The Sinking of the Cunard Line RMS Laconia (I) - Part IV: Lifeboats Away
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.
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.