American freighter City of Flint Photo credit:

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 1

With the threat of war hanging over Europe at the end of August 1939, passenger space on ships leaving England for North America was in great demand. For one ship in particular, the U.S. freighter City of Flint, that demand would unexpectedly swell its passenger manifest from zero to more than 250 in a most unexpected fashion.

When City of Flint’s captain, a crusty New Englander named Joseph Gainard, brought his ship into Glasgow, Scotland, on Aug. 31, he was told by the ship’s agents ashore that the U.S. Maritime Commission in London wanted to talk to him. Unable to get through to the commission, Gainard phoned the U.S. Ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had once helped him resolve a difficult situation with a crew on another ship when Kennedy was chairman of the Maritime Commission.

Much to his dismay, Gainard learned that the ambassador’s office had received permission from the Maritime Commission to send 30 passengers home on his freighter. When he protested that City of Flint had no quarters and no food for such a multitude, the ambassador’s personal secretary emphasized that Kennedy had already promised the stateside relatives of the prospective passengers that they would sail home on his ship.

“Joe promised. The commission agreed,” the secretary said over the phone. “Are you going to let Joe down?” On second thought, Gainard realized he should support the American ambassador, who had helped him before and was after all a fellow New Englander. He agreed to take the passengers.

The next blow came shortly after he hung up the phone. Gainard learned four of the passengers would be college girls from Texas who had been on a European tour, and were unable to gain space on the British passenger liner Athenia, due to sail the next day for Canada. He decided to invite the young women to inspect the ship, confident that the lack of accommodations would discourage them from sailing on his 20-year-old vessel.

The next morning the college girls arrived to conduct their inspection. Instead of being disappointed, they grew increasingly enthusiastic the more they saw of the ship. When they convened in the freighter’s dining saloon for coffee and questions, Gainard wore his sternest face and offered discouraging remarks at every opportunity. In spite of himself, he found the girls’ enthusiasm to be contagious and before long he began to feel ashamed about trying to discourage them.

Along with the young women, the morning also brought news that Germany had invaded Poland, and everyone expected England, which had signed a treaty to protect the Poles, would soon be at war with the Nazis. To make sure there would be no mistaking City of Flint’s nationality in the event of war, Gainard arranged to have huge American flags painted on each side of the ship’s hull.

Facing a voyage that usually lasted 18 days, but now conceivably might take up to 38 days with such unsettled conditions, Gainard and City of Flint’s steward decided to lay in extra stores. They agreed to requisition enough food to feed 60 people for 90 days. Meanwhile, work continued to convert the Shelter deck, just below the main deck, into a space to accommodate passengers. Sailors placed flooring over the metal deckplates and fixed cots to the floor on either side of the deck, giving everyone plenty of room.

Shortly after noon, Athenia sailed from the adjacent dock, with the four college girls waving a bon voyage to their 14 friends aboard the liner. Thirty-six hours later, City of Flint cast off bound for New York Harbor. Aboard were 29 passengers, nine men and 20 women, including the woman in charge of the girls’ European tour.

All in all, Gainard was proud of the way his officers and crew had accepted the large number of passengers, supporting Ambassador Kennedy in a time of urgent need. In just 48 hours, Gainard would have reason to feel even more pride, as we will see in our next blog.

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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