September 27, 1939
A cold, drizzling rain greeted Orizaba sailing into New York Harbor on the afternoon of September twenty-seventh. As the ship tied up to a berth at Manhattan’s West 18th Street Pier, young Russell Park was surprised to see cheering crowds as big as those that had welcomed the Athenia survivors in Glasgow three weeks earlier.
“Can you see my parents?” Russell asked Father O’Connor, who stood behind him at the railing. The priest had promised to accompany the boy safely home to Philadelphia if there were no relatives to meet him in New York.
“No I don’t, Russell, but it’s a big crowd,” O’Connor said. “Once we get off the ship, I’m sure we’ll find them if they’re here.”
Russell was glad the priest stayed with him as they walked down the gangway and into a large terminal building. O’Connor steered him to a line of people that ended at a booth with a man in a blue uniform seated inside. It took several minutes to reach the front of the line, which the priest told him was an immigration checkpoint. The man in the uniform checked Russell’s name on a list then asked him where he was born and where he lived.
“Welcome home, son,” the man said after Russell answered his questions. “If people are meeting you here, they will be in a waiting area to the left after you go out the door.”
Past the booth, they walked through a door and into a large room filled with people and noise. A crowd stood on the left side of the huge hall and Russell saw several men with notepads and pencils talking to some of the passengers. Here and there flash bulbs burst in tiny explosions of light. He scanned the people hoping to see his parents, an aunt or an uncle, someone he might know. Before he could study all the faces carefully, Russell heard someone shouting to him.
“Sonny, over here.” There were two men holding notepads and wearing raincoats with shoulders darkened by the drizzle outside. “Were you on board the Athenia, son?”
Russell nodded as he tried to look beyond the two men, searching for his mother and father.
“Great. What were you doing when the torpedo hit the ship?” one man asked.
“Yeah,” said the other man, a pencil poised over his notepad. “What do you remember about the attack and your rescue?”
Russell wanted to find his parents, but the two men seemed very interested in talking to him. He looked around for Father O’Connor’s advice, but the priest was talking to another man holding a notepad.
“Come on over here, son. Tell us what you saw.” He decided he shouldn’t be rude to the men, so Russell stepped closer to answer their questions.
“I was with my dad in the lounge when the torpedo hit,” he said. The two men began scribbling hurriedly on their pads. “I was thrown and hit my head against something. All the lights went out, but I got up again and saw that something made dad limp.” Russell couldn’t remember exactly, but thought his father might have been hurt when the torpedo exploded. “Then dad went to get my mother, who was sick in bed, and I didn’t see my parents after that.”
“What’s your name, son, and where do you live?” asked one of the men, who didn’t look up from his pad. Russell responded, adding that he was eleven years old.
“Now all I want is to go by train with somebody who will let me off in West Philadelphia. Then I can find my own way home.”
He looked up at the sound of his name and saw the stout figure of his mother hurrying toward him. She was followed by four aunts and uncles all rushing to greet him.
“Mom,” he called, feeling an overwhelming happiness that made his eyes water. He told himself he couldn’t cry in front of all these people, as he ran to his mother, threw his arms around her and felt her warmth envelop him. He was safe and no longer alone. Over his mother’s shoulder he saw his Uncle Robert and Uncle Bill and the familiar faces of a few other family friends, but his father was not among them. Before Russell could sort through his jumble of emotions, Rebecca bent toward him with tears in her eyes.
“I’m so sorry to tell you this, darling,” she said. “Daddy’s gone.”
It took Russell a few moments to understand what his mother had just told him. Confusion, disbelief and a profound sadness washed over him in quick succession as he realized he would never see his father again.
“I’m sorry, Mama, so sorry,” he sobbed. It was all he could think to say, and he hugged his mother even tighter. Russell had often daydreamed about adventures he and his father might share that would be the envy of the other boys in his neighborhood. It never occurred to him that adventure could come with such tragic consequences.
It would take several years for Russell to give up the faint hope that his father might somehow reappear, but for the rest of his life he would wonder what might have happened to Alexander Park on that fateful September night in 1939.
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