Meet the Character Rhoda Thomas: Resourceful Grandmother, Part 4

Rhoda Thomas and her fellow Athenia passengers had nearly given up hope of being rescued from their lifeboat when a bright light found them in the early morning darkness of Monday, Sept. 4, 1939. They had been drifting in the North Atlantic for hours following the attack on Athenia by a German submarine (see blog post June 1, 2015).

The light belonged to the luxury yacht Southern Cross, the second rescue ship to reach the scene of the attack. When the yacht came alongside Rhoda’s lifeboat, sailors threw lines to the passengers and pulled them up out of the boat one by one.

“By that time I was half fainting, but I heard a voice saying, ‘You are safe on a private yacht,’” Rhoda later remembered. “When they laid me down, I could see people all around me and knew then that they had already rescued a good number. There, too, I saw the baby I had held under my coat. It wasn’t long before a frantic mother claimed it. She had been taken off on another boat.

“It was breaking dawn then, almost 4 o’clock, but they kept on pulling the people in and then brought hot soup and milk around. The sight of some of those poor creatures was awful. Some had been in the water and were covered with black oil, some were in nightgowns, some were cut and bruised and half-crazy with fright, and many children and babies were naked, frightened and crying.”

My grandmother and the other Athenia passengers had been rescued by the Swedish industrialist millionaire Axel Wenner-Gren (see blog post Aug. 1, 2014). In all, Wenner-Gren rescued 376 survivors aboard the sleek white yacht that had once belonged to the American millionaire Howard Hughes.

Later that morning, all the survivors aboard Southern Cross were given the choice of returning to Scotland on a British destroyer or continuing their journey onward aboard the American freighter, City of Flint. Rhoda chose to board the small freighter, which carried 236 survivors to the nearest North American landfall, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Back home, in Rochester, NY, Rhoda’s husband, Frank, had received the initial cable that his wife was returning home via Canada aboard Athenia. On the following Monday, he learned the unwelcome news that Athenia had been torpedoed. Information about survivors was complicated by the fact that five different ships were involved in rescue operations and that passengers were taken to three different countries: Ireland, Scotland, and Canada

Late Tuesday afternoon, Frank was told by friends that the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper had posted a list of Athenia survivors in the window of its offices in downtown Rochester. Frank took the streetcar downtown and found the list with several hundred names. He carefully scanned the columns, his heart sinking as he worked his way closer and closer to the end with no mention of Rhoda. Then he came to the very last name: “Mrs. Rhoda Thomas, Rochester, N.Y.”

City of Flint landed in Halifax on Sept. 13, ten days after Athenia had been torpedoed. The Athenia passengers were taken by train overnight to Montreal, where Rhoda and Frank were reunited. The newspaper had sent its company plane to fly Rhoda and a fellow Athenia survivor back home from Canada along with their spouses.

Nothing in Rhoda’s life would ever again compare to the drama of surviving the attack on Athenia. Following the war, she pursued a claim against the German government for the possessions she lost when Athenia sank, including several wedding presents for her daughter (my mother). The proceedings dragged on for many years and in the end, neither she nor Frank received any compensation for her losses.

Rhoda and Frank moved from Rochester to Southern California in the mid-1950s, following Frank’s retirement. Rhoda died there in 1957 at age 72.

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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