It took the Second World War only a few hours to find Rhoda Thomas and her fellow passengers aboard the British liner Athenia when their ship was torpedoed by a German submarine on Sept. 3, 1939 (see blog post May 15, 2015). The ship had been on its way to Canada and was 250 miles northwest of Ireland when the U-boat attacked as night had begun falling in the North Atlantic.
With the cries of women and children all around her, Rhoda stood on the deck, knowing the ship was doomed and thinking of her home and family in Rochester, NY, wondering if she would ever see them again.
“Yet I didn’t seem to be afraid and felt quite calm,” she later recalled, expressing an equanimity felt by many other passengers. After helping one distressed woman into a lifeboat, my 54-year-old grandmother managed to climb some 20 feet down a rope ladder and drop off the end into a lifeboat riding on the ocean’s six-foot swells. The night was cold, the boat leaked, and a drizzling rain added to the discomforts for the survivors. Rhoda was grateful she had worn a warm coat on deck before the torpedo attack.
“There were those in the boat that only had a thin dress on and some only night clothes. I took the bottom part of my coat and wrapped it around a poor shivering woman who stood by me crying,” she wrote. She tried to comfort the woman and kept repeating the 23rd Psalm. “By this time, I was standing ankle deep in oil and water.”
Someone handed Rhoda a sleeping baby dressed in only a shirt and asked her to keep the infant warm under her coat. Standing and holding the baby, she fought to keep her balance as the lifeboat rode up and over the large swells. Rhoda lost track of the time, became very tired, and felt the baby weighing heavily in her arms. Finally, a young woman sitting on the other side of the boat agreed to take the baby under her coat.
They drifted for several hours while the people at the oars worked to keep Athenia’s emergency lights in sight, and passengers bailed out the water that constantly found its way into the boat.
“We all tried to make the best of it, and I tried to row and to help all I could,” she wrote. At last they saw the lights of a rescue ship approaching in the distance, and the lifeboat’s rowers tried to pull closer. Rhoda saw several other boats near the ship.
“We tried hard to pull toward that ship, but it seemed we could not get any nearer no matter how hard we worked. The boys [at the oars] were getting exhausted.” As she watched the distant rescue operations in the moonlight, the large ship suddenly moved forward, catching one of the lifeboats in its propeller, tearing it to pieces and throwing all its occupants into the water.
“It was awful; they were crying for help and struggling for their lives, and little children were screaming.” Unable to reach the scene, the men at the oars in Rhoda’s lifeboat could only row away from the disaster. “I seemed to go all to pieces then; the sight of those poor people in the water completely unnerved me.”
Sitting in the lifeboat in the middle of the ocean and in the dark of night, Rhoda felt she and her fellow passengers were about to give up hope, when a bright light unexpectedly appeared. Their rescue was at hand, as we will see in Part 4.