Sinking of the Cunard "Laconia" - 1918
The RMS Laconia of the Cunard Line, 1912. GGA Image ID # 1d5a86a8e6
The Cunard Line RMS Laconia, launched in 1912, was a beautiful ship that became a fatality of the first world war when she was torpedoed and sunk on 25 February 1917 by the German submarine SM U-50. This article is a first-hand account of Chicago Tribune reporter Floyd Gibbons, who became a war correspondent.
The Sinking of the Laconia
BETWEEN America and the firing line, there are three thousand miles of submarine infested water. Every American soldier, before encountering the dangers of the battlefront, must first overcome the dangers of the deep.
Geographically, America is almost four thousand miles from the war zone, but in fact, every American soldier bound for France entered the war zone one hour out of New York harbor. Germany made an Ally out of the dark depths of the Atlantic.
That three-thousand-mile passage represented greater possibilities for the destruction of the United States overseas forces than any strategical operation that Germany’s able military leaders could direct in the field.
Germany made use of those three thousand miles of water, just as she developed the use of barbed wire entanglements along the front. Infantry advancing across No Man’s Land were held helpless before the enemy’s fire by barbed wire entanglements.
Germany, with her submarine policy of ruthlessness, changed the Atlantic Ocean into another No Man’s Land across which every American soldier had to pass at the mercy of the enemy before he could arrive at the actual battlefront.
This was the peril of the troop ship. This was the tremendous advantage, which the enemy held over our armies even before they reached the field. This was the unprecedented condition which the United States and Allied navies had to cope with in the great undertaking of transporting our forces overseas.
Any one who has crossed the ocean, even in the normal times before shark-like Kultur skulked beneath the water, has experienced the feeling of human helplessness that comes in mid-ocean when one considers the comparative frailty of such man-made devices as even the most modem turbine liners, with the enormous power of the wilderness of water over which one sails.
In such times one realizes that safety rests, first upon the kindliness of the elements; secondly, upon the skill and watchfulness of those directing the voyage, and thirdly, upon the dependability of such human-made things as engines, propellers, steel plates, bolts and rivets.
But add to the possibilities of a failure or a misalliance of any or all of the above functions, the greater danger of a diabolical human, yet inhuman, interference, directed against the seafarer with the purpose and intention of his destruction. This last represents the greatest odds against those who go to sea during the years of the Great War.
A sinking at sea is a nightmare. I have been through one. I have been on a ship torpedoed in mid-ocean. I have stood on the slanting decks of a doomed liner; I have listened to the lowering of the life-boats, heard the hiss of escaping steam and the roar of ascending rockets as they tore lurid rents in the black sky and cast their red glare o’er the roaring sea.
I have spent a night in an open boat on the tossing swells. I have been through, in reality, the mad dream of drifting and darkness and bailing and pulling on the oars and straining aching eyes toward an empty, meaningless horizon in search of help. I shall try to tell you how it feels.
Portrait Photo of Floyd Gibbons Following the Sinking of the RMS Laconia on 25 February 1917 by SM U-50. GGA Image ID # 1d5a8ea6a3
I had been assigned by The Chicago Tribune to go to London as their correspondent. Almost the same day I received that assignment, the "Imperial" Government of Germany had invoked its ruthless submarine policy. They had drawn a blockade zone about the waters of the British Isles and the coasts of France, and announced to the world that its U-boats would sink without warning any ship, of any kind, under any flag, that tried to sail the waters that Germany declared prohibitory.
In consideration of my personal safety and, possibly, of my future usefulness, the Tribune was desirous of arranging for me a safe passage across the Atlantic. Such an opportunity presented itself in the ordered return of the disgraced and discredited German Ambassador to the United States, Count von Bernstorff.
Under the rules of International courtesy, a ship had been provided for the use of von Bernstorff and his diplomatic staff. That ship was to sail under absolute guarantees of safe conduct from all of the nations at war with Germany and, of course, it would have been safe from attack by German submarines. That ship was the Frederick VIII. At considerable expense, the Tribune managed to obtain for me a cabin passage on that ship.
I can’t say that I was over-impressed with the prospect of travel in such company. I disliked the thought that I, an American citizen, with rights as such to sail the sea, should have to resort to subterfuge and scheming to enjoy those rights. There arose in me a feeling of challenge against Germany’s order, which forbade American ships to sail the ocean. I cancelled my sailing on the Frederick VIII.
The Voyage Begins
In New York, I sought passage on the first American ship sailing for England. I made the rounds of the steamship offices and learned that the Cunard liner Laconia was the first available boat and was about to sail. She carried a large cargo of munitions and other materials of war. I booked passage aboard her.
It was on Saturday, February 17th, 1917, that we steamed away from the dock at New York and moved slowly down the East River. We were bound for Liverpool, England. My cabin accommodations were good. The Laconia was listed at 18,000 tons and was one of the largest Cunarders in the Atlantic service. The next morning we were out of sight of land.
Sailors were stationed along the decks of the ship in the lookouts at the mastheads. They maintained a watch over the surface of the sea in all directions. On the stern of the ship, there was mounted a six-inch cannon and a crew of gunners stood by it night and day.
Submarines had been recently reported in the waters through which we were sailing, but we saw none of them and apparently they saw none of us. They had sunk many ships, but all of the sinkings had been in the daytime. Consequently, there was a feeling of greater safety at night. The Laconia sailed on a constantly zigzagging course.
All of our lifeboats were swinging out over the side of the ship, so that if we were hit they could be lowered in a hurry. Every other day the passengers and the crew would be called up on the decks to stand by the lifeboats that had been assigned to them.
The officers of the ship instructed us in the lifeboat drill. They showed us how to strap the life preservers about our bodies; they showed us how to seat ourselves in the lifeboats; they showed us a small keg of water and some tin cans of biscuits, a lantern and some flares that were stored in the boat, and so we sailed along day after day without meeting any danger. At night, all of the lights were put out and the ship slipped along through the darkness.
On Sunday, after we had been sailing for eight days, we entered the zone that had been prohibited by the Kaiser. We sailed into it full steam ahead and nothing happened.
That day was February the twenty-fifth. In the afternoon, I was seated in the lounge with two friends. One was an American whose name was Kirby; the other was a Canadian and his name was Dugan. The latter was an aviator in the British army. In fights with German aeroplanes high over the Western Front he had been wounded and brought down twice and the army had sent him to his home in Canada to get well. He was returning once more to the battlefront "to stop another bullet," as he said.
As we talked, I passed around my cigarette case and Dugan held a lighted match while the three of us lighted our cigarettes from it. As Dugan blew out the match and placed the burnt end in an ash tray, he laughed and said, "They say it is bad luck to light three cigarettes with the same match, but I think it is good luck for me. I used to do it frequently with my flying partners in France and four of them have been killed, but I am still alive."
"That makes it all right for you," said Kirby, "but it makes it look bad for Gibbons and myself. But nothing is going to happen. I don’t believe in superstitions."
That night after dinner Dugan and I took a brisk walk around the darkened promenade deck of the Laconia. The night was very dark, a stiff wind was blowing and the Laconia was rolling slightly in the trough of the waves.
Wet from spray, we returned within and in one of the corridors met the Captain of the ship. I told him that I would like very much to have a look at his chart and learn our exact location on the ocean.
He looked at me and laughed because that was a very secret matter. But he replied:
"Oh, you would, would you?" and his voice carried that particular British intonation that seemed to say, "Well it is jolly well none of your business.
Then I asked him when he thought we would land in Liverpool.
"I really don’t know," said the ship’s commander, and then, with a wink, he added, "but my steward told me that we would get in Tuesday evening."
Kirby and I went to the smoke room on the boat deck well to the stern of the ship. We joined a circle of Britishers who were seated in front of a coal fire in an open hearth.
Nearly every one in the lighted smoke room was playing cards, so that the conversation was practically confined to the mentioning of bids and the orders of drinks from the stewards.
"What do you think are our chances of being torpedoed?" was the question I put before the circle in front of the fireplace.
The deliberative Mr. Henry Chetham, a London solicitor, was the first to answer.
"Well," he drawled, "I should say about four thousand to one."
Lucien J. Jerome of the British Diplomatic Service, returning with an Ecuadorian valet from South America, advanced his opinion.
I was much impressed with his opinion because the speaker himself had impressed me deeply. He was the best monocle juggler I had ever met. In his right eye, he carried a monocle without a rim and without a ribbon or thread to save it, should it ever have fallen from his eye.
Repeatedly during the trip, I had seen Mr. Jerome standing on the hurrideck of the Laconia facing the wind but holding the glass disk in his eye with a muscular grip that must have been vise-like.
I had even followed him around the deck several times in a desire to be present when the monocle blew out, but the British diplomatist never for once lost his grip on it. I had come to the opinion that the piece of glass was fixed to his eye and that he slept with it. After the fashion of the British Diplomatic Service, he expressed his opinion most affirmatively.
"Nonsense," he said with reference to Mr. Chetham’ s estimate. "Utter nonsense. Considering the zone that we are in and the class of the ship, I should put the chances down at two hundred and fifty to one that we don’t meet a ‘sub.’
At that minute the torpedo hit us.
Torpedoed by A German U-Boat
Have you ever stood on the deck of a ferryboat as it arrived in the slip? And have you ever experienced the slight sideward shove when the boat rubs against the piling and comes to a stop? That was the unmistakable lurch we felt, but no one expects to run into pilings in mid-ocean, so every one knew what it was.
At the same time, there came a muffled noise—not extremely loud nor yet very sharp—just a noise like the slamming of some large oaken door a good distance away.
Realizing that we had been torpedoed, my imagination was rather disappointed at the slightness of the shock and the meekness of the report. One or two chairs tipped over, a few glasses crashed from table to floor and in an instant; every man in the room was on his feet.
"We’re hit," shouted Mr. Chetham.
"That’s what we’ve been waiting for," said Mr. Jerome.
"What a lousy torpedo !" said Mr. Kirby. "It must have been a fizzer."
I looked at my watch; it was 10:30.
Five sharp blasts sounded on the Laconia’s whistle. Since that night, I have often marveled at the quick coordination of mind and hand that belonged to the man on the bridge who pulled that whistle rope. Those five blasts constituted the signal to abandon the ship. Every one recognized them.
We walked hurriedly down the corridor leading from the smoke room in the stern to the lounge which was amidships. We moved fast but there was no crowding and no panic.
Passing the open door of the gymnasium, I became aware of the list of the vessel. The floor of the gymnasium slanted down on the starboard side and a medicine ball and dozens of dumb bells and Indian clubs were rolling in that direction.
We entered the lounge-a large drawing room furnished with green upholstered chairs and divans and small tables on which the after-dinner liqueur’ glasses still rested. In one corner was a grand piano with the top elevated. In the center of the slanting floor of the saloon was a cabinet victrola and from its mahogany bowels there poured the last and dying strains of "Poor Butterfly."
The women and several men who had been in the lounge were hurriedly leaving by the forward door as we entered. We followed them through. The twin winding stairs leading below decks by the forward hatch were dark and I brought into play a pocket flashlight shaped like a fountain pen. I had purchased it before sailing in view of such an emergency and I had always carded it fastened with a clip in an upper vest pocket.
My stateroom was B 19 on the promenade deck, one deck below the deck on which was located the smoke room, the lounge and the lifeboats. The corridor was dimly lighted and the floor had a more perceptible slant as I darted into my stateroom, which was on the starboard and sinking side of the ship. I hurriedly put on a light non-sink garment constructed like a vest, which I had come provided with, and then donned an overcoat.
Responding to the list of the ship, the wardrobe door swung open and crashed against the wall. My typewriter slid off the dressing table and a shower of toilet articles pitched from their places on the washstand. I grabbed the ship’s life preserver in my left hand and, with the flashlight in my right hand, started up the hatchway to the upper deck.
In the darkness of the boat deck hatchway, the rays of my flashlight revealed the chief steward opening the door of a switch closet in the panel wall. He pushed on a number of switches and instantly the decks of the Laconia became bright. From sudden darkness, the exterior of the ship burst into a blaze of light and it was that illumination that saved many lives.
The Laconia's engines and dynamos had not yet been damaged. The torpedo had hit us well astern on the starboard side and the bulkheads seemed to be holding back from the engine room the flood of water that rushed in through the gaping hole in the ship’s side. I proceeded down the boat deck to my station opposite boat No. Io. I looked over the side and down upon the water sixty feet below.
The sudden flashing of the lights on the upper deck made the dark seething waters seem blacker and angrier. They rose and fell in troubled swells.
Steam began to hiss from some of the pipes leading up from the engine well. It seemed like a dying groan from the very vitals of the stricken ship. Clouds of white and black smoke rolled up from the giant gray funnels that towered above us.
Suddenly there was a roaring swish as a rocket soared upward from the Captain’s bridge, leaving a comet’s tail of fire. I watched it as it described a graceful are and then with an audible pop it burst in a flare of brilliant color. Its ascent had torn a lurid rent in the black sky and had cast a red glare over the roaring sea.
Already boat No. 10 was loading up and men and boys were busy with the ropes. I started to help near a davit that seemed to be giving trouble but was sternly ordered to get out of the way and to get into the boat.
Other passengers and members of the crew and officers of the ship were rushing back and forth along the deck strapping their life preservers to them as they rushed.
There was some shouting of orders but little or no confusion. One woman, a blonde French actress, became hysterical on the decks but two men lifted her bodily off her feet and placed her in the lifeboat.
We were on the port side of the ship, the higher side. To reach the boats, we had to climb up the slanting deck to the edge of the ship.
On the starboard side, it was different, On that side, the decks slanted down toward the water. The ship careened in that direction ‘and the lifeboats suspended from the davits swung clear of the ship’s side.
The list of the ship increased. On the port side, we looked down the slanting side of the ship and noticed that her water line on that side was a number of feet above the waves.
The slant was so pronounced that the lifeboats, instead of swinging clear from the davits, rested against the side of the ship. From my position in the lifeboat, I could see that we were going to have difficulty in the descent to the water.
"Lower away," some one gave the order and we started downward with a jerk toward the seemingly hungry, rising and falling swells. Then we stopped with another jerk, remained suspended in mid-air while the men at the bow and the stern swore, and tussled with the ropes.
The stern of the boat was down; the bow up, leaving us at an angle of about forty-five degrees. We clung to the seats to save ourselves from falling out.
"Who’s got a knife? A knife! A knife!" shouted a fireman in the bow. He was bare to the waist and perspiration stood out in drops on his face and chest and made streaks through the coal dust with which his skin was grimed.
"Great Gawd! Give him a knife," bawled a half-dressed gibbering Negro stoker who wrung his hands in the stern.
A hatchet was thrust into my hands and I forwarded it to the bow. There was a flash of sparks as it was brought down with a clang on the holding pulley. One strand of the rope parted.
Down plunged the bow of the boat too quickly for the men in the stern. We came to a jerky stop, this time with the stern in the air and the bow down, the dangerous angle reversed.
One man in the stern let the rope race through his blistered fingers! With hands burnt to the quick, he grabbed the rope and stopped the precipitous descent just in time to bring the stern level with the bow.
Then bow and stern tried to lower away together. The slant of the ship’s side had increased, so that our boat instead of sliding down it like a toboggan was held up on one side when the taffrail caught on one of the condenser exhaust pipes projecting slightly from the ship’s side.
Thus, the starboard side of the lifeboat stuck fast and high while the port side dropped down and once more we found ourselves clinging on at a new angle and looking straight down into the water.
A hand slipped into mine and a voice sounded huskily close to my ear. It was the little old Jewish traveling man who was disliked in the smoke room because he used to speak too certainly of things about which he was uncertain. His slightly Teutonic dialect had made him as popular as the smallpox with the British passengers.
"My boy, I can’t see nothing," he said. "My glasses slipped and I am falling. Hold me, please."
I managed to reach out and join hands with another man on the other side of the old man and together we held him in. He hung heavily over our arms, grotesquely grasping all he had saved from his stateroom—a gold-headed cane and an extra hat.
Many feet and hands pushed the boat from’ the side of the ship and we renewed our sagging, scraping, sliding, jerking descent. It ended as the bottom of the lifeboat smacked squarely on the pillowy top of a rising swell. It felt more solid than mid-air at least but we were far from being off. The pulleys twice stuck in their fasting, bow and stern, and the one axe was passed forward and back (and with it my flashlight) as the entangling mesh of ropes that held us to the sinking Laconia was cut away.
Some shout from that confusion of sound caused me to look up. I believe I really did so in the fear that one of the nearby boats was being lowered upon us.
Tin funnels enameled white and containing clusters of electric bulbs hung over the side from one of the upper decks. I looked up into the cone of one of these lights and a bulky object shot suddenly out of the darkness into the scope of the electric rays.
It was a man. His arms were bent up at the elbows; his legs at the knees. He was jumping, with the intention, I feared, of landing in our boat, and I prepared to avoid the impact. But he had judged his distance well.
He plunged beyond us and into the water three feet from the edge of the boat. He sank from sight, leaving a white patch of bubbles and foam on the black water. He bobbed to the surface almost immediately.
"It’s Dugan," shouted a man next to me.
I flashed a light on the ruddy, smiling face and water plastered hair of the little Canadian aviator, our fellow saloon passenger. We pulled him over the side and into the boat. He spluttered out a mouthful of water.
"I wonder if there is anything to that lighting three matches off the same match," he said. "I was trying to loosen the bow rope in this boat. I loosened it and then got tangled up in it. When, the boat descended, I was jerked up back on the deck. Then I jumped for it. Holy Moses, but this water is cold."
As we pulled away from the side of the ship, its receding terraces of glowing port holes and deck lights towered above us. The ship was slowly turning over.
We were directly opposite the engine room section of the Laconia. There was a tangle of oars, spars and rigging on the seats in our boat, and considerable confusion resulted before we could manage to place in operation some of the big oars on either side.
The gibbering, bullet-headed Negro was pulling a sweep directly behind me and I turned to quiet him as his frantic reaches with the oar were jabbing me in the back.
In the dull light from the upper decks, I looked into his slanting face—his eyes all whites and his lips moving convulsively. He shivered with fright, but in addition to that he was freezing in the thin cotton shirt that composed his entire upper covering. He worked feverishly at the oar to warm himself.
"Get away from her. My Gawd, get away from her," he kept repeating. "When the water hits her hot boilers she’ll blow up the whole ocean and there’s just tons and tons of shrapnel in her hold."
His excitement spread to other members of the crew in our boat. The ship’s baker, designated by his pantry headgear of white linen, became a competing alarmist and a white fireman, whose blasphemy was nothing short of profound, added to the confusion by cursing every one.
It was the tension of the minute—it was the give way of overwrought nerves—it was bedlam and nightmare.
I sought to establish some authority in our boat which was about to break out into full mutiny. I made my way to the stern. There, huddled up in a great overcoat and almost muffled in a ship’s life preserver, I came upon an old white-haired man and I remembered him.
He was a sea captain of the old sailing days. He had been a second cabin passenger with whom I had talked before. Earlier in the year he had sailed out of Nova Scotia with a cargo of codfish. His schooner, the Secret, had broken in two in mid-ocean, but he and his crew had been picked up by a tramp and taken back to New York.
From there he had sailed on another ship bound for Europe, but this ship, a Holland-American Liner, the Ryndam, had never reached the other side. In mid-Atlantic het’ captain had lost courage over the U-boat threats. He had turned the ship about and returned to America. Thus, the Laconia represented the third unsuccessful attempt of this gray-haired mariner to get back to his home in England. His name was Captain Dear.
"Our boat’s rudder is gone, but we can steer with an oar," he said, in a weak-quavering voice—the thin high-pitched treble of age. "I will take charge, if you want me to, but my voice is gone. I can tell you what to do, but you will have to shout the orders. They won’t listen to me."
There was only one way to get the attention of the crew, and that was by an overpowering blast of profanity. I called to my assistance every ear-splitting, soul-sizzling oath that I could think of.
I recited the lurid litany of the army muleskinner to his gentle charges and embellished it with excerpts from the remarks of a Chicago taxi chauffeur while he changed tires on the road with the temperature ten below.
It proved to be an effective combination, this brim-n stoned oration of mine, because it was rewarded by silence.
"Is there a ship’s officer in this boat?" I shouted. There was no answer.
"Is there a sailor or a seaman on board?" I inquired, and again there was silence from our group of passengers, firemen, stokers and deck swabs.
They appeared to be listening to me and I wished to keep my hold on them. I racked my mind for some other query to make or some order to direct. Before the spell was broken I found one.
"We will now find out how many of us there are in this boat," I announced in the best tones of authority that I could assume. "The first man in the bow will count one and the next man to him will count two. We will count from the bow back to the stern, each man taking a number. Begin."
"One," came the quick response from a passenger who happened to be the first man in the bow. The enumeration continued sharply toward the stem. I spoke the last number.
"There are twenty-three of us here," I repeated, "there’s not a ship’s officer or seaman among us, but we are extremely fortunate to have with us an old sea-captain who has consented to take charge of the boat and save our lives. His voice is weak, but I will repeat the orders for him, so that all of you can hear. Are you ready to obey his orders?"
There was an almost unanimous acknowledgment of assent and order was restored.
"The first thing to be done," I announced upon Captain Dear’s instructions, "is to get the same number of oars pulling on each side of the boat; to seat ourselves so as to keep on an even keel and then to keep the boat’s head up into the wind so that we won’t be swamped by the waves.
With some little difficulty, this rearrangement was accomplished and then we rested on our oars with all eyes turned on the still lighted Laconia. The torpedo had hit ~.t about 10:30 P. M. according to our ship’s time.
Though listing far over on one side, the Laconia was still afloat.
It must have been twenty minutes after that first shot that we heard another dull thud, which was accompanied by a noticeable drop in the hulk. The German submarine bad dispatched a second torpedo through the engine room and the boat’s vitals from a distance of two hundred yards.
We watched silently during the next minute as the tiers of lights dimmed slowly from white to yellow, then to red and then nothing was left but the murky mourning of the night, which hung over all like a pall.
A mean, cheese-colored crescent of a moon revealed one horn above a rag bundle of clouds low in the distance. A rim of blackness settled around our little world, relieved only by a few leering stars in the zenith, and, where the Laconia's lights had shown, there remained only the dim outlines of a blacker hulk standing out above the water like a jagged headland, silhouetted against the overcast sky.
The ship sank rapidly at the stern until at last its nose rose out of the water, and stood straight up in the air. Then it slid silently down and out of sight like a piece of scenery in a panorama spectacle.
Boat No. 3 stood closest to the place where the ship had gone down. As a result of the after suction, the small lifeboat rocked about in a perilous sea of clashing spars and wreckage.
As the boat’s crew steadied its head into the wind, a black hulk, glistening wet and standing about eight feet above the surface of the water, approached slowly. It came to a stop opposite the boat and not ten feet from the side of it. It was the submarine.
"Vot ship vass dot ?" were the first words of throaty guttural English that came from a figure which projected from the conning tower.
"The Laconia," answered the Chief Steward Ballyn, who commanded the lifeboat.
"The Laconia's, Cunard Line," responded the steward.
"Vot did she weigh?" was the next question from the submarine.
"Eighteen thousand tons."
"Seventy-three," replied Ballyn, "many of them women and children—some of them in this boat. She had over two hundred in the crew."
"Did she carry cargo?"
"Iss der Captain in dot boat ?"‘
"No," Ballyn answered.
"Well, I guess you’ll be all right. A patrol will pick you up some time soon." Without further sound save for the almost silent fixing of the conning tower lid, the submarine moved off.
"I thought it best to make my answers sharp and satisfactory, sir," said Ballyn, when he repeated the conversation to me word for word. "I was thinking of the women and children in the boat. I feared every minute that somebody in our boat might make a hostile move, fire a revolver, or throw something at the submarine. I feared the consequence of such an act."
There was no assurance of an early pickup so we made preparations for a siege with the elements. The weather was a great factor. That black rim of clouds looked ominous. There was a good promise of rain. February has a reputation for nasty Weather in the north Atlantic. The wind was cold and seemed to be rising. Our boat bobbed about like a cork on the swells, which fortunately were not choppy.
How much rougher seas could the boat weather? This question and conditions were debated pro and con.
Had our rockets been seen? Did the first torpedo put the wireless out of commission? If it had been able to operate, had anybody heard our S.0.S.? Was there enough food and drinking water in the boat to last?
This brought us to an inventory of our small craft. After considerable difficulty, we found the lamp, a can of powder flares, the tin of ship’s biscuit, matches and spare oil.
The lamp was lighted. Other lights were now visible. As we drifted in the darkness, we could see them every time we mounted the crest of the swells. The boats carrying these lights remained quite close together at first.
One boat came within sound and I recognized the Harry Lauder-like voice of the second assistant purser whom I had last heard on Wednesday at the ship’s concert. Now he was singing—"I Want to Marry ‘arry," and "I Love to be a Sailor."
There were an ‘American woman and her husband in that boat. She told me later that an attempt had been made to sing "Tipperary," and "Rule Britannia," but the thought of that slinking dark hull of destruction that might have been a part of the immediate darkness resulted in the abandonment of the effort.
"Who’s the officer in that boat?" came a cheery hail from the nearby light.
"What the hell is it to you?" our half-frozen Negro yelled out for no reason apparent to me other than possibly the relief of his feelings.
"Will somebody brain that skunk with a pin?" was the inquiry of our profound oaths man, who also expressed regret that he happened to be sitting too far away from the Negro to reach him. He accompanied the announcement with a warmth of language that must have relieved the Negro of his chill.
The fear of the boats crashing together produced a general inclination toward maximum separation on the part of all the little units of survivors, with the result that soon the small crafts stretched out for several miles, their occupants all endeavoring to hold the heads of the boats into the wind.
Rescue and Epilogue
Hours passed. The swells slopped over the sides of our boat and filled the bottom with water. We bailed it continually. Most of us were wet to the knees and shivering from the weakening effects of the icy water. Our hands were blistered from pulling at the oars. Our boat, bobbing about like a cork, produced terrific nausea, and our stomachs ached from vain wrenching.
And then we saw the first light—the first sign of help; coming—the first searching glow of white radiance deep down the somber sides of the black pot of night that hung over us. I don’t know what direction it came from—none of us knew north from south—there was nothing but water and sky. But the light—it just came from over there where we pointed. We nudged dumb, sick boat mates, directed their gaze, and aroused them to an appreciation of the sight that gave us new life.
It was way over there—first a trembling quiver of silver against the blackness, then drawing closer, it defined itself as a beckoning finger, although still too far away to see our feeble efforts to attract it.
Nevertheless, we wasted valuable flares and the ship’s baker, self-ordained custodian of the biscuit, did the honors handsomely to the extent of a biscuit apiece to each of the twenty-three occupants of the boat.
"Pull starboard, sonnies," sang out old Captain Dear, his gray chin whiskers bristling with joy in the light of the round lantern, which he held aloft.
We pulled—pulled lustily, forgetting the strain and pain of innards torn and racked with violent vomiting, and oblivious of blistered palms and wet, half-frozen feet.
Then a nodding of that finger of light, —a happy, snapping, crap-shooting finger that seemed to say: "Come on, you men," like a dice player wooing the bones—led us to believe that our lights had been seen.
This was the fact, for immediately the oncoming yes— ad flashed on its green and red sidelights and we saw it was headed for our position. We floated off its stern for a while as it maneuvered for the best position in which it could take us on with a sea that was running higher and higher.
The risk of that rescuing ship was great, because there was every reason to believe that the submarine that had destroyed the Laconia still lurked in the darkness nearby, but those on board took the risk and stood by for the work of rescue.
"Come along side port!" was megaphoned to us. As fast as we could, we swung under the stern and felt our way broadside toward the ship’s side.
Out of the darkness above, a dozen small pocket flashlights blinked down on us and orders began to be shouted fast and thick.
When I look back on the night, I don’t know which was the more hazardous, going down the slanting side of the sinking Laconia or going up the side of the rescuing vessel.
One minute the swells would lift us almost level with the rail of the low-built patrol boat and mine sweeper, but the next receding wave would swirl us down into a darksome gulf over which the ship’s side glowered like a slimy, dripping cliff.
A score of hands reached out, we were suspended in the husky, tattooed arms of those doughty British Jack Tars, looking up into their weather-beaten youthful faces, mumbling our thankfulness, and reading in the gold lettering on their pancake hats the legend, "H.M.S. Laburnum." We had been six hours in the open boat. The others began coming alongside one by one. Wet and bedraggled survivors were lifted aboard. Women and children first was the rule.
The scenes of reunion were heart gripping. Men, who had remained strangers to one another aboard the Laconia, now wrung each other by the hand or embraced without shame the frail little wife of a Canadian chaplain who had found one of her missing children delivered up from another boat. She smothered the child with ravenous mother kisses while tears of gladness streamed down her face.
Boat after boat came alongside. The waterlogged craft containing the Captain came last.
A rousing cheer went up as he stepped on the deck, one mangled hand hanging limp at his side.
The sailors divested themselves of outer clothing and passed the garments over to the shivering members of the Laconia’s crew.
The cramped officers’ quarters down under the quarterdeck were turned over to the women and children. Two of the Laconia’s stewardesses passed boiling basins of navy cocoa and aided in the disentangling of wet and matted tresses.
The men grouped themselves near steam-pipes in the petty officers’ quarters or over the grating of the engine rooms, where new life was to be had from the upward blasts of heated air that brought with them the smell of bilge water and oil and sulfur from the bowels of the vessel.
The injured—all minor cases, sprained backs, wrenched legs or mashed hands—were put away in bunks under the care of the ship’s doctor.
Dawn was melting the eastern ocean gray to pink when the task was finished. In the officers’ quarters, which had now been invaded by the men, the roll of the vessel was most perceptible. Each time the floor of the room slanted, bottles and cups and plates rolled and slid back
On the tables, chairs, and benches the women rested. Seasick mothers, trembling from the after-effects of the terrifying experience of the night, sought to soothe their crying children.
Then somebody happened to touch a key on the small wooden organ that stood against one wall. This was enough to send some callous seafaring fingers over the ivory keys in a rhythm unquestionably religious and so irresistible under the circumstances that, although no one seemed to know the words, all in the room took up the air in a reverent, humming chant.
At the last note of the Amen, little Father Warring, his black garb snagged in places and badly soiled, stood before the center table and lifted back his head until the morning light, filtering through the opened hatch above him, shown down on his kindly, weary face. He recited the Lord’s Prayer and all present joined. The simple, impressive service of thanksgiving ended as simply as it had begun.
Two minutes later, I saw the old Jewish traveling man limping about on one lame leg with a little boy in his arms. He was collecting big, round British pennies for the youngster.
A survey and cruise of the nearby waters revealed no more occupied boats and our minesweeper, with its load of survivors numbering two hundred and sixty-seven, steamed away to the east. A half an hour steaming and the vessel stopped within hailing distance of two sister ships, toward one of which an open boat manned by Jackies was being pulled.
I saw the hysterical French actress, her blonde hair wet and bedraggled, lifted out of the boat and carried up the companionway. Then a little boy, his fresh pink face and golden hair shining in the morning sun, was passed upward, and followed by some other survivors, numbering fourteen in all, who had been found half-drowned and almost dead from exposure in a partially wrecked boat that was picked up just as it was sinking. It was in that boat that one American woman and her daughter died. One of the survivors of the boat told me the story. He said:
"Our boat was No. 8. It was smashed in the lowering. I was in the bow. Mrs. Hoy and her daughter were sitting toward the stern. The boat filled with water rapidly.
"It was no use trying to bail it out. There was a big hole in the side and it came in too fast. The boat’s edge sank to the level of the water and only the air-tank kept it afloat.
"It was completely awash. Every swell rode clear over our heads and we had to hold our breath until we came to the surface again. The cold water just takes the life out of you.
"We saw the other boats showing their lights and drifting further and further away from us. We had no lights. Then, towards morning, we saw the rescuing ship come up into the ‘cluster of other lifeboats that had drifted so far away from us. One by one, we saw their lights disappear as they were taken on board.
"We shouted and screamed and shrieked at the tops of our voices, but could not attract the attention of any of the other boats or the rescuing ship, and soon we saw its lights blink out. We were left there in the darkness with the wind howling and the sea rolling higher every minute.
"The women got weaker and weaker. Maybe they had been dead for some time. I don’t know, but a wave came and washed forth Mrs. Hoy and her daughter out of the boat. There were life-belts around their bodies and they drifted away with their arms locked about one another."
With such stories ringing in our ears, with exchanges of experiences pathetic and humorous, we steamed into Queenstown harbor shortly after ten o’clock that night. We had been attacked at a point two hundred miles off the Irish coast and of our passengers and crew, thirteen had been lost.
As I stepped ashore, a Britisher, a fellow-passenger aboard the Laconia, who knew me as an American, stepped up to me. During the voyage, we had had many conversations concerning the possibility of America entering the war. Now he slapped me on the back with this question,
"Well, old’ Casus Belli," he said, "is this your blooming overt act?"
I did not answer him, but thirty minutes afterward, I was rounding out on a typewriter the introduction to a four thousand-word newspaper article, which I cabled that night and which put the question up to the American public for an answer.
Five weeks later the United States entered the war.
Floyd Gibbons, "And They Thought We Wouldn't Fight", © 1918 George H. Doran Company, New York.