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

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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.

* * *

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*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.

 

This is the U-30 submarine commanded by Fritz-Julius Lemp that attacked the SS Athenia
H.M.S. Bulldog (right) prepares a party to board U-110 before the submarine sinks. Photo credit: wwii-pows.mooseroots.com

Meet the Character: Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 7

What happened to Fritz-Julius Lemp?

On April 15, 1941, Kapitänleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp left the German submarine base in Lorient, France, in command of U-110. It was Lemp’s second patrol in his new boat (see blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 6,” Aug. 1, 2016). His first patrol had ended two weeks earlier without sinking a single ship.

Twelve days into his patrol, Lemp sank a small British freighter and received word a few days later of an allied convoy bound for Canada. No doubt thinking his luck had changed for the better, he rendezvoused with a second submarine the morning of May 9, ahead of the oncoming ships.

A full moon made the usual U-boat tactic of a nighttime surface attack more risky, and delaying the attack for more favorable conditions risked losing contact with the convoy. The two commanders agreed to make a submerged attack as soon as possible. As senior officer, the aggressive Lemp chose to attack first.

He was surprised to see an unusually large number of escorts accompanying the convoy but decided to attack anyway. After the escorts passed and the convoy was directly above, he came up to periscope depth, picked out his targets and fired four torpedoes. Two shots hit and sank two British cargo ships. The third torpedo damaged but didn’t sink its target and the fourth misfired.

Lemp’s crew readjusted the misfire, which had never left its tube, and he coolly prepared to attack his fourth target again. But U-110 had stayed at periscope depth too long. Three of the escorts, including the group flagship, H.M.S. Bulldog, detected the submarine and attacked.

The escorts’ depth-charges knocked out U-110’s electric motors and rudder. The boat’s stern took on water and started to sink. Leaks in the forward battery compartment began to generate chlorine gas. Amazingly, the submarine somehow surfaced on its own, possibly because a high-pressure air line had been ruptured and filled U-110’s tanks with air.

From the bridge atop the boat’s conning tower Lemp saw Bulldog and two other ships bearing down on him, intending to ram his boat. He ordered everyone to abandon ship immediately. With no time to set demolition charges, Lemp called for all vents to be opened to scuttle the boat.

Once in the water with his crew, Lemp realized U-110 wasn’t sinking. Coming to the same realization, the escort group commander aboard Bulldog called off the attack in favor of capturing the abandoned U-boat. If the British boarded his boat, Lemp knew they would recover the secret Enigma communications device and its code books, left behind on the sub in the crew’s haste to escape.

With an armed boarding party from Bulldog on its way to U-110, Lemp was seen attempting to swim back to the boat, apparently intending to open the valves. But before he could reach the submarine, Lemp mysteriously disappeared. Some German crewmen claimed he was shot by the boarding party as he swam for the submarine, a claim the British denied. Other crew members said they saw Lemp throw up his arms and sink below the surface, an apparent suicide.

It was an uncertain end to a storied naval career bookended by two monumental mistakes: sinking the passenger ship Athenia and allowing the Royal Navy to capture the Enigma machine, a major intelligence coup for the British.

Read more about Lemp Part 6

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U-boat successes like the sinking of HMS Courageous on Sept. 17, 1939, masked basic problems with German torpedoes at the start of the war. Photo credit: theatlantic.com

War History The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 3

German submarines sank 114 ships (more than 420,000 tons of cargo) in the first few months of World War 2, September through December, 1939. Despite these widely publicized successes – including sinking the Royal Navy aircraft carrier Courageous and battleship Royal Oak – German Rear Admiral Karl Dӧnitz was angered by a large number of torpedo misfires reported by his captains. (See blog post “The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 2,” April 15, 2016.)

By the end of the year, complaints from the commander of the U-boat fleet led the navy to replace the head of the Torpedo Directorate, the department responsible for the design and development of torpedoes. The new chief soon reported the fleet’s torpedoes were defective in many ways, and he set about finding solutions. Yet every time the Directorate fixed one defect a new one cropped up.

Many of the problems centered on the torpedo’s detonator, or pistol, the device that exploded the warhead when the torpedo reached its target. The standard pistol for all torpedoes allowed U-boat captains to choose between a contact and magnetic detonation. A contact setting caused the torpedo to explode when it struck a ship’s hull, while a magnetic setting exploded the torpedo when it detected the magnetic field of a ship’s hull, ideally right beneath its keel.

The Directorate quickly resolved problems with the contact mode, but solutions for the magnetic mode proved more difficult because of its sensitivity. The magnetic field of a target varied with a ship’s size and was also affected by the Earth’s magnetic field. In addition, the depth setting for the torpedo was critical because if it passed too far beneath a ship it didn’t detect a magnetic field and failed to detonate.

Slowly, one by one, problems came to light involving the pistol’s magnetic detonation setting. As early as October 1939, Admiral Dӧnitz ordered his captains to use only the contact detonation setting. When the Directorate announced the design had been corrected, Dӧnitz approved using the magnetic setting again. Almost immediately misfires increased and he reinstated the magnetic detonator ban.

Even though this cycle continued with maddening regularity, German torpedoes proved effective enough in the Battle of the Atlantic to sink 1,900 ships and 10.2 million tons of cargo from 1940 through 1942. But for the flawed torpedoes, U-boats might have wreaked far more devastation during these early years, particularly because Allied anti-submarine weapons and tactics experienced their own developmental problems.

In early 1943, the Torpedo Directorate introduced a new, more dependable detonator, but the golden opportunity had been lost. While Germany was perfecting its torpedo design, the Allies had been making improvements in underwater detection technology, airborne radar, depth charge weaponry and surface tactics. U-boat captains found it increasingly difficult get into position to launch their improved torpedoes or to escape destruction once they were discovered by Allied navy hunter-killer groups.

In May, 1943, Allied navies sank 41 German U-boats, nearly three times the total of the previous month. It proved to be a turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic as the U-boats’ successes steadily declined for the remainder of the war.

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Spirydon Kucharczuk’s wife and three youngest children were aboard the lifeboat accidentally sunk during rescue operations. Photo credit: Family passport photo.

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 5

Like many other families, the Kucharczuks suffered an agonizing wait to discover the fate of loved ones aboard the British passenger liner Athenia after it was torpedoed by a German submarine, Sept. 3, 1939. Five different ships were involved in the rescue operations and survivors were taken to three different ports. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 4;” March 1, 2016.)

Because more than 90 percent of the passenger and crew survived the attack, reports of tearful reunions filled newspapers in Britain, Canada and America for nearly two weeks as loved ones were reunited. Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), who had saved his oldest daughter and was reunited with his oldest son in Glasgow, Scotland, waited several more days for word of the rest on his family. The news, when it came, was devastating. His wife Ewdokia, 40, sons Stefan, 15, and Jakeb, 2, and daughter Aleksandra, 8, did not survive a lifeboat accident. They were listed among the 112 people who died as a result of the U-boat attack.

After absorbing this unspeakable shock, Spirydon decided to continue with his original plan and immigrate to Canada. He obtained new travel documents and arrived in Canada in October, 1939, with his son Jan, 20, and daughter Neonela, 18. They spent the winter with Ewdokia’s sister and brother-in-law. In their newly adopted country they changed the spelling of their last name to Kucharchuk, dropping the “z,” and anglicized their first names: Spirydon to Steve, Jan to John, and Neonela to Nina.

The next year, Steve traveled west to Alberta Province to stay with his step-brother and look for suitable land for a farm. With loans from relatives and generous terms from the seller, he bought a parcel of land that had been homesteaded in 1912. Slowly over several years, they began to make the farm pay, but life wasn’t easy. Money was always tight and the Kucharchuks had to adjust to a new climate, new crops, new culture and a new language.

Nina married in 1941 and had two children over the next few years. But tragedy struck their family again in 1946 when Nina’s husband was killed in a truck accident. In January, 1948, Nina married Walter Chwedoruk and their marriage lasted until his death in 1998.

John Kucharchuk worked the family’s farm until 1946, when he purchased a sawmill that became the foundation of his successful business. When logging played out in one area, John moved the mill to another center of logging activity. In 1953, John married and moved to Edmonton, where the couple had two children.

Steve also married in 1953, sold his farm and moved to Edmonton. He loved visiting his grandchildren and often helped out on Nina and Walter’s farm. After his wife died in 1975, Steve lived alone until he became ill with cancer. Nina took him to her house, where he passed away in 1977. John died in 2008 and Nina died two years later.

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Passport photo of Spirydon Kucharczuk survived Athenia sinking with some water damage. Photo credit: Family collection

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 2

During the summer of 1939, Nazi Germany’s continued expansionist efforts led many people in Eastern Europe, especially Jews, to seek refuge in Western Europe and North America. Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), a farmer in eastern Poland, was typical of these emigres. Though the Kucharczuks were not Jewish, Spirydon was certain Germany would invade Poland and was eager to move his family beyond the reach of war. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 1;” Jan. 15, 2016.)

The Kucharczuks secured visas to immigrate to Canada, where they had relatives. But according to family stories, Spirydon’s wife, Ewdokia, hesitated to go because she feared their family had been cursed. She suspected her oldest sister, Titianna, had arranged the curse, possibly over a dispute regarding the disposition of their family’s land.

In his will, Ewdokia’s father omitted his two older daughters, Titianna and Julianna, and left the land to Ewdokia. The sisters took Ewdokia to court and were awarded a piece of the property, which Ewdokia bought back from them. Julianna and her husband immigrated to Canada in 1938, but Titianna and her husband continued to live a few miles from the Kucharczuks. The relationship between the sisters seemingly continued to smolder.

To satisfy Ewdokia, Spirydon visited a fortune teller in the nearby town of Trosteniec to seek advice. Family sources say the fortune teller told Spirydon not all of his family would arrive in Canada.

As he considered this unsettling prediction, Spirydon decided it involved his oldest son, 20-year-old Jan, who lately had become involved with one of the many ethnic splinter groups in the area. He believed Jan would choose to stay behind in Poland to support his political friends, rather than travel with the family to Canada.

The explanation must have satisfied Ewdokia because the family’s travel plans moved forward. When the day to leave Poland finally came in late August, 1939, Spirydon and Ewdokia must have been overjoyed because Jan had decided to go with them, keeping the family together.

No one knows if they gave any further thought to the fortune teller’s prediction.

The Kucharczuks’ journey continues in our next blog.

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A map of Poland between WW1 and WW2 illustrates how the country was re-established following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Map source: www.siberianexiles.org

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 1

When the British passenger ship Athenia sailed from Liverpool, England, on Sept. 2, 1939, she carried 1,102 passengers, 200 more than normal. The crowded conditions on board responded to public demand to leave Great Britain before war erupted on the Continent. Most of the passengers were Canadian and American citizens returning home, or British and Irish citizens planning lengthy stays with relatives. But 150 passengers were Europeans, mostly refugees seeking to escape Nazis tyranny.

Among the latter was the family of Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), a farmer from eastern Poland, traveling with his wife and five children and planning to start a new life in Canada. Though he lived on a small farm near the town of Trosteniec in Eastern Poland, Spirydon followed events in the local newspaper and had grown increasingly wary of Germany’s demands for Polish territory. He became convinced the Nazis would invade Poland sooner or later and he was determined to leave the country before that happened.

For centuries the Polish state had grown and shrunk according to the fortunes of war. After being integrated into Imperial Russia for most of a century, Poland had only been reconstituted 20 years earlier following the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War 1. As a result, the new Poland included large groups of ethnic Germans, Lithuanians and Russians. The country was a stew of political groups and underground militias aligned with the new state or with one of its major or minor ethnic groups. Given the circumstances, it was understandable that Spirydon (who spoke and wrote Ukrainian) might fear a German invasion, particularly having witnessed the Nazi takeovers of Austria and Czechoslovakia to reunite German-speaking peoples.

But Spirydon had a problem. Before he could arrange for his family to immigrate to Canada, his wife, Ewdokia, insisted on finding out if their family was cursed. Her fears would cause Spirydon to visit a fortuneteller and receive an unsettling prediction. More about that 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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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