Saturday, April 14, 2012

April 14, 1912

"There was peace and the world had an even tenor to its way. Nothing was revealed in the morning the trend of which was not known the night before. It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub it's eyes and awake, but woke it with a start - keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since, with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912."

-Jack B. Thayer, Titanic Survivor

Today is 100 years since the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank (yes, I know the sinking was on the 15th, but I'm going to mark the 14th, since that's when the collision occurred and started the chain of events).

I've done annual posts on lesser-known aspects of the disaster, and obviously had quite a bit of time to think about what would be appropriate for today. I hope you enjoy this, as I've tried to connect it with something we still have 100 years later.

The Titanic's story has formed the basis for movies, computer games, TV shows, novelty ice cubes, and books. Even a few musicals (such as the Las Vegas Jubilee comedy-musical-topless show about the sinking), and, most bizarrely, a childrens' inflatable slide.

Lost in all of this is a tragedy in which over 1500 people died. I think any of us would be horrified to see "Holocaust- The Musical!" or "September 11 - a laugh-a-minute review!" and it always irks me that the
Titanic's needless loss of human life is often treated as on object of amusement.

Lastly, all of us with an interest in the story owe a debt to the late Walter Lord. Without his research and compelling writing it would likely have been forgotten along with many other turn-of-the-century shipping disasters.

And on with the post.

The Sundowner

The Sundowner (a comical name for those of us in medical profession) is a 58 foot (18m) motor yacht at the Ramsgate Maritime Museum in England. She was, coincidentally, built in 1912, the same year the Titanic sank. She's a fairly nondescript boat, and certainly nothing like the huge ocean liner. One man was to link the 2 ships, both times with remarkable heroism.

Charles Herbert Lightoller

Charles Lightoller was born in Lancashire in 1874. His mother died shortly after his birth from delivery complications, and his father (who owned a cotton mill) abandoned him and left the country a few years later. Both his siblings died in childhood.

When he was 13 Charles signed on to an at-sea apprenticeship, and between 1887 and 1899 went on journeys that led him to being shipwrecked & rescued once, fighting an at-sea fire that threatened his ship, catching malaria, prospecting for gold in the 1898 Klondike gold rush, becoming a cowboy in Alberta, riding railroads as a hobo across Canada, and working as a cattle wrangler on a livestock freighter back to England. He was 23 years old, had circled the world twice, and was penniless upon returning home.

He worked his way up to a Master's certificate, and in 1900 joined the White Star Line, gradually rising in the ranks. He married and had 5 children (2 girls and 3 boys - all served in WWII, with 2 sons killed in the fighting).

In 1912 he was named 1st officer of the brand-new Titanic, though shortly before the voyage a new chief officer was brought aboard, knocking Lightoller down a notch to 2nd officer.

He was off-duty when the ship struck the iceberg, but once alerted quickly went to work. He supervised lowering the port-side lifeboats, never trying to get in one himself. After all the boats were gone and the ship about to go under, he felt he could do no more, and dived into a wave that was breaking over the now-submerged officers' quarters.

As tons of seawater poured down the Titanic's ventilators, he was sucked under, and pinned against one's grating. If it had broken he'd have been sucked deep inside the dying ship and never found, and the suction was so powerful he couldn't break free and swim to the surface.

He'd been trapped underwater for 15-20 seconds when a boiler ruptured deep in the dying ship, sending up a blast of hot air that broke the suction and launched him to the surface.

Reaching the air he was in 28°F (-2° C) water, in which a person couldn't survive more than 15 minutes. He was near lifeboat B, which had overturned, and had about 30 men clinging to it. He swam over and crawled aboard.

Without oars they were unable to move away from the sinking ship, and may have been sucked down with her. But when the first smokestack collapsed into the water (and likely killed many beneath it) the wave pushed their overturned boat safely away.

The upside-down boat was swamped and unstable, and the men clinging to it were in danger of being thrown off in the swells. Lightoller quickly arranged them standing on its bottom in parallel lines, and ordered them to lean right or left to counteract the waves. When the Carpathia came in the morning they were the last boat to be picked up. Lightoller himself was the last survivor of the disaster to be brought aboard, and the highest-ranking officer to live.

He testified at both the British and American hearings, and many of his recommendations to prevent similar disasters from occurring were agreed to by the major maritime nations. Several of them stand to this day (lifeboat drills, enough lifeboats for all aboard, continuous radio communication by all vessels for distress signals, and ship-to-ship notification of icebergs).

He served his country in WWI, receiving decorations and commanding 2 ships. He was sunk (and rescued) again during the war, and later rammed and sank a German U-Boat.

After the war he returned to the White Star Line, but discovered that his association with Titanic had blacklisted him from advancing. He became discouraged and left the sea, taking jobs as an innkeeper and chicken farmer, and writing his autobiography.

But his heart never left the sea, and in 1929 he and his wife bought the little Sundowner and sailed her around Europe.

In 1940 came Great Britain's darkest hour.

Hitler's seemingly invincible armies were swarming across Europe, and a large portion of Britain's armies were trapped at Dunkirk by the invaders. Their options were to surrender or die fighting.

Churchill's government requisitioned every ship and boat available to evacuate them home, and at age 66 the now-retired Lightoller and his oldest son volunteered to take the little Sundowner across the English Channel to help.

Without any armament they set out, dodging strafing Luftwaffe planes. Halfway across they came across another boat that had broken down and caught fire, and rescued her crew. Then Lightoller sailed on. Upon arriving at Dunkirk he took the Sundowner alongside another ship, which quickly off-loaded soldiers to his, then went back for more. He headed back to England with 130 men crammed in his vessel (built to carry perhaps 20 at most). Badly overloaded, the Sundowner was barely maneuverable, but with his experienced hand on the wheel she avoided further airplane machine guns and the wakes of larger ships that threatened to overturn his.

He unloaded the soldiers and was ready to return for more, but with the worsening conditions only faster ships were being sent. The little Sundowner spent the rest of the war doing coastal patrol, and in 1945 she returned to being a pleasure boat. Lightoller and his wife spent the rest of their years sailing her.

Lightoller died in December 1952, a victim of another man-made disaster, the Great London Smog.

His wife continued sailing Sundowner, leading a repeat procession of boats back to Dunkirk in 1965 for the 25th anniversary of the evacuation. After her death the boat had several owners before being purchased by the Ramsgate Maritime museum, and has since led the memorial procession back to Dunkirk twice more (1990 and 2000).

Today this connection to the past is still with us. While the wreckage of the once magnificent Titanic reminds us of her 1500 dead and the lessons taught by the tragedy, the little Sundowner reminds us of courage in the face of adversity- perhaps our most noble capacity.


bobbie said...

Wonderful story; great post.

Solitary Diner said...

Am I a bad person for wanting the ice cube tray?

Anonymous said...

I love your history posts! Great job!

Anonymous said...

WOW, Dr. G- another great post. I had heard about Lightoller's actions during the Titanic sinking but didn't know about his heroism in later life. Thanks for this and all you tell us.

Anonymous said...

I get fed up with the constant obsession with the Titanic but I found this post fascinating. Thank you.

Lo said...

What a great story and beautifully told. Thank you, Dr. G.

I love it when you make me laugh and also when you make me think.

jon spencer said...

Neat story.

Anonymous said...

que es mas macho?

Anonymous said...

This is awesome. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

At first glance I thought your post was about Titanic and wasn't going to read it because I'm heartily sick of hearing about it, so I'm glad I took that second glance. What a remarkable life.

Anonymous said...

I think this was a wonderfully uplifting story to end another dismal day at work. Thanks.

Vicki said...

I've read through all your history posts in the last two days and was eager to see what you'd say about the centennial of the Titanic, especially given your interest in maritime history, especially shipwrecks. I appreciate how you take the overwhelming numbers and tragedy and bring them home to us in such a personal way.

On another note, my mom had a neurologist who was also a recognized scholar of Shakespeare and Nietze, even publishing about the latter in German! So why can't you pursue a side career in making history interesting to those who were not as fortunate as to get history teachers like my mom was, making it come alive in the same way you do. Why not compile a book of just your history posts? That would make an excellent book to help many more people learn how fascinating history truly can be!

Aunt Murry said...

That is incredible.

Jenetikitty said...

Y'know.... I don't really like boats, or history, much less naval history.... but every time you write one of these blogs, Dr. grumpy, I am entertained and I learn thing that I NEVER would have learned in my day to day life.

Thank you for that!

Anonymous said...

What an extraordinary man. I'm glad he is remembered; he deserves to be.

Laura said...

Wow, thank you for this story! I'm a huge fan of Titanic and thought I knew all there was to know, but I had no idea about Officer Lightoller's story of survival. I wish they had been able to include that in James Cameron's movie. They kind of just portrayed him as a bit of a douche.

Tricia said...

Great read! I love learning something new :)

VetGirl20 said...

Was looking forward to reading your April 14th blog, & as usual you don't disappoint! Agree with Laura - wish the movie had displayed more real stories such as this. Excellent way to commemorate the many heroes of that day & honor those who died...

Packer said...

The rescue at Dunkirk is a story that should never be lost to the ages.

I hope you get your boat someday.

stacey said...

Courage in the face of adversity?

Mark In Mayenne said...

One of the Little Ships

Anonymous said...

Thanks for telling my grandfather's story. Anyone wanting more should look up Patrick Stenson's book of various titles but most recently: Titanic Voyager

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