I survived the sinking of the Lusitania
“The ship cannot sink!“ the captain yelled.
And many who believed him were among the 1,198 who lost their lives. The last man to be rescued recalls
the infamous torpedoing that helped to bring the U.S. into World War I
SIR HAROLD BOULTON
“It happened to me”
llil* ÍK another of Ihr Kerle* of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean's . . . «tories told by its readers about some interesting dramatic event in their lives.
HAVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so. send it to the articles editor. Maclean’s Magazine, 481 University Ave., Toronto. For stories accepted Maclean's will pay the regular rates it oilers for articles.
I sailed on the Lusitania from New York on her last voyage on May 1, 1915, for England.
For several days before that. New York newspapers carried an advertisement by the German embassy in Washington, warning Americans that if they sailed into the war zone around the British Isles on ships belonging to Britain or any of her allies, they would do so at their own risk. This warning was to prove all too real. Of the 1,959 souls who sailed, 1,198 perished, including one hundred and twenty-four Americans.
Although the Germans were to gloat over the sinking shortly afterward — even striking a medal to commemorate the “extraordinary success” of the submarine that fired the fatal torpedo — most historians now regard the attack as a major blunder of strategy on the part of the Germans. For, as one author said, it “aroused Americans as they had not been aroused since Paul Revere,” Overnight. Americans who had been stoutly isolationist began speaking angrily of the inevitability of their
country entering the war against Germany. The sinking of the British-owned Cunard liner was still fresh in the minds of an angry American public when their nation declared war two years later.
At the time we were due to sail, I heard that a number of prominent Americans had canceled their passage at the last moment, because of the German embassy's warning. My friends with whom I had been staying in America begged me to do the same and to take a neutral ship that would not run any risk of being torpedoed. Being a young man in those days, I felt far more adventurous and was sure that the Lusitania would be met by the British navy and protected as it drew into the danger zone. I accordingly decided to sail, being anxious to get to England as soon as possible. I had been in the British army before the war and had been discharged for medical reasons. Now I was leaving my business affairs in the U. S., in hope of re-enlisting.
Just outside New York harbor, we passed a
British cruiser and. later on, a French battleship. There was a feeling of security in knowing that the Allied neighbors were looking after us.
On the "first day out of New York I ran into a friend of mine, a Captain Lasseter, whom I had met at Oxford. He had been over in the States on leave and was returning to his regiment in France. His mother was traveling to England with him.
Except for a certain amount of tension on board, the trip was uneventful until Friday, May 7. That morning the foghorn awakened me at 8.30. I got up and dressed and had breakfast. We were nearing the danger zone, and people who had been too nervous to go to bed in their cabins were now picking up rugs and pillows with which they had made temporary beds in various lounges. Many had slept in their clothes.
Strolling out on deck, 1 noticed there were two men on lookout in the crowsncst, where there was usually only one. 1 also saw two extra lookouts at the bow.
Just before luncheon I asked the purser for the money I had given him for safe keeping. 1 had about two hundred dollars, which he changed for me into forty-two pounds English currency. 1 went to my cabin and put twenty pounds in my jewel box, which I locked in my trunk, and placed the other five-pound notes and the two sovereigns in my pocket. 1 thought it safer to divide the money in this way, in case of loss or theft.
After lunch 1 went into the Palm Lounge. While I was having coffee and a cigarette. 1 saw a man to whom I had been introduced. He was a British Secret Service agent and had been to America on some important mission.
As we walked out on deck together. 1 asked him what danger he thought there was of our being torpedoed.
"The Germans would not dare torpedo us and if they did try it would be next to impossible,” he said. He explained that anyone who is used to the sea can see the periscope of a submarine at least
two miles away, and before launching the torpedo the submarine would have to have the periscope above water.
Just then there were two terrific almost simultaneous explosions on the starboard side. The noise was deafening and the whole ship seemed to he lifted up. In a few seconds, a huge quantity of dirty water and wreckage came crashing down on the deck where we stood. 1 rushed inside the Palm Lounge to avoid being struck. My confident friend was following me. I never saw him again and he must have drowned.
Immediately the ship listed to starboard. I could hear the screams of the second-class passengers below. There was confusion everywhere. I rushed below and knocked on the door where Lasseter and his mother had a cabin immediately opposite mine. There was no reply. I turned the handle and peered in. It was dark. 1 tried to turn on the light, but the electricity was off. Their cabin was empty. I crossed to my cabin to continued on page 38
continued on page 38
continued from page 27
She went down slowly, with a hissing,
booming, crashing sound”
get my lifebelt but someone must have taken it after the explosion, for it was not on the rack where I had seen it during the whole voyage.
By this time there was a very heavy list to starboard and my trunk and several little things on my dressing table had fallen over. I turned to rush down the corridor, but by this time the ship had such a list that one foot was on the floor and the other on the wall. In this fashion I made my way as fast as I could to the end of the corridor where I found a steward handing out life belts. While I was fastening mine on. I heard the most distressing cries and realized that they came from the elevator, which was stuck between floors. I realized the power was off and there was nothing I could do to get the poor souls out. As far as I ever knew, they drowned.
With my belt fastened, 1 started up the main stairway to the boat deck. My foot slipped and I fell down at the feet of a woman and her daughter. I asked them if there was anything I could do for them and the mother replied: "Not a thing, thank you. We arc not going to get excited but remain calm and stay here. The captain says the Lusitania cannot sink.” They were both drowned.
It was very hard to mount the stairs at the angle in which they were, hut I managed somehow and went out on the boat deck on the port side where, during the voyage. I had been allocated a certain lifeboat. The trouble now was that all the lifeboats that had been swung out since entering the war zone, were hanging in over the deck on this side, owing to the extreme list to starboard. There was a considerable amount of confusion hut no panic and I noticed that everyone here wore life belts. At my boat station on the port side, waiting to get into the lifeboat, 1 found Lasseter and his mother, both of whom wore belts. At each boat I saw (here was a crowd of men trying to swing the boats out and I joined in with them. Every time they swung one out, the men at the ropes lowered it a little until finally it was level with the deck of the ship. Then there was a cry of "l et the women and children in first!" There were no children for that particular boat.
Lasseter and I helped his mother into the boat which was soon filled with women. The men at the ropes were just about to lower it when the ship’s master, Capt. W. T. Turner, appeared on the bridge, shouting loudly and waving his hands.
"Don’t lower the boats! Don’t lower the boats!” he called at the top of his voice. "The ship cannot sink, she's allright. she cannot sink." Then in an appealing way he shouted. "Will the gentlemen kindly assist in getting the women out of the boats and oil the upper deck?”
I believe that the loss of many lives is chargeable to the captain's order to empty the boats, for later, when the ship was sinking there was not time to reload them. Had he allowed the boats to he lowered, the passengers could always have rowed hack if the Lusitania had not sunk.
Looking down from the boat deck I saw that the second-class passengers had ignored the captain’s orders and were loading their lifeboats and had launched four of them, none of which had been swamped. This, I think, is why more sec-
ond-class passengers than first-class were saved.
After the captain's orders, our lifeboat was quickly emptied, as other lifeboats on the same deck were, and Lasseter and I helped his mother out, and everyone started to crowd inside and off the deck, in response to the captain's instructions. By this time the ship had righted herself somewhat, hut her bow w'as gradually being submerged.
1 said to Lasseter and his mother, "The ship is hound to sink. The best thing to do is to jump overboard.” They agreed. To jump clear of the ship, we had to climb into the now-empty lifeboat. We jumped almost simultaneously. I am told the boat deck of the Lusitania was ninety feet from the water. Of course the bow was partly submerged, so we probably jumped less than that, but still it was quite a height.
When I struck the cold water I went
under a long way. but was drawn up quickly by my lifebelt.
It is funny how one does insignificant things in times of crisis. I remember I was greatly bothered at the time by losing my cap and started to swim around to look for it. Then i realized I had more important things to do. I started swimming as far away from the ship as possible, to avoid being drawn into the suction. I began with the breast stroke, but my lifebelt hindered my arms so I turned on my hack and made much better headway.
1 had swum this way for about sixty yards when I saw the Lusitania start her final plunge. She went down slowly, head first, with a hissing, booming, crashing sound. 1 saw people jumping off at the last moment and lifeboats being smashed to pieces. The sound was deafening and the sight worse than blinding. I shall never forget it.
When the last of her stern disappeared in the water, an immense wave formed as the waters met. I saw it coming, hrinuing in it a vast amount of broken lifeboats. beams, human bodies, deck chairs and other debris. 1 put my hands in front
of my face just as the wave was on me. It went over my head and I felt bits of debris being thrown against me. I swallowed a considerable amount of water and was very nearly choked. I think that a great many people were killed — and I don’t mean drowned — by that awful wave.
When I got my breath I began to look around. The sea was still fairly calm but it was a dreadful sight — a struggling mass of humanity — fighting for places on hits of wreckage, throwing each other off the wreckage they had struggled to get on, pushing people under the water to get out of it themselves. They were like so many wild animals fighting for life, forgetting all chivalry; women and men alike were pushed about and drowned. Believe me, in cases like this, unlike the storybooks, there is very little chivalry; each person fights for his own life.
To one side of the scene, just cruising around very slowly, looking at this suffering going on, was the submarine that had caused it all. I saw three or four of the crew on its deck just standing looking at the sea. It cruised slowly around the wreckage amongst the survivors for about ten minutes before the men disappeared into a hatch and the submarine submerged.
I caught a glimpse of a young couple who were said to he bride and groom. They were in one of the over-crowded lifeboats. He was stripped to the waist and she had let down her long hair and spread it over his shoulders to warm him.
I had been in the water some time when I began to feel cold and looked about for something on which to climb. Thirty yards or so away was a capsized lifeboat with seven or eight people on it.
I swam to it and a man helped me up. Once on. I took off my shoes and collar, then joined with two or three people to help others up.
We had aided about fifteen men and women to scramble on before we realise? that if any more got on. the boat would submerge. A few yards away there was a tarpaulin-covered box, such as might be used to hold an upright piano. I jumped off the submerged boat, swam to the box and struggled on. It was a hard job as the box was riding high and I was hampered by my bulky lifebelt.
1 was just managing to balance myself on it. when a girl of about twenty-one floated up to me. She had a lifebelt on hut was very badly injured and was bleeding freely, and I wondered that she was still alive. 1 bent down and asked her if I could help her onto my box but she cut me short saying she did not want to be helped as she knew she was gone. She asked me to take a ring from her finger, keep it and if I were saved give it to her lawyer whose name and address she gave me. She wanted me to tell him that she had tried to die like a brave Canadian girl.
Seeing that she was badly injured and exhausted, 1 knew I could not save her life so I didn't even try to get her onto the box. It was hard enough to get on oneself, let alone try to lift someone up who was absolutely helpless. I took the ring and put it in my pocket. It was a small gold ring with a green stone. She asked me if I would hold her hand and I did so. gladly. She lay back in the water and started drowning. After a few minutes her gasping stopped and I knew
she was dead. 1 freed my hand and a wave carried her away.
It was terrible to know that I had been able to do little for her and yet. the one thing I could have done. I did not do.
I did not keep her ring, but took it out of my pocket and flung it into the water.
I have hesitated about telling this incident because of the regret I have since experienced at not having kept the ring. I cannot explain why I threw it away, unless it was that I thought that with it I could throw the memory of her eyes when she died, of her hair on the water, of the sight of her injuries and the feel of her dead hand in mine. I tell of her death only in the hope that her family may read my story and know that she did die "like a brave Canadian girl.” The gold ring with the green stone may help them to know her, as may two facts she told me about herself: that she was on her way to England to do some nursing; and that her two brothers in the Canadian Highlanders had been killed recently in France.
All the while I had been holding her hand. I had been faintly conscious of my name sounding amid all the shouting, screaming and wailing. It was Lasseter. He and his mother were on an up-turned lifeboat about forty yards away. I waved and they shouted to me asking if there was any room on my box. I called back “yes” and tried to paddle over to them with a piece of broken oar I had found in the water. 1 did not make much headway so they slid off their boat and swam toward me in their life belts. When I leaned over to help one of them up. I lost my balance and went splashing into the water. Lasseter. then got hold of one end of the box and I the other, and we balanced it fairly well. The two of us struggled on and then while I leaned over to one side, he pulled up his mother on the other. The box was top heavy by now. and the first wave that came lifted one end of it and all three of us fell off.
Lasseter and I repeated our struggles and finally the three of us managed to get up again. All went well for a short time until a wave knocked us over again. We were knocked off four times altogether but we finally arranged it so that he sat at one end of the box. his mother in the middle and I at the other end. By holding each others hands. Lasseter and I managed to support his mother in a sitting position.
By this time most of the wailing and moaning had died down and it was beginning to get dark. I looked at my watch and found it had stopped at 2.26 p.m. There was only one ship in sight and it was on the horizon going in the opposite direction. The coast of Ireland was dimly visible and 1 learned later that w'e were about eleven miles off the Kinsale lighthouse.
Now that there were three of us on the box our legs dangled over the sides — the water coming up to our w'aists. We were just as cold as we would have been floating right in the water but there was a certain satisfaction in having hold of something. Gradually, we drifted away from the rest of the crowd.
The three of us had been in the water about three hours when, toward the Irish coast, we saw seven clouds of smoke. Then w'e knew that ships in Queenstown harbor must have received the Lusitania's SOS and were making straight for us.
The first ship was a torpedo boat destroyer and right behind it another, followed by almost every kind of seacraft imaginable—colliers, yachts, motor boats, fishing smacks, launches and motor lifeboats. Of course the large groups of survivors were more noticeable and were picked up first.
Since we had drifted almost a quarter of a mile from most of the survivors and it was getting quite dark, we were terrified that they would not see us at all. We tried shouting but our throats were so dry with salt water and our tongues so swollen that we made little noise.
Suddenly we noticed a small trawler belching smoke and making straight for us. It looked to us as if she didn't see us at all and was going to mow us down. Then, less than ten feet away, she turned to the right and reversed her engines to stop. Her swell upset our box. We were thrown into the water, dragged to her side and stern and sucked under. Mrs. Lasseter was struck on the shoulder by the propeller but was not seriously hurt. When I came to the top I yelled to some men in the stern to lower a boat but they said they had none. Instead, they threw us ordinary cork life - preservers. These were of no use to us as we were already floating. Then they lowered some rope made in a loop, and one at a time we were hauled up on deck.
As I learned later, I was the last person picked up alive. Our own rescue ship cruised around, looking for other survivors, and found none after us.
When 1 had been hauled on deck, I was so paralyzed by the cold I could hardly stand. We were helped into the engine room, where some of our clothes were taken off and hung up to dry and the crew lent us odd bits of clothing. The time was 6.50 p.m. I had been in the water at least four and a half hours.
The crew was the most hospitable lot of men I have ever met. They brought us great big tin mugs of black tea and slices of the most delicious jam tarts I had ever eaten. The ship turned round and got us to Queenstown at two o’clock in the morning. At the dock we were met by members of the Irish army who had a tray filled with whiskies and soda. I am not a whisky drinker, but on this occasion I remember drinking down six full glasses of whisky and soda and not turning a hair. Then we walked to the nearest hotel. Every room had been taken and there were people lying down on the floor of the lounge and in every armchair. These people were survivors who had been picked up before us and who had arrived in Queenstown long before us. I must have appeared a funny sight with my suit shrunken and wrinkled and my shoes missing. The people at the hotel found an armchair for Mrs. Lasseter and we tucked her into it. Lasseter and 1 decided to stretch out on the floor. Before doing so, 1 remembered the money I had put into my pocket before going down to lunch on the Lusitania. In my trouser pocket 1 found two golden sovereigns and a wad of very damp paper. I remembered that there had been four five-pound notes.
1 walked up to the cashier’s desk and asked the woman if she would please change the money and 1 put on the counter a mass of sodden paper which I told her was four five-pound notes. She looked at me in bewilderment, probably thinking 1 was suffering from shock. But when we opened up this sodden mass, she recognized the notes. She took them and gave me some nice new clean money.
Next morning, Lasseter and I went out shopping. I lent him five pounds. He bought a few essentials for his mother and one or two things for himself. I bought myself a pair of shoes and a cap to replace the one I hail so grudgingly lost.
We had to stay in Queenstown the whole ot the next day, during which I sent a telegram to my father in England, saying I had been saved and was alive and well. Later I learned he never received it. The three of us took the night
boat over to England and I arrived in London the next morning. There was a great crowd at the station waiting to meet survivors. My father had been at the station all night, meeting each train, hoping to find me among the survivors. My greeting with my father is hard to describe.
In the years since, I have often discussed the sinking with others. Armchair critics have told me many times what they would have done under similar circumstances. Maybe they would have done better than I, but it is easy to sit in a comfortable chair and say what you would do if you were in the situation I faced. On the other hand. 1 do not claim to be a hero. Whether one is saved or lost on occasions like this is often pure luck. I know in my case it was just good luck.
“I saw no guns”
I have also been asked many questions about the Lusitania, and some of them involved answers on subjects about which I had no personal knowledge.
I’ve been asked whether the Lusitania had guns mounted on the bow and stern to repel enemy attack. All 1 can say is that I personally saw no guns.
I’ve been asked if we were carrying ammunition. I wouldn't be surprised if we were, but I really don’t know. I certainly saw none.
I’ve been asked whether there were many young Englishmen returning to England to fight for their country. I am quite sure there were.
I do know that among the casualties were several famous people, including Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the American millionaire; Charles Frohman. the most celebrated American theatrical producer of this time; Charles Klein, the Broadway playwright; and two of the daughters of
Sir Hugh Montagu Allan, the Canadian financier who donated the Allan Cup for hockey.
Among the survivors w'as an American actress whose life belt and pearl-studded revolver were hung up in the entrance to the theatre where she appeared about a year later. I met this actress in the hotel in Queenstown, and she showed me the revolver and told me she had tried to commit suicide with it while she was in the water. But the revolver had been submerged. and when she pulled the trigger it didn't go off.
I have also been asked about the captain. The poor man is dead now, and 1 hate to say anything against him. But at the official inquiry in London, when 1 w'as asked whether I thought anything more could have been done to save lives, 1 said 1 thought the captain should not have ordered the people out of the boats and off the upper deck, for reasons I have already explained here. (The captain however, was absolved of any blame for loss of life on the Lusitania.)
I was also asked at the inquiry whether all the portholes had been closed as we entered the danger zone. My answer was: I don’t know.
I have often been asked what compensation the Cunard company gave survivors. I would like to state here emphatically that 1 think the company was most generous. We all listed the items w’e lost and their approximate value. First-class passengers got one third of their claim; second-class passengers, two thirds; and third-class passengers, the full amount.
I wrote down the main facts in this article a few days after my arrival in England, hut my orginal account was lost in a London air raid during World War II. However, I still remember the main events of my experience quite vividly. How could 1 forget them? it