My Grandmother’s Memoir of Survival: Rhoda’s Story, Part 6: 

A Passenger dances the hula for a talent show aboard the American freighter, The City of Flint Photo credit: New York Daily News

In Part 5 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother’s lifeboat was rescued by a luxury yacht after her passenger ship, Athenia, was torpedoed by a German submarine on the evening of Sept.3, 1939. The next morning, she transferred along with 235 other survivors to an American freighter, The City of Flint, to sail on to Canada. Her story continues in Rhoda’s own words: 

The City of Flint had about 12 passengers who had been taken on at [Liverpool]. They were Americans eager to return home. I mention this because they were so kind to us, waiting on us with food and coffee that never tasted better. They gave away nearly all their clothing and worked so hard to make us as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. There was a young doctor who worked night and day attending the sick and injured, and it was by no means easy as there weren’t adequate hospital supplies aboard. He treated my hand, which I had burned rather badly holding up lighted flares in the lifeboat.

As for the captain, officers and crew of the ship, I never saw such self-sacrifices as they made. They gave up their beds, their cabins, spare clothes, blankets and even their food, working hours overtime and putting up with all kinds of inconveniences for our sake. There were ordinarily accommodations for 40 [passengers and crew]. Bringing 220 more [people on board] took some figuring as to where to sleep us all. There was cargo space not in use, so they found mattresses, cots and blankets, and 150 of us lay down as best we could. I lay on the floor with a lifebelt for a pillow and we all slept in our clothes.

That first night on the freighter was awful. The sea was so rough and stormy, and the passengers had not forgotten their terrible experience of the night before. Some of them put their lifebelts on and all of us sat up; some praying, some crying, terrified and fearful. I pretended not to be scared and began to relate a terrible crossing I had once experienced on the old Adriatic. It was much worse than this, I told them. They were silly to be upset over this. Why these freighters battled storms a lot harder than this one. They were built especially for rough seas. Then the captain came down and told us not to be scared, everything would be alright, so we began to settle down, but there was little sleep that night.

It was surprising how good the food was, and we had enough. But we had to be very careful as the water was scarce and they asked us not to take showers or wash out clothes if we could help it. The days passed, but we dreaded the nights. We still feared the submarines. A Church of England minister on board conducted a service most every night and we sang hymns, which helped a lot.

The sailors set about making little shoes out of rope for the children that hadn’t any, and one day they gave the kiddies a birthday party with a huge cake they baked and found a candle to put on it. They dug up candies and cookies from somewhere and the kiddies sang songs and had a good time. The youngest was 11 months old, the daughter of Ernst Lubitsch, the movie magnate. She was traveling with her nurse, who had charge of her.

Another day someone organized a fashion show, which was very amusing. One of the men impersonated “Monsieur Schiaperelli,” and described the emergency costumes that had been made from various articles of clothing. I remember one baby had stockings made out of strips of toweling and wound around her legs to keep her warm. A young dancing teacher made herself a Hawaiian costume to resemble a grass skirt out of rope and did a hula hula dance for us. The music was furnished by tom toms made by stretching canvas over two garbage cans, so you see we had comedy mingled with tragedy.

In my next blog: Home at last!

Thomas Sanger View more

Thomas C. Sanger is a journalist and author residing in San Diego, CA with his wife, author Kay Sanger. His forthcoming novel, Without Warning, is a historical novel about the British passenger ship Athenia, which was attacked by a German submarine only a few hours after England declared war on Germany at the start of World War II in 1939.

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