The Sinking of the Cunard Line RMS Laconia (I) - Part V: Rescue and Epilogue
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.
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.