- Historic Sites
”… And Then The Water Closed Over Me …”
April 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 3
Mr. Friend and I went up on deck B on the starboard side and leaned over the railing, looking at the sea which was a marvelous blue and very dazzling in the sunlight. I said, “How could the officers ever see a periscope there?” The torpedo was on its way to us at that moment, for we went a short distance farther toward the stern, turning the corner by the smokingroom, when the ship was struck on the starboard side. The sound was like that of an arrow entering the canvas and straw of a target, magnified a thousand times and I imagined I heard a dull explosion follow. The water and timbers flew past the deck. Mr. Friend struck his fist in his hand and said, “By Jove, they’ve got us.” The ship steadied herself a few seconds and then listed heavily to starboard, throwing us against the wall of a small corridor we had quickly turned into. We then started up to the boat deck, as I had told Mr. Friend and poor Robinson that, in case of trouble, we would meet there and not try to run around the ship to find one another. The deck suddenly looked very strange, crowded with people, and I remember that two women were crying in a pitifully weak way. An officer was shouting orders to stop lowering the boats, and we were told to go down to deck B. We first looked over the rail and watched a boat filled with men and women being lowered. The stern was lowered too quickly and half the boatload were spilled backwards into the water. We looked at each other, sickened by the sight, and then made our way through the crowd for deck B on the starboard side. There we saw boats being lowered safely from above. The ship was sinking so quickly we feared she would fall on and capsize the small boats, and it seemed not a good place to jump from for the same reason.
We turned to make our way up again through the crush of people coming and going. We walked close together side by side, each with an arm around the other’s waist. We passed Mme. Depage; her eyes were wide and startled, but brave. She had a man on either side of her, friends of hers, so I did not speak. It was no time for words unless one could offer help.
On the port side of deck A, again we saw more boats safely lowered, and Mr. Friend wished me to join the throng of men and women crowding into one. He would not take a place in one as long as there were still women aboard and, as I would not leave him, we pushed our way towards the stern, which was now uphill work, as the bow was sinking so rapidly. Robinson appeared on my right. I could only put my hand on her shoulder and say, “Oh, Robinson!” Her habitual smile appeared to be frozen on her face. Mr. Friend said “Life belts!” and I went with him into nearby cabins, where he found three. He tied them on us in hard knots and we stood by the ropes on the outer side of the deck in the place which one of the boats had occupied. We looked up at the funnels; we could see the ship move, she was going so rapidly. I glanced at Mr. Friend—he was standing very straight, and I thought to myself, “the son of a soldier.” We turned and looked down the side of the ship. We could now see the grey hull and knew it was time to jump. I asked him to go first. He stepped over the ropes, slipped down one of the uprights and reached, I think, the rail of deck B, and then jumped. Robinson and I watched for him to come up, which he did in a few seconds, and he looked up at us to encourage us.
I said, “Come, Robinson” and I stepped over the ropes as he had, slipped a short distance, found a foothold on a roll of the canvas used for deck shields and then jumped. I do not know whether Robinson followed me.
The next thing I realized was that I could not reach the surface, because I was being washed and whirled up against wood. I was swallowing and breathing the salt water, but felt no special discomfort nor anguish of mind—was strangely apathetic. I opened my eyes and through the green water I could see what I was being dashed up against. (It looked like the bottom and keel of one of the ship’s boats [but actually] was the under part of a deck. I could see the matched boarding and the angle iron over the railing. I had been swept between decks.) I closed my eyes and thought, “this is of course the end of life for me,” and then I thought of you, dearest mother, and knew that Gordon would be a comfort to you. I was glad I had made another will, and I counted the buildings I had designed—the ones built and building, and hoped I had “made good.” Quietly I thought of the friends I love and then committed myself to God’s care in thought—a prayer without words. I must then have received the blow on the top of my head which made me unconscious. My stiff straw hat and my hair probably saved me from being killed by it. Then for perhaps half a minute I opened my eyes on a grey world; I could not see the sunlight because of the blow on my head. I was surrounded and jostled by hundreds of frantic, screaming, shouting humans in this grey and watery inferno. The ship must just have gone down.