The Sinking of the Cunard Line RMS Laconia (I) - Part II: The Voyage Begins
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.
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.