Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Athenia: First Sinking in WWII's Battle of the Atlantic


Roger Weston

In October of 1939, the Nazi party’s official newspaper, the Voelkischer Beobachter broke the story that England had intentionally sunken the cruise ship Athenia in order to blame Germany and draw the U.S. into the war as an ally. It was a shocking revelation that England—for political reasons—had sunk a passenger ship with over 1,100 passengers on it, mostly women and children. There were also 311 Americans.

Germany’s accusation against Britain was not just a vague reference in a side bar of the Voelkischer Beobachter; it was specific. It singled out Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and accused him of masterminding the diabolical plot.

In America, US Senator Robert Rice Reynolds, among others, claimed that Britain may have wanted to “infuriate the American people”, which is why they sunk a ship with hundreds of Americans on board.

The Athenia’s passengers, of course, had not been worried about Churchill sinking a British ship. Nobody would have thought that he would do such a thing. 

The Athenia had departed from Glasgow on Friday, September 1, 1939—destination Montreal, Canada. England had just declared war on Germany hours before, and many Americans—at the encouragement of the British government—secured their tickets on the Athenia to return to America and flee the war. Ironically, they were about to become its first victims. 

Most people who boarded the ship expected a safe trip. After all, they were heading away from Europe where trouble was brewing. They were heading towards safety. The ship itself was a peaceful place, a wonderful place to be. In many respects it was just another cruise; however, the travelers did notice a few disturbing signs.  For one, the windows were all painted black to hide any light; in addition, smoking was prohibited on deck. Nobody was allowed to even light a match on deck. Third, the ship sailed a zigzag course to foil any submarine attack—presumably by German U-boats.

Other than these minor details, it was life as usual on the Athenia. Although one crewman was convinced he would never live to see America, this was not the general sentiment. It was a happy, social time, a time of meeting people in dining rooms, of relaxing and reading good books. In some respects, life didn’t get any better than this. They had caught the only ship out, and they were safe! Children walked happily on deck, enjoying the novel experience. Games were played. Church services were held.

The sense of relief and excitement didn’t last long, however. In less than 24 hours, a massive explosion rocked the boat; it ripped through the engine room and blasted the cargo hatch high into the air including people that were sitting on it. These people landed on deck blackened and lifeless. Mrs. James Orr, along with her one-year-old daughter, were blasted against the railing; they survived but with injuries. Crude oil sprayed out of broken pipes.  

In the kitchen, two huge vats of boiling oil spilled onto two cooks, burning them severely. Out in the dining area, one woman had just dipped her spoon into her bowl of soup, but that’s as far as her hand ever got. 

In the accommodations area, half-dressed people filled smoky passageways that smelled of cordite. In the darkness, they felt the water level rising up their legs. Their knees bumped into floating debris. A stairwell had been eviscerated, leaving some people to climb from edge-to-edge to work their way up to the main deck.

The ship began to list, causing the lifeboats to hang at awkward angles. Nevertheless, people who had survived the blast and made it outside gathered around the lifeboats. They had been through the emergency drill, so there was some sense of order, but there were also outbreaks of panic.

Women and children were supposed to board lifeboats first, but at one lifeboat station, a number of men feared there would be no space left for them. They shoved aside the women and children and tried to claim their seats by force. The crewman manning that lifeboat fought them back by wielding an ax.

As one of the lifeboats was lowered, a rope broke. Mrs. Orr and her daughter, who’d just been blasted against the railing, now barely survived another traumatic event as the lifeboat crashed down into the water. Now, despite her cracked ribs, Ms. Orr began bailing with their shoes, a chore that would continue on through a long, dark and very cold night.

Not everyone stayed active. Many of the people in the lifeboats were miserable. They were sick from the gas that was released in the explosion and seasick from the rocky ocean. Many were only half dressed. One woman was dressed in nothing but a satin nightgown. Hypothermia set in for those who had been forced to jump in the ocean or who had been thrown out of their lifeboat during the rough launchings.

“Look!” a woman said, pointing. “A submarine.”

A German U-boat opened fire on the ship’s wireless antennas. It then approached the scattered lifeboats. The boats were spread out around the sinking ship, spread out for just this reason—in case a submarine showed up and tried to machine gun the survivors.

The U-boat approached long enough for the captain to get a good look at the ship. Then it turned tail and stole away into the night.

“Help us!” a woman cried out. “We’ll die out here!”

The U-boat did not stick around to save a single person. Her German commander, with his submarine now safely beneath the surface, was in shock. He had thought that the ship he had attacked was an armed merchant cruiser. After dealing the fatal blow, he’d approached to identify the ship for his log entry. When he checked the ship against the Lloyd’s Register, he was sickened to realize that he’d just sunk an unarmed cruise ship. This was against all prize rules of warfare, for both Britain and Germany. Commander Lemp realized he had made a horrible mistake.

As Lemp stole away in his U-boat, he was in a state of disbelief. He’d been sure of his conclusion. The ship had been acting like a warship. It had been blacked out and was following a zigzag course. Plus, it was following an unusual course for a passenger ship. He began to sweat profusely. He feared he could face a court marshal back in Germany. He feared what would happen when Admiral Donitz learned of this. Lemp decided then and there that he must hide his fatal error. He forced his crew to take an oath of secrecy and never speak of what had occurred. As for his log entry, he never made it. The event never officially happened.

Up on the surface, the people in the lifeboats were miserable and shaking in the cold because of what had happened, and they were the lucky ones. Many had been killed in the explosion. For the survivors, it was a night of suffering.

One woman, Mrs. Rhonda Thomas or Rochester, New York, had been well dressed because she’d been out on deck. A naked baby was handed to her to keep under her coat. The baby had no relatives in the boat. Mrs. Thomas and another woman shared duties, alternately rowing and sheltering the infant.

Unidentified bodies floated by in the water. It was enough to plunge a person into deep depression and despair, the sort that weakened the individual’s propensity for survival. People dealt with their grief in different ways. Some women and children cried. Others endured the pain of serious injuries. A cook was not expected to live from his burns. He was in a miserable state. People did what they had to do to adjust and keep their morale up. Some prayed while others sung hymns. Women bailed with their shoes and found that keeping busy kept their mind off their fate. By morning, some of the people had died.

Then ships began to arrive on the scene. The Sweedish yacht Southern Cross, the US cargo ship City of Flint, the Norwegian tanker Knute Nelson, and the US destroyers Electra and Escort all showed up to rescue survivors. Rope ladders were thrown over the sides of ships. Those who could climb did so. Others were raised by rope. Many lives were saved, but there were also accidents. Some of the ‘survivors’ fell and were crushed to death between their lifeboat and rescue ship when the waves lifted and lunged the smaller boats against the bigger ones. Fifty people died when one of the lifeboats was crushed under the propeller of the tanker Knute Nelson. While there was sadness, there was also relief. Together, the rescue ships saved 981 lives while the US destroyer Fame did an anti-submarine sweep during the rescue operations.

In Germany, Admiral Donitz learned of the sinking from the BBC. Hitler was furious, but he decided to cover it up. Lemp’s war diary was falsified. Hitler denied Germany’s role and used the incident as propaganda, blaming England to hopefully drive a wedge between England and America.

Commander Lemp went on to sink twenty more ships. Finally, he was killed when his German U-boat was severely damaged by depth charges. He surfaced, and before destroying classified materials, he ordered his men to abandon the sinking ship. The sub was boarded by sailors of the HMS Bulldog. They did a quick search and found an infamous German encryption device—a find that soon helped America win the Atlantic war. Lemp’s fate is matter of confusion. He was either shot in the water or chose to drown rather than be taken prisoner.

Either way, Lemp played a key role in World War Two history—as the man whose crucial mistake launched the Battle of the Atlantic—and as the man who caused the beginning of the end of that battle, when, thinking his ship was doomed, he failed to destroy sensitive equipment.

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest unbroken military campaign of World War Two. It raged on from 1939 through 1945. During that time, 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk against 783 sunken U-boats.

For the actions of one rogue, one Commander Lemp, to have had such a profound impact on the beginning and the end of the Battle of the Atlantic is truly astonishing. 

After learning about the worst maritime disaster of all time, resulting in an even greater loss of life than the RMS Titanic, I wrote FATAL RETURN. This little known tragedy took place on a cold and dark night during WWII. I was so fascinated about the circumstances surrounding this shipwreck that I wove it into my novel FATAL RETURN
Download Fatal Return hereFATAL RETURN

 Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twist.
You can find all of his books at: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page 

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Sinking of the SS Sirio

High Tragedy at Sea

By Roger Weston

The Italian merchant steamer, SS Sirio, departed from Genoa on August 2, 1904, starting on a voyage that the Italian immigrants onboard believed would be a restful and peaceful ride to begin their new lives in Argentina. After picking up additional passengers in Barcelona, Spain, the ship, with almost 800 souls on board, set out for South America on August 4. However, she did not get far at all. In fact, she was only 2 ½ miles east of Cape Palos near Cartagena, Spain when she ran aground at full-speed on a reef off Hormigas Island.

Fishermen had taken notice of the SS Sirio, which was cruising close by in tricky waters. They heard a tremendous crashing noise when the ship hit a reef. They saw passengers knocked off their feet from the impact, falling hard onto the SS Sirio’s steel decks. For the fishermen, it was a grim moment to see the brutal crash. However, in the next four minutes, that moment of shock melted into a surreal experience as they watched the ship’s stern rapidly sink below the rippling, pulsating surface of the shiny blue waters. Fortunately, these fishermen were not passive men. They knew the sea as well as they knew their own mothers, maybe better. They were highly competent on the waters. Realizing that a disaster was unfolding, they flew into action. They needed little urging; however, they got some anyway. The stern of the SS Sirio sank so quickly that within just four minutes, it was underwater, and the fishermen could hear the screams of the drowning. The bow was still above the surface, like a dolphin sticking its nose out of the sea.

While the fishermen began their rescue efforts, a truly tragic, life-and-death drama was playing out on board ship. By one account, the captain was not on the bridge when the ship struck the reef; rather, he’d turned over the helm to an inexperienced third mate. If so, this was one of a series of misjudgments, which is surprising. After all, the captain had forty-six years experience and a flawless record. This was his final voyage before retirement. Perhaps he let his guard down and decided to relax a little on this last trip. Forty-six years experience. Flawless record. Hundreds of thousands of sea captains never achieved such an impressive record. Captain Giuseppe Piccone could sail a ship from Spain to Argentina in his sleep if he had to. Not, however, on this particular day, this most tragic day.

The fishermen and the passengers on the SS Sirio weren’t the only players in this epic tragedy. There was a full cast, and all the actors were on hand. There were other ships in the area. One of those vessels was the French steamer Marie Louise. Her captain saw the whole disaster unfold. He saw the SS Sirio on a risky course through a dangerous area when she crashed into a submerged obstacle. The bow of the doomed ship rose up out of the water like a breaching whale. The boiler exploded. It erupted like Mount Vesuvius, a tremendous explosion. Screams were heard. Bodies were suddenly floating past the Marie Louise.

“I want a boat in the water now,” the captain of the Marie Louise ordered. “Save anyone you can.”

Over on the SS Sirio, Captain Giuseppe Piccone had a different perspective because it was his ship that was sinking. One thing Piccone lacked was experience in dealing with shipwrecks and calamity. For forty-six years, he had avoided trouble. Conflicting accounts emerged in the press as to what happened on this fateful day. Some said the captain froze; others testified that panic broke out and he tried to contain it, but couldn’t. The captain himself later confessed that his actions were imprudent.

Why would a captain with forty-six years experience take imprudent actions? Why would he take a course that was obviously dangerous according to the captain of the Marie Louise? The SS Sirio was not just any ship. Her entire career had been devoted to delivering immigrants from Italy and Spain to South America. She had safely helped over 170,000 immigrants begin new lives in Argentina. Thousands and thousands of people had fond memories of this ship. It is reported, however, that these were not all legal immigrants.

The SS Sirio was known to frequently make unofficial stops along the coast of Spain where illegal immigrants were taken aboard for a steep price. These illegal immigrants made the trans-Atlantic journeys more profitable. Easy profits were enough to sway owners and captains to take extra risks.

In life, it is said that the toughest trees are those that must survive in the wind because they must grow the stoutest roots in order to withstand the harsh elements. As stated, Captain Giuseppe Piccone had enjoyed a smooth career. According to the press, when the tragedy sprung upon him, he froze, he choked, he couldn’t function. He was among the first to abandon ship.

Seeing the captain flee naturally distressed the hundreds of passengers. Chaos broke out on deck. As the stern quickly sank, passengers scrambled for the bow. They fought to get there first. They fought for real estate because prices were rising quickly.

They fought viciously. Fear rode on their backs. Pandemonium reigned. Primitive instincts ruled. Passengers who hours earlier treated each other as new friends now trampled over each other to save themselves. While attempts were made to deploy lifeboats, fights broke out—knife fights. This was truly survival of the fittest. It didn’t occur over millions of years; it played out in a matter of a few desperate minutes. Even fights to the death. Passengers were spared drowning because they were murdered in bloody brawls. The knowledge of economics proved less valuable than the knowledge of brute violence. Awful sounds carried across the waters—shouts of men, screams of women, and cries of children. The pretenses of civilized man were stripped away, revealing raw, savage survival instincts.

While some behaved badly under pressure, others responded differently. The Bishop of Sao Pablo was onboard and blessed drowning passengers as the ship went down. That is how he died. A monk died while kneeling on deck in prayer. The Austrian Consul to Rio de Janeiro leapt overboard in a life belt, but when he came across a mother and child about to give up to the sea, he gave them his life saving device. He then tried to fight the currents and swim for land without it. When a boat pulled him from the water, they said he was exhausted. Had they not saved him, he might well have perished.

A young mother clinging to her baby was told, “Dump the child, you fool! Save yourself!

“Never,” she cried. “We’ll die together!” As it turned out, they were among the survivors.

There were many survivors because various ships and trawlers in the area steamed to their rescue. One of these was the trawler Joven Miguel. The crew of the Joven Miguel, however, panicked and considered breaking away from the rescue because they feared they would be overloaded and sink. Facing a mutiny, the captain drew his pistol and shouted, “As long as it’s possible to take on another passenger, we will not move.” Fearing the captain more than the sea, they returned to the rescue.

As they took on more swimmers, the captain realized that they were becoming top heavy and might very well capsize. He ordered the survivors below decks, but they were gripped with fear and refused. The captain brought out his pistol again. He waved it around in the air. “Get below now or I’ll shoot you and throw you back into water.” The passengers, having just been rescued, now realized that they were at the mercy of a gun-wielding madman. They hurried below, which steadied the boat and kept her safe from capsizing. The madman saved 300 lives.

Another trawler, the Vicenta Llicano hauled out 200 people. An old man in a dinghy saved twelve more.

More fishermen along the coast sent out boats to rescue passengers. Some of those big-hearted mariners overloaded their boats with people. As a result, their boats overturned, dooming the fishermen along with those they had tried to save.

When all the survivors were brought ashore, a whole new tragic drama began. Parents who’d been separated from their children wept bitterly upon learning that their children were missing. One woman couldn’t take the agony and heartbreak. Her mental faculties fragmented. She literally went insane over her lost child. Many rescued children realized that their parents had died, leaving them as orphans. As they looked out to sea, they saw their parents’ graves. As they looked around on land, they saw their own scary, lonely futures.

In some cases, spirits were broken by adversity. Some of the survivors gave up their dreams of immigrating to Argentina. They resolved to return—by land—to their homeland—for good.

All told, 300 people died in the shipwreck of the SS Sirio. A year later, it was reported that Captain Giuseppe Piccone died of grief.

Author's note: After learning about the worst maritime disaster of all time, resulting in an even greater loss of life than the RMS Titanic, I wrote FATAL RETURN. This little known tragedy could also have been prevented if the captain of that ship had considered his situation a little more closely and made better decisions. To learn more about this shipwreck read FATAL RETURN
You can purchase it hereFATAL RETURN

 Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twist.

You can find all of his books here: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Auction: The Mel & Deo Fisher Collection

Looking for shipwreck treasure? Mark your calendar for August 5th. is teaming up with Guernsey's to auction off 126 lots of sunken treasure from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, the most famous member of a fleet of Spanish ships that sank in 1622 after sailing into a violent hurricane. American treasure hunter Mel Fisher discovered the sunken treasure. To mark the thirty-year anniversary of this astonishing discovery, Guernsey's will auction off items from Fisher's Collection. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Michael Abt, Jr. Have a Heart Foundation, which works to provide Automatic External Defibrillators (AED) to schools nationwide.

This auction, The Mel & Deo Fisher Collection, starts at 7:00 PM EST on the 5th, and will feature a selection of 126 incredible treasure lots. On July 20, 1985 Fisher’s perseverance paid off: over 40 tons of silver and gold were located at the site of the wreck off the Marquesas Keys. Including more than 100,000 Spanish silver coins known as "pieces of eight," gold coins, the finest Colombian emeralds, silver and gold artifacts, and over 1,000 silver bars, the Atocha contained riches vast enough to replenish the nearly depleted treasury of the Spanish Crown.

Check out the amazing items below for a sampling of the pieces that will be up for auction on August 5th.

Lot 70: Atocha Emerald Ring

Estimated Price: $65,000 - $80,000

This elegant and delicate ring speaks for itself. A truly unique solitaire design recovered from the site of the shipwrecked Nuestra SeƱora de Atocha in 1994. The ring size is 5.5. The emerald is a brilliant green with a slight chip and weighs approximately 2.5 carats. It is set in a high-karat gold ring which was typical of the wealthier class during the early 17th century. This beautiful artifact is the property of Taffi Fisher, Mel's only daughter and youngest child.

Lot 71: Silver Brazier

Estimated Price: $10,000 - $12,000

This extravagant two-piece silver box was the 17th-century version of a portable heater. Having a personal source of heat was a luxury for the wealthy in the 1600s, and so braziers such as this were filled with warm coals to heat up a ship's cabin, or even be placed under the many layers of a woman's dress while she was seated. This piece remains unconserved and should be handled with care.

Lot 73: Gold Chalice

Estimated Price: $400,000 - $500,000

Since its discovery, the chalice has undergone conservation efforts lead by marine archaeologists, who also removed a layer of white, calcareous concretion -- no doubt the result of having been imbedded in the ocean floor for nearly four centuries. The rim of this gold chalice is etched with scrollwork, images of animals, and there is a crest in the center of the cup that remains in pristine condition. Although experts have not linked the crest to any of the ship's passengers, there is a helm above the engraving that could signify its owner as having been a Duke or a Baron. The gold shines radiantly with a deep hue and is of a high karat weight. A portion of a tax stamp is visible on the edge of the base, and another is present on the bottom of the cup. The base is threaded onto the bottom of the chalice and it turns as if it were made yesterday.

Check out other historical items and collectibles up for auction on

Information provided by Jordan Bellows of

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Shipwreck and the Lighthouse

The Shipwreck and the Lighthouse
July of 1865


Roger Weston

Wind blew with wild abandon, carrying sheets of rain in a massive downpour. Riding low in the water, carrying 244 passengers and crew, the side-wheeler, the S.S. Brother Jonathan, was en-route from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. Her passengers, including dignitaries, settlers, freed slaves, prospectors, and a group of women living very hard lives—enjoyed first-class accommodations. Her cargo included gold. The 221-foot steamer got as far north as the Rogue River, but out at sea, the storm was fierce. Waves tossed the ship and crashed over her decks. She sank down into deep, watery valleys, and when she rose on big swells, she took the full force of the wind.

Fear gripped the hearts of many passengers and crewmen. As the S.S. Brother Jonathan pressed on, nature flung her unbridled wrath at the ship. Wind howled through the rigging. The hull creaked and moaned, and passengers feared she would break up. Anything not bolted down was thrown about. In the galley, plates flew out of storm shelves and crashed on the floor. Pots and pans crashed. The noise was tremendous. Sea sickness spread like wildfire. Passengers began retching all over the place, and the smell below decks was not pleasant. Children cried.

Finally, the captain made a dramatic, fateful decision. He would turn the boat around and head back to Crescent City, California to find shelter. The S.S. Brother Jonathan had Crescent City within her grasp when a particularly large swell lifted her on high. She then swooped down into the ensuing trough where an underwater granite spire punctured her hull, opening up a geyser inside the paddle wheeler. Water began to fill the ship.

The crew worked vigorously to deploy the lifeboats, but in those wild seas, it was perilous work. They successfully launched the first boat. However, she’d barely cleared the S.S. Brother Jonathan when a breaker capsized her, dooming 40 passengers who just moments before had thought themselves saved from the sinking ship.

Shocked and horrified, the crew had no time to mourn. There were more passengers to save and precious little time to save them. Crewmen struggled to keep their balance on the S.S. Brother Jonathan’s tilting, shifting decks. Wind threatened to knock them down or blow them overboard. Salty spray blew in their faces as they worked.

As they lowered the second lifeboat, a moment of surreal horror registered in their brains as they watched a wave crush the lifeboat against the hull of the S.S. Brother Jonathan. Helpless to save another boatload of their fellow voyagers, the remaining crew and passengers watched them perish right before their eyes. The violent ocean devoured them. Onboard the S.S. Brother Jonathan, people who hadn’t prayed in years did so now with passion and urgency. One passenger wrote out his will. Others took stock of their lives. Their ordeal dragged out for 45 minutes, after which the S.S. Brother Jonathan sank like a rock.

During the mayhem, one lifeboat was successfully launched, and it carried nineteen people to shore. As those passengers reached land, they were gripped with conflicting emotions. There was thanksgiving and a level of appreciation for life that they had never known before. Men and women crawled on the sand and wept. A creeping sense of guilt touched some of them because they had lived while so many others had not. Out of 244 good people, those nineteen were the only survivors.

After the storm, bodies washed up on the shores of Northern California and Southern Oregon. One of the bodies was that of James Nisbet, the man who’d written out his will on the sinking ship. His will was recovered from his pocket and later the terms were carried out. Many more bodies washed ashore. These bodies brought news to Oregonians, sad news, news of life and death, of tragedy and warning. Such tragic news from the S.S. Brother Jonathan was not expected. She was known for bringing good news. Only six years previously, in 1859, the S.S. Brother Jonathan had brought Oregonians news that she had been admitted to the union as the 33rd state. Often she brought gold from the goldfields of California. In fact, she was carrying a payload on this trip. Some say she was overloaded with cargo, which is why she rode low in the water. Her cargo included mill machinery, mining equipment, horses, and even two camels. Part of that cargo was a treasure chest of gold. Her cargo also included rare San Francisco gold coins that had been minted the year of the shipwreck, 1865.

Such things, however, would not matter to the lost passengers of the S.S. Brother Jonathan. Gold counted as nothing. Statehood was irrelevant. Their bodies washed up on the beaches, carried there by life preservers that could not save them from hypothermia in the freezing waters.

In 1865, the loss of the S.S. Brother Jonathan was the deadliest shipwreck ever to occur on the Pacific Coast. However, it was many years before her wreckage was found.

It wasn't until the 1930s, that a fisherman hauled up a grimy load. It was an old metal lifeboat from the S.S. Brother Jonathan. Inspecting his catch, the curious fisherman found a rotten leather valise that was jammed under one of the seats.  When he opened the valise, he was stunned. It contained twenty-two pounds of gold. In his career as a fisherman, this was his most exciting catch ever. It was a gift from the long-lost shipwreck, the S.S. Brother Jonathan. It’s hard to explain how leather could last 70 years underwater. Perhaps it’s one of the mysteries of the sea. Perhaps the fisherman got his story wrong. Probably, we will never know. At the time, private ownership of gold was illegal, and the fisherman secreted away his catch, sealing his lips and keeping his mouth shut about his rare find. Later on, his memory failed him and he could not recall the exact location where he’d netted the lifeboat.

Then, i
n 1993, a treasure hunting expedition carried out by Deep Sea Research (DSR) found the wreckage at a depth of 250 feet with the help of a mini sub. She was found fully two miles from the best estimates of the shipwreck’s location. That she had moved so far underwater was attributed to the air pockets within the ship and the powerful currents. In 1996, DSR salvaged 1,206 Double Eagle $20 gold coins in near-mint condition. 

Government bureaucrats threatened legal action against DSR unless they received a cut of the bounty. DSR settled by turning over 200 coins to the State of California. DSR auctioned off  the rest of the coins bringing in $5.3 million dollars. 

Today in Crescent City, California, one can visit the Brother Jonathan Cemetery and Memorial; however, the memorial is not the only legacy of the Brother Jonathan. There is another, and on a clear day, it can be seen six miles off shore. It is the St. George Reef Lighthouse, which was constructed after the Brother Jonathan shipwreck. The beacon is situated on the Dragon Rocks of St. George Reef. Its purpose was to warn mariners of the rocks and thereby prevent another tragedy like that of the S.S. Brother Jonathan.

The St. George Lighthouse has stood tall and endured almost a century of powerful, frightful winter storms. During that time, four lighthouse keepers have been killed on the job. Service at St. George Lighthouse was considered to be the most dangerous assignment of the lighthouse service. The lighthouse is built on a low-lying, wave-thrashed rock, and even today, it is not safe for a boat to attempt a landing here. Operations were ceased in 1975; however, a group called the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society is dedicated to its maintenance and continuation. Thanks to their efforts, the light shines on.

Built on a wave-washed rock, the base of the lighthouse consists of hundreds of granite blocks, which are able to endure the eternal pounding of the crashing surf. The tower rises 150 feet above the water and is topped off with a cast-iron lantern room, which today, thanks to the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society, is fully automated. Even today, sailors and fishermen are kept safe by the light.

Oh, and one more thing. The salvors of the SS Brother Jonathan revealed that 4/5 of the SS Brother Jonathan's treasure has not been found. The safe carrying the her gold is still missing.

Side note: I've always been fascinated by missing treasure. In The Golden Catch I wrote about what happens when crab fisherman and ex-assassin Frank Murdoch finds a cache of golden treasure on his remote Alaskan Island. If you liked action-packed thrillers set on the high seas you might want to give it a try. 
Available on Amazon: THE GOLDEN CATCH
 Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twist.
You can find all of his books here: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page 

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Shipwreck of Tears: The SS Norge

By Roger Weston

In 1903, a 37-year old Norwegian mother named Eline Sofie was on the most exciting trip of her life—a trans-Atlantic crossing on the passenger liner SS Norge. Along with her six children, she was sailing to America to join her husband and begin a new life in a country with more opportunity than anyplace else in the world. A fisherman named Jens Johansen Svartfjeld was also on board the ship. He was on his way to Minnesota along with his wife and five children.

On June 22, 1903, the SS Norge embarked from Copenhagen, Denmark under the experienced hand of Captain Gundel, who had sailed the ship since 1901. Onboard were 405 passengers from Denmark and a crew of 67. In Oslo, Norway, 232 passengers, including 70 children, came onboard for the journey across the Atlantic. All told, hundreds of people who were eager to start a new life in America were now passengers and closer by the hour to seeing their dreams come true.

There was no mystery as to why these people were going to the United States. It was a land of dreams, a place where people could start with nothing and achieve success. It didn’t matter if they were born poor. Unlike Europe, anybody could improve their situation in America. It didn’t matter what their status was. With hard work and ingenuity, anything was possible. To sail to America was like sailing on the clouds.
By the third day at sea, the excitement began to sink in.  The sky was blue. The sea glittered. Passengers began to mingle and tell their hard-luck stories of entrenched poverty in Europe and share their dreams for the future. Some of them danced on deck.

That night, some had a hard time sleeping due to their excitement, others because of the rough waters that had kicked up after dark. The boat was tossed around like a cork. Those who slept were jolted awake early in the morning, but not by the waves. A horrific crash shook the boat. The terrifying noise unleashed fear and dread in the hearts of the men, women, and children. Rudely awakened, they soon heard water sloshing around.  Panic ensued as hundreds of half-dressed people ran for the upper decks. The decks were crowded. The mass of panic-stricken people cried out in different languages when they realized they were on a sinking ship and the sea around them was actually their graveyard—and was presently whispering their name. 

A woman grabbed a crewman by the arm. “What’s happening?” she begged.

“Nothing to worry about, ma'am. Calm down. We hit a rock. The captain knows what to do.”

As people scrambled for life belts, the captain backed the ship off the rocks. No sooner had the ship regained headway when it was discovered that water was flooding the hold. This was called out in Scandinavian. A realization of imminent death stuck the hearts of the people. Fear swept over them and filled their souls with misery.

The sobs of old ladies filled the air. Screams added to the sense of panic. Women and children clung to each other. 240 Russians got down on their knees and prayed. Men wrung their hands. Little children cried.

The ship sunk lower into the sea as luggage and debris began floating on the decks.

Several quick-thinking men worked to free the life boats.

Women and children first!" The captain’s voice was barely heard over all the noise on deck, but some heard him. “Women and children first!"

Plenty of men ignored the captain if they heard him at all. They forced their way into the boats, leaving women and children behind on deck. One man who secured a spot was Fourth Mate Ankersen.

People continued to fight their way through the throng to get up front and secure a place. Many piled into overloaded boats. As a result, when the leaders tried to lower the boats into the water, the rusty equipment failed, dumping them all into the sea, rendering the boats worthless, dooming many souls.

Several of the life boats were properly deployed without exceeding their maximum loads. They now floated through a sea of drowning people—men, women, children, the suffering, and those unprepared to die, who certainly hadn’t expected to die. People treaded water and begged for salvation. They realized that death had stolen upon them like a thief in the night. Their final minutes were ticking off as their light dimmed in the early morning. They called out for help, but nobody who could help heard them. There weren’t nearly enough life boats, and the ones in sight were filled to capacity. Oars dipped in the water as the fortunate ones on board rowed to distance themselves and save themselves. One overloaded lifeboat sank beneath the waves.

In other boats, people watched in horror as the SS Norge was also going down. The front end went under first. Then the stern sank, carrying hundreds of people into the frigid depths. The captain was one of those who went down with the ship. However, by some miracle, the sea spit him back up and he was picked up by one of the lifeboats.

People in the boats sobbed. They wept bitterly because of what they had just seen—and because members of their own families had been on the ship. Nobody could hear their cries, though, due to the fierce wind. The wind was especially fierce in the moments when the lifeboats crested on the huge, black ocean swells. Yesterday they had dreamed of America. Now they dreamed of land—any land. The only opportunity that mattered now was the opportunity to survive another day.

Survival—it had all come down to that. Just to survive and to live another day was a precious gift beyond imagination. Poverty? Hardship? These were minor concerns. Lack of opportunity? Nonsense. There was opportunity where a body could find land—opportunity to wrap oneself in a dry blanket, to drink fresh water, to nibble on a slice of bread. That was opportunity of the most sublime type. Water, food  and solid ground—nothing else mattered. All of the things they’d worried about now seemed totally irrelevant. They could not imagine that they’d worried over such petty cares as they had. It was all rubbish now—totally irrelevant.

On one of the lifeboats, Fourth Mate Ankersen took off his boots. “Use them to bail water,” he said. He then jumped into the water. The others on the boat had just watched a man sacrifice himself so that they would have a better chance of survival. Or was it because of the guilt he felt?

On another boat, a brave young woman took the most dangerous spot as the craft rose and fell in the massive waves. She was constantly doused with freezing water. Thinly dressed, she ignored the cold. To her, suffering was irrelevant. Danger was nothing. She bailed frantically and all the while shouted words of encouragement to the others.

As the days passed, ships were spotted in the far distance. When sightings took place, an amazing thing happened on the boats. People that were previously demoralized and weak suddenly, as if by magic, regained their strength. Hope fueled them on the moment. Depression vanished into thin air to be replaced with excitement and adrenaline. But the people on the ships could not see the tiny life boats. The ships soon disappeared over the horizon.  Now the same hungry, thirsty people became even more despondent than before. 

The half-dressed survivors suffered through cold, wet nights. Fresh water was scarce, and thirst was a cruel tormentor. Some made the mistake of drinking salt water. Others cut themselves just to wet their miserable tongues and throats with their own blood. As the days passed, several of the children passed away. One who died was a Russian boy. His mother hid his body under her dress. She did this because she feared that the others would bury the child at sea. And this she would not allow. She steeled herself and held her boy close, protecting him from the pitiless ocean, determined to take him home. 

The various boats drifted apart. Then, over the next week, five of them were rescued by different ships on different days over the next week. One was picked up after twenty-four hours. Others drifted for five, six, and seven days. Three fully-loaded life boats were never seen again. They drifted into eternity.

What became of the 37-year old Norwegian mother named Eline Sofie, who along with her six children was traveling to America to join her husband in Minnesota?

The husband who anxiously awaited his young family never saw them again. Instead of a joyous reunion, of taking his wife in his arms and laughing with his children, he received the crushing news that his family had perished with the SS Norge two miles off the coast of Scotland.  They were gone. They were only memories now. The cold Minnesota winters would be even colder for this man. 

What about the fisherman named Jens Johansen Svartfjeld who was on his way to Minnesota along with his wife and five children? Their dreams all ended at sea. The entire family died.  The last tears of the children fell into the salty sea.

Many families either lost several members or were wiped out completely. As of 1903, the SS Norge was the worst civilian maritime disaster in the history of the Atlantic Ocean. This was eight years before the wreck of the RMS Titanic.

Author's Note:  The investigation following the accident revealed that several factors led to the SS Norge disaster, including captain error. For instance, the captain  chose to sail almost straight into the uninhabited remote granite islet in the North Atlantic Ocean called Rockall. He did this to show it to the passengers, reminding one of the more recent Costa Concordia disaster. 

The captain overlooked the effects of the full moon on the current and tide. As a result, the ship was north of where the captain thought. The effect of the full moon was ignored and this proved to be a fatal oversight.  Not only that. but the SS Norge did not have enough lifeboats, had not drilled in emergency procedures, and its life belts were mostly rotted. All these factors resulted in the tragic loss of life on the SS Norge.

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After learning about the worst maritime disaster of all time, resulting in an even greater loss of life than the RMS Titanic, I wrote FATAL RETURN. This little known tragedy could also have been prevented if the captain of that ship had considered his situation a little more closely and made better decisions. To learn more about this shipwreck read FATAL RETURN
You can purchase it hereFATAL RETURN

 Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twist.
You can find all of his books here: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page