Monday, September 4, 1939
A gnawing hunger roused eleven-year-old Russell Park from troubled dreams. He rolled out of his hammock and stood, unsure how long he had slept, but keenly aware food was now a priority. Adapting to the ship’s roll, he moved carefully among several swaying hammocks to exit the temporary sleeping quarters. In the narrow passageway, he found a sailor who escorted him to the ship’s galley where a tall man in a white apron handed him a corned beef sandwich and a hot mug of tea.
Seated at a long table with a few other Athenia survivors, Russell ate his sandwich and learned he was aboard H.M.S. Escort, that the explosion on Athenia had been caused by a torpedo, and that the ship finally sank an hour ago. All of this was of passing interest to the boy, who took his last sip of tea from the white china mug and headed up on deck to look for his parents.
Russell stepped onto Escort’s busy main deck in a hazy noonday sun. Looking up and down the narrow gray ship, he saw little room to spare for the Athenia survivors standing on its main deck. They congregated on its bow and stern, smoking and talking in small groups, and stood two by two in the destroyer’s narrow walkways along her port and starboard railings. He sidled through the crowd, taking his time and looking carefully into doorways and down passages to make sure he didn’t miss anyone. A half-hour later he returned to his starting point, certain his mom and dad were not on deck.
He went below decks again to the forward compartment where he had slept. Checking each of the occupied hammocks, he quickly determined his parents were not there. When he began his search, Russell had been certain his parents were aboard the ship. Now his disappointment at not finding them sent a queasy sensation through his body. He walked back out on deck to search again for his parents, but this time he had to brush away his tears as he looked for their familiar faces.
“Here now, what’s this all about?” A sandy-haired man in a blue-black double breasted officer’s uniform approached him.
“I don’t know where my mom and dad are.” Russell choked back a sob.
“Were they in the lifeboat with you?”
Russell shook his head.
“What are their names, son?”
“Alexander and Rebecca Park.”
“Do you want me to look with you?”
“No sir.” Russell swallowed hard. “I’ve already looked everywhere, even the people sleeping downstairs.”
The man stepped forward and put a hand on Russell’s shoulder.
“They’re probably on another ship, son,” the man said. “There are three others besides us. We’ll sort it all out when we get back to Glasgow. You’ll probably find them there.”
The sound of the man’s voice, his words, and his hand on Russell’s shoulder all reassured the boy that someone cared about him.
“Listen, I have a few minutes before I go on duty. Would you like me to show you around the ship?”
“Yes, sir,” Russell said. “Thank you.” He welcomed the opportunity to see the ship, but the absence of his parents tempered his excitement.
“Good,” the officer said. “What’s your name, son?”
“Very nice to meet you, Russell.” The officer shook Russell’s hand. “I’m Leftenant Christopher. I think I’ve got something you might find interesting.” He steered Russell through the crowd until they were standing by a long gray cylinder half as tall as the boy. Lieutenant Christopher explained that it was a torpedo tube and that the destroyer sometimes used torpedoes to attack enemy ships. They walked to the open end of the tube and Russell looked in to see the front of the torpedo, a steel missile painted the same gray color as the rest of the ship.
“What’s that bump?” Russell pointed to a round knob on the middle of the torpedo’s nose.
“That’s the detonator. When the torpedo hits a ship, the detonator causes the warhead to explode. That’s what causes the ship to sink.”
“Is this like the torpedo that hit our ship?”
“Quite likely, I’d say.”
Russell felt a chill looking at the same kind of device that had hit Athenia and caused so much chaos. For a moment, he recalled the loud roar and the terrifying feeling of flying through the air. He heard the screams of the people in the darkened room where he had been reading with his father. The officer’s hand on his shoulder brought Russell back to the present.
“I’ll bet it was pretty frightening, wasn’t it? Do you want to hear a secret?”
Russell nodded, as the image of his father walking away from him on the stairs faded from his imagination.
“I’ve been in the Royal Navy for nearly three years, and I’ve never been torpedoed. Never even been shot at. When the time comes, I hope I can be a brave as you.”
Russell smiled. Maybe he had been brave, at least some of the time.
“I have to go now, Russell. We’re taking on some passengers from the yacht over there and I’m in charge of the boarding operations.” He knelt to look the boy more squarely in the eye. “We’ll find your parents. Don’t you worry.”
“All right,” Russell nodded. The officer stood, brushed the boy’s dark brown hair from his forehead, and headed away in the direction of Escort’s stern. Russell looked over a slate gray sea of splashing whitecaps in the direction of the large white yacht. He wondered if it was the other rescue ship whose lights he had seen last night. With a start, he realized his parents might be on that white ship.
Maybe they will be coming with the passengers transferring to the Escort.
His hopes soaring once again, Russell ran to the ship’s railing where he would be able to watch the transfer operations.
In our next blog: Russell comes ashore in Scotland and a new friend looks after him.
For the whole story see: www.thomascsanger.com