlikely Hero, Jan. 2, 2015). But in the years that followed, she would support and encourage the remarkable achievements of the two men in her life.

When the United States entered World War 2 in 1941, Ruth used her university studies in mathematics and chemistry to take a job as a hydraulic engineer for the Allis-Chalmers Co. On the day Japan surrendered to end the war she resigned her position and returned to the varied hobbies and interest she loved. An avid photographer and artist, she also supported many civic causes in the communities where the Etheringtons lived. Read More