The Sinking of the Cunard Line RMS Laconia (I) - Part III: Torpedoed by A German U-Boat
Excerpt from the book by Floyd Gibbons, "And They Thought We Wouldn't Fight", © 1918 George H. Doran Company, New York. Edited by the Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives for clarity.
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.