The RMS Leinster was an Irish ship, which served as the Kingstown-Holyhead mailboat and was operated by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. In 1895, the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company ordered four steamers for Royal Mail service, named for four provinces of Ireland. The ships were RMS Leinster, RMS Connaught, RMS Munster, and RMS Ulster. The Leinster was a 3,069-ton packet steamship with a service speed of 23 knots. The ship was built at Laird’s in Birkenhead, England. It had two independent four-cylinder triple-expansion steam engines. She has launched September 12, 1896. In a perfect world, guns would not be needed on a mail ship. Then, during the World War I, the twin-propellered ship was armed with one 12-pounder and two signal guns. The war made this protection necessary. Even with the guns for protection, RMS Leinster, like her sister ships, was vulnerable to the ever present and dangerous German U-Boats. The ship continued her run, until she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. RMS Leinster was torpedoed and sunk by the German U-Boat U-123, on October 10, 1918. She sank just outside Dublin Bay at a point 4 nautical miles east of the Kish light.
The ship had, in addition to its crew, a number of civilian mail workers. The exact number of dead is unknown, but researchers from the National Maritime Museum believe it was at least 564. The ship’s log, however, states that she carried 77 crew and 694 passengers on her final voyage. This number would seem more correct to me simply because of the records normally kept in logbooks. There is someone assigned to keep that log, and while they could have done a poor job, it is more unlikely that just trusting the number to a random guess of a historian who came along later. The sinking wasn’t the first attack that had been waged on RMS Leister. She had been previously attacked in the Irish Sea, but the torpedoes missed their target. On October 10, 1918, the manifest included more than 100 British civilians, 22 postal sorters (working in the mail room) and almost 500 military personnel from the Royal Navy, British Army, and Royal Air Force. Also aboard were nurses from Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
Just before 10am, as RMS Leister was sailing east of the Kish Bank in a heavy swell, some of the passengers saw a torpedo approach from the port side and pass in front of the bow. I’m sure a panic ensued, and then a second torpedo followed shortly afterwards. This torpedo struck the ship forward on the port side in the vicinity of the mail room. The ship attempted evasive action, trying to make a U-turn in an attempt to return to Kingstown, but the damage was done. As it began to settle slowly by the bow, RMS Leister sank rapidly, helped along by a third torpedo strike, which caused a huge explosion. Whether the number of victims listed is right or wrong, doesn’t really matter, because either number would make the sinking of RMS Leister, the largest single loss of life in the Irish Sea.
Despite the heavy seas, the crew managed to launch several lifeboats and some passengers clung to life-rafts. The survivors were rescued by HMS Lively, HMS Mallard, and HMS Seal. Among the civilian passengers lost in the sinking were socially prominent people such as Lady Phyllis Hamilton, daughter of the Duke of Abercorn, Robert Jocelyn Alexander, son of Irish composer Cecil Frances Alexander, Reverand John Bartley, the Presbyterian minister of Tralee who was travelling to visit his mortally wounded son in hospital, Thomas Foley and his wife Charlotte Foley (née Barrett) who was the brother-in-law of the world-famous Irish tenor John McCormack who adopted their eldest son, and Richard Moore, only son of British architect Temple Moore. The first member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service to die on active duty, Josephine Carr, was among those who died, as were two prominent officials of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, James McCarron and Patrick Lynch. Several of the military personnel who died are buried in Grangegorman Military Cemetery.
On October 18, 1918, at 9:10am U-125, outbound from Germany, picked up a radio message requesting advice on the best way to get through the North Sea minefield. The sender was U-123. Extra mines had been added to the minefield since U-123 had made her outward voyage from Germany. As U-125 had just come through the minefield, U-125 radioed back with a suggested route. U-123 acknowledged the message and was never heard from again. The following say, ten days after the sinking of the RMS Leinster, U-123 detonated a mine and sank while trying to cross the North Sea and return to base in Imperial Germany. There were no survivors. In 1991, the anchor of the RMS Leinster was raised by local divers. It was placed near Carlisle Pier and officially dedicated on January 28, 1996.
The radioman had done his best. He tried to warn the radioman on RMS Titanic about the dangers lurking in the dark, moonless night…icebergs. Mistakenly believing that Titanic was unsinkable, 25-year-old John George “Jack” Phillips, a British sailor and the senior wireless operator aboard the Titanic during her ill-fated maiden voyage in April 1912, was too busy to listen or heed the warnings. So, the radioman on SS Mesaba turned off his radio and went to bed, making the ship unaware of the disaster the Titanic was experiencing after she hit an iceberg and began to sink. Many rules of the sea changed after that, and from then on, the radio had to be monitored 24/7…in case a disaster happened again. Sadly, safety laws come after disasters.
So, what happened to the ship that tried to save the Titanic? I had never given that any thought, but now, more than 110 years after the Titanic sank after striking an iceberg, I read that SS Mesaba, the ship that sent warnings to the famous vessel has also been discovered on the ocean floor. Of course, this was not a surprise to those who found the ship, because they knew what had happened to the ship. Those who knew…researchers at Bournemouth University and Bangor University in Wales, sent a team, using multibeam sonar to find the now famed “ship that tried” to save Titanic.
What I didn’t know, until now, was that just six years after the sinking of RMS Titanic, the SS Mesaba was sunk in the Irish Sea during World War I. Mesaba was making a convoy voyage from Liverpool to Philadelphia on September 1, 1918, when a German U-boat’s torpedo took out the merchant ship, killing twenty people. Titanic was finally found in 1985, but the “ship that tried” to save her, took more than 100 years to locate. Possibly it was because of all the new technology we have, including sonar, which “uses sound waves to measure the distance between a sound source and various objects in its surroundings. This kind of method can be used for navigation, communication, and mapping. It is also frequently used by underwater vessels.” The Bangor researchers used active sonar to map the seabed, and also identified the Mesaba wreckage by emitting pulses of sounds and listening for echoes. Innes McCartney, who is a researcher with Bangor, says the multibeam sonar is a “game-changer” for marine technology. Finally, SS Mesaba’s final resting place is known, although that doesn’t change anything for the ship. After all these years of wondering, the ship will stay right where it is, although it may be explored now and any valuables can be removed by the team, who was the first to locate, and is therefore eligible to salvage if they choose to.
In 1912, the coal transport ship, Jupiter, was transformed, into the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier. The ship was recommissioned USS Langley (CV-1) and was the first aircraft carrier in history. As aircraft carriers go, we would have laughed about the look of this one. This recreated coal transport ship probably should have just stayed a coal transport, but then we wouldn’t have the aircraft carriers we have today, if Jupiter had not been transformed. It all had to start somewhere.
While USS Langley was the first aircraft carrier made, it was not the first to go down in battle. That “honor” goes to HMS Courageous, on September 17, 1939, only a couple weeks after World War II in Europe began. On that day, German U-boat, U-29, sunk the British aircraft carrier with 2 of the 3 torpedoes fired striking the unfortunate carrier. Courageous went down, taking 519 of her crew with her, thereby becoming the first aircraft carrier ever sunk by a submarine. The US Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Langley, managed to survive until February 27, 1942, when it was sunk by Japanese warplanes (with a little help from US destroyers), and all of its 32 aircraft are lost.
The USS Langley was originally launched in 1912 as the naval collier (coal transport ship) Jupiter. After World War I, the Jupiter was converted into the Navy’s first aircraft carrier and rechristened the Langley, after aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley. Uss Langley was the Navy’s first electrically propelled ship. It was capable of speeds of 15 knots. On October 17, 1922, Lieutenant Virgil C Griffin had the great honor of piloting the first plane, a VE-7-SF, from Langley’s decks. Planes had taken off from ships before, but this was a historic moment. The prestige was short-lived, and after 1937, the Langley lost the forward 40 percent of her flight deck as part of a conversion to seaplane tender, a mobile base for squadrons of patrol bombers.
The Langley was part of the Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked on December 8, 1941. Immediately setting sail for Australia, she arrived on January 1, 1942. On February 22nd, under the command of Robert P McConnell, the Langley, carrying 32 Warhawk fighters, left as part of a convoy to aid the Allies in their battle against the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies. Then, on February 27, the Langley parted company from the convoy and headed straight for the port at Tjilatjap, Java. About 74 miles south of Java, the carrier met up with two US escort destroyers. Then nine Japanese twin-engine bombers attacked the ship. Although the Langley had requested a fighter escort from Java for cover, none could be spared. She and the escort destroyers were virtually alone. The first two Japanese bomber runs missed their target, as they were flying too high, but the third time around they hit their mark three times. The planes on deck went up in flames. The carrier began to list, and Commander McConnell lost his ability to navigate the ship. In an effort to save his men, McConnell ordered the Langley abandoned, and the escort destroyers were able to take his crew to safety. Of the 300 crewmen, only 16 were lost. The destroyers then sank the Langley before the Japanese were able to capture it. It was necessary that they keep it out of Japanese hands. Better at the bottom of the sea that in the hands of the Japanese.
Animals have been used in most wars for different purposes. Some animals were messengers, like the carrier pigeon. Some were for warning, like the dog, which also served as a soldier in a fight situation. They are very loyal, and will do their best to save their master. These types of animals were to be expected to a degree, but during World War II, there was a certain cat, named Oscar, also known as Oskar, and ultimately known as Unsinkable Sam, because this cat managed not only to serve in both the Kriegsmarine, but also the Royal Navy. The cat’s original name is unknown, but the name “Oscar” was given by the crew of the British destroyer HMS Cossack, when that crew rescued him from the sea following the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. The name “Oscar” was given to the cat, and was derived from the International Code of Signals for the letter ‘O’ which is code for “Man Overboard” (the German spelling “Oskar” was sometimes used since he was a German cat). For Oscar to survive the sinking of the Bismarck was amazing, but it was not the end of his story.
As you know, war is a tough time to be on a ship. There is no guarantee that the ship will make it through the war, and if a ship goes down in a battle, it usually takes some, if not all of the crew with it. A cat would usually have little chance of survival on a ship that is sinking, but someone forgot to tell Oskar that. Oskar was a black and white patched cat. It is thought that he was originally owned by one of the crewman of the German battleship Bismarck and was on board the ship on May 18, 1941 when the ship set sail on Operation Rheinübung (German for Rhine Exercise). It was the Bismarck’s only mission. On May 27, 1941, the Bismarck was sunk after a fierce sea-battle. The sinking took with it most of the crew. Out of a crew of 2,100 men, only 115 from her crew survived…and one cat. Hours after the sinking, Oscar was found floating on a board and picked from the water by the British destroyer HMS Cossack.
The crew of the Cossack decided that since Oscar was used to being on a ship, he could just stay with them. So, Oscar “served” on board Cossack for the next few months as the ship carried out convoy escort duties in the Mediterranean Sea and north Atlantic Ocean. On October 24, 1941, Cossack was escorting a convoy from Gibraltar to Great Britain when she was severely damaged by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U-563. The surviving crew were transferred to the destroyer HMS Legion, and an attempt was made to tow the badly listing Cossack back to Gibraltar. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperative, and as it worsened, the task became impossible and had to be abandoned. On October 27, a day after the tow was slipped, Cossack sank to the west of Gibraltar. The initial explosion had blown off one third of the forward section of the ship, killing 159 of the crew, but Oscar survived, and was taken to Gibraltar. To say that a cat has nine lives is almost an understatement when it came to Oscar.
Following the sinking of Cossack, Oscar was given the nickname “Unsinkable Sam” and was soon transferred to the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, which by coincidence was instrumental in the destruction of Bismarck, along with Cossack. This assignment was not going to prove safer for Sam, and one might begin to wonder if he should be given another shore assignment…for the sake of the ships. When the Ark Royal was returning from Malta on November 14, 1941, it too was torpedoed, this time by U-81. Again they attempted to tow Ark Royal to Gibraltar, but they were unable to stop the inflow of water, so the attempt was futile. The carrier rolled over and sank 30 miles from Gibraltar. The good news was that due to the slow rate of the sinking, all but one crew member were able to be evacuated, along with, of course, Unsinkable Sam. The survivors, including Sam, who had been found clinging to a floating plank by a Motor Launch and described as “angry but quite unharmed,” were transferred to HMS Lightning and the same HMS Legion which had also rescued the crew of Cossack. Legion would itself be sunk in 1942, and Lightning in 1943. The life of a ship in wartime was not a safe one.
After the third ship sank under Sam’s paws, it was decided that maybe he shouldn’t be on a ship, so he was transferred first to the offices of the Governor of Gibraltar and then sent back to the United Kingdom, where he saw out the remainder of the war living in a seaman’s home in Belfast called the “Home for Sailors.” I think Sam had earned his place there. Sam died in 1955. A pastel portrait of Sam, which was titled “Oscar, the Bismarck’s Cat” by the artist Georgina Shaw-Baker is on display in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
Of course, as with all war stories, some authorities question whether Oskar/Sam’s biography might be a “sea story,” because for example, there are pictures of two different cats identified as Oskar/Sam. It is my opinion that whether it is true or not, it lends a lighthearted note to the otherwise tragic stories of war, and therefore, I choose to believe it is true.
On January 31, 1917, at the height of World War I, Germany announced that they would renew the use of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean. The German torpedo-armed submarines, known as U-Boats, prepared to attack any and all ships operating in the Atlantic, including civilian passenger carriers, which were said to have been sighted in war-zone waters. They were prepared to attack without a second thought, whether they were innocent civilians or not. Unleashing the U-Boats was almost like unleashing terrorists, because the U-Boats were an invisible enemy. Yes, the could be seen, but beneath the surface of the water, they could easily hide in the murky darkness, unleashing their torpedoes to go streaking through the water. The first sign of danger was when the doomed ship watchmen saw the dreaded white streak coming at them through the water. There was no time to take evasive action. The ship could not move that fast, and it could not turn on a dime. They were sitting ducks.
The vast majority of people of the United States favored neutrality when it came to World War I. So when the war erupted in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson pledged the stay neutral. The problem was that Britain was one of America’s closest trading partners. That created serious tension between the United States and Germany, when Germany attempted a blockade of the British isles. Several US ships traveling to Britain were damaged or sunk by German mines and, in February 1915, Germany announced unrestricted warfare against all ships, neutral or otherwise, that entered the war zone around Britain. One month later, Germany announced that a German cruiser had sunk the William P. Frye, a private American merchant vessel that was transporting grain to England when it disappeared. President Wilson was outraged, but the German government apologized, calling the attack an unfortunate mistake. That didn’t stop their reign of terror, however. In November they sank an Italian liner without warning, killing 272 people, including 27 Americans. Public opinion concerning the war, and the stand of the United States in it began to change. It was time for the United States to get into World War I.
The Germans were far in advance of other nations when it came to submarines. The U-boat was 214 feet long, carried 35 men and 12 torpedoes, and could travel underwater for two hours at a time. In the first few years of World War I, the U-boats took a terrible toll on Allied shipping. In early May 1915, several New York newspapers had to publish a warning by the German embassy in Washington that Americans traveling on British or Allied ships in war zones did so at their own risk. The announcement was placed on the same page as an advertisement for the imminent sailing of the British-owned Lusitania ocean liner from New York to Liverpool. I’m sure they had hoped that people would heed the warning, but many people boarding the Lusitania either didn’t take notice of the warning or they didn’t see it. On May 7, the Lusitania was torpedoed without warning just off the coast of Ireland. Of the 1,959 passengers, 1,198 were killed, including 128 Americans. The Germans had proven once again that they were ruthless and conniving. Following the sinking of the Lusitania The German government accused the Lusitania was carrying munitions. The US demanded an end to German attacks on unarmed passenger and merchant ships, and full repayment for the loss.
Following the sinking of the Lusitania the German government accused the Lusitania was carrying munitions. The US demanded an end to German attacks on unarmed passenger and merchant ships, and full repayment for the loss. Germany countered with a pledge to see to the safety of passengers before sinking unarmed vessels in August 1915. All that changed by January 1917, when Germany, determined to win its war of attrition against the Allies, announced the resumption of unrestricted warfare. Three days later, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, who, just hours later sunk the American liner Housatonic. None of the 25 Americans on board were killed and they were picked up by a British steamer.
On February 22, Congress passed a $250 million arms-appropriations bill intended to ready the United States for war. British authorities gave the US ambassador to Britain a copy of what has become known as the “Zimmermann Note,” a coded message from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to Mexico. In the telegram, intercepted and deciphered by British intelligence, Zimmermann stated that, in the event of war with the United States, Mexico should be asked to enter the conflict as a German ally. In return, Germany would promise to restore to Mexico the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. On March 1, the outraged US State Department published the note and America was galvanized against Germany once and for all. In late March, Germany sank four more US merchant ships. President Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany on April 2nd. On April 4th, the Senate voted 82 to six to declare war against Germany. Two days later, the House of Representatives endorsed the declaration by a vote of 373 to 50 and America formally entered World War I. They were after that invisible enemy, and they were determined to find it and destroy it.
Most people have heard of the Titanic sinking, and how disaster could have been prevented, had they just slowed down, listened to the warnings, and had they had enough lifeboats. There is, however, another ship sinking that not so many people have heard of, or if they had, they didn’t pay much attention to. It is the Lusitania. Like the Titanic, the sinking of the Lusitania could have been prevented too, had a number of simple precautions been taken, such as not to sail at all that fateful May day in 1915.
RMS Lusitania left New York for Britain on May 1, 1915, unfortunately during a time when German submarine warfare was intensifying in the Atlantic. On February 4, 1915, Germany had declared the seas around the United Kingdom a war zone, and the German embassy in the United States had placed newspaper advertisements warning people of the dangers of sailing on Lusitania. Not to defend the Germans, but they had warned people that they would attack all ships, military or passenger. Unfortunately, not many people boarding Lusitania that morning had time to read the paper before embarking on their journey. It amazes me that it was left to the people, who were told that the ship could outrun the German U-boats. They were also told that they would have escort ships as they entered the war zone. And, they were told that the U-boats were not attacking neutral passenger liners. Unfortunately, these things were not factual. Part of the problem was that the Allies had begun disguising war ships as passenger ships on the assumption that the Germans would not attack passenger ships. Other passenger ships were actually used to transport soldiers and ammunition, or even just ammunition, in the thought that they would be safe from harm that way. The Allies were also supposed to have escort ships to take the passenger ships, but that did not happen in the case of the Lusitania.
The sinking of the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania occurred on Friday, May 7, 1915 during the First World War, as Germany waged submarine warfare against the United Kingdom which had implemented a naval blockade of Germany. The ship was identified and torpedoed by the German U-boat U-20 and sank in just 18 minutes, and also took on a heavy starboard list. The Lusitania went down 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, killing 1,198 and leaving 761 survivors. The sinking turned public opinion in many countries against Germany, and it was a key element in the American entry into World War I. The torpedoing and subsequent sinking became an iconic symbol in military recruiting campaigns. The injustice of it brought about the outrage that would likely cause soldiers to enlist. Still, the United States did not immediately enter into the war. The American government first issued a severe protest to Germany…a waste of time really. Then, following immense pressure from the United States and recognizing the limited effectiveness of the policy, Germany abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915.
Hospitals and hospital ships should be off limits during a war…even to the enemy. Some things should be considered sacred n the work hospitals do, should not be attacked. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always seem to matter. The Glenart Castle was a hospital ship during World War I. On March 1, 1917, the ship suffered damaged when she struck a mine in the English Channel 8 nautical miles northwest of the Owers Lightship on 1 March 1917. The ship was repaired and returned to service. That damage was accidental. What happened later was not.
On February 26, 1918, Glenart Castle was leaving Newport, South Wales, on its way to Brest, France. Fishermen in the Bristol Channel saw her clearly lit up as a hospital ship. That was supposed to let everyone know that they were not to fire on the ship. John Hill, a fisherman on Swansea Castle, remembered “I saw the Hospital Ship with green lights all around her – around the saloon. She had her red side lights showing and mast-head light, and also another red light which I suppose was the Red Cross light.” Nevertheless, being lit up did nothing for the Glenart Castle. At 04:00, Glenart Castle was hit by a torpedo in the number 3 hold. The blast destroyed most of the lifeboats, and the subsequent pitch of the vessel as I listed hindered attempts to launch the remaining boats. In the eight minutes the ship took to sink, only seven lifeboats were launched. Rough seas and inexperienced rowers swamped most of the boats.
Of the 194 people o board, only 32 survived. A total of 162 people were killed, including the Captain, Bernard Burt, eight nurses of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, seven Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) medical officers and 47 medical orderlies. Of the hospital patients being treated on board, a total of 99 died. The matron of Glenart Castle, Miss Kate Beaufoy (1868-1918), was among those killed in the sinking. Beaufoy was a veteran of the South African War and the Gallipoli campaign. She kept a diary of her time on the ship. It is all her family has now. Evidence was found suggesting that the submarine that fired the torpedo may have shot at initial survivors of the sinking in an effort to cover up the sinking of Glenart Castle. It wasn’t bad enough that the hospital ship had been sunk, but they tried to make sure there were no survivors too. The body of a junior officer of Glenart Castle was recovered from the water close to the position of the sinking. It was marked with two gunshot wounds, one in the neck and the other in the thigh. The body also had a life vest indicating he was shot while in the water.
After the war, the British Admiralty sought the captains of U-Boats who sank hospital ships, in order to charge them with war crimes. Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm Kiesewetter, the commander of UC-56, was arrested after the war on his voyage back to Germany and interned in the Tower of London. He was released on the grounds that Britain had no right to hold a detainee during the Armistice. To my knowledge, he never paid for his crimes. A memorial plaque was dedicated on the 84th anniversary of the sinking, February 26, 2002 near Hartland Point. The plaque’s inscription read, “In proud and grateful memory of those who gave their lives in the hospital ship Glenart Castle. Please remember, Master Lieutenant Commander Burt, Matron Katy Beaufoy, the ships officers, crew and medical staff who died when their ship was torpedoed by UC-56 in the early hours of 26th Feb 1918. The ship lies 20 miles WNW from this stone. For those in peril on the sea. R.I.P. Dedicated 26.02.2002.”
When we think of disasters at sea, Titanic is the first ship that most likely comes to mind, and while Titanic was a terrible tragedy, it was not the worst disaster at sea, by any means. It is amazing to me, however, that some of the others are never talked about at all, and in fact, you may have never heard about them. Titanic had a capacity of 3547 people, but was only carrying 2223 with passengers and crew. The loss of more than 1500 lives, was horrific to be sure, but it was not the worst disaster at sea in history. That distinction goes to The Wilhelm Gustloff.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was built by the Blohm & Voss shipyards. It measured 684 feet 1 inch long by 77 feet 5 inches wide with a capacity of 25,484 gross register tons. The ship was launched on 5 May 1937. Originally the ship was intended to be named Adolf Hitler, but was named after Wilhelm Gustloff, a leader of the National Socialist Party’s Swiss branch, who had been assassinated by a Jewish medical student in 1936. Hitler decided on the name change after sitting next to Gustloff’s widow during his memorial service. I guess Hitler managed to do a few nice things in his horrid lifetime. The ship was the first purpose-built cruise liner for the German Labour Front or Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF and used by subsidiary organization Kraft durch Freude, KdF meaning Strength Through Joy. The purpose of the ship was to provide recreational and cultural activities for German functionaries and workers, including concerts, cruises, and other holiday trips, and as a public relations tool, to present “a more acceptable image of the Third Reich.” She was the flagship of the KdF cruise fleet, her last civilian role, until the spring of 1939.
The Wilhelm Gustloff became a German hospital ship from September 1939 to November 1940, with its official designation being Lazarettschiff. Then, beginning on 20 November 1940, the medical equipment was removed from the ship and she was repainted from the hospital ship colors of white with a green stripe to standard naval grey. As a consequence of the British blockade of the German coastline, she was used as a barracks ship for approximately 1,000 U-boat trainees of the 2nd Submarine Training Division in the port of Gdynia, which had been occupied by Germany and renamed Gotenhafen. The ship was based near Danzig. Then, as things started to go from bad to worse during World War II, the Germans decided that they needed to evacuate as many people as possible from Courland, East Prussia and Danzig, West Prussia. On January 30, 1945 during Operation Hannibal, which was the naval evacuation of German troops and civilians from Courland, East Prussia, and Danzig, West Prussia as the Soviet Army advanced. The Wilhelm Gustloff’s final voyage was to evacuate German refugees and military personnel as well as technicians who worked at advanced weapon bases in the Baltic from Gdynia, then known to the Germans as Gotenhafen, to Kiel. The ship’s capacity was 1465, but because they were evacuating people, about 9,400 people were onboard. The ship was hit by a torpedo from Soviet submarine S-13 in the Baltic Sea. It quickly sank, taking all 9,400 people with it. The loss of the Wilhelm Gustloff remains the worst disaster at sea in history.
During World War I, the Germans had taken a hard line concerning the waters around England. It was called unrestricted submarine warfare, and it meant that German submarines would attack any ship found in the war zone, which, in this case, was the area around the British Isles…no matter what kind of ship it was, and even if it was from a neutral country. Of course, this was not going to fly, and since Germany was afraid of the United States, they finally agreed to only go after military ships. Nevertheless, mistakes can be made, and that is what happened on May 7, 1915, when a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner en route from New York to Liverpool, England. Of the more than 1,900 passengers and crew members on board, more than 1,100 perished, including more than 120 Americans. A warning had been placed in several New York newspapers in early May 1915, by the German Embassy in Washington, DC, stating that Americans traveling on British or Allied ships in war zones did so at their own risk. The announcement was placed on the same page as an advertisement of the imminent sailing of the Lusitania liner from New York back to Liverpool. Still this did not stop the sailing of the Lusitania, because the captain of the Lusitania ignored the British Admiralty’s recommendations, and at 2:12 pm on May 7 the 32,000-ton ship was hit by an exploding torpedo on its starboard side. The torpedo blast was followed by a larger explosion, probably of the ship’s boilers, and the ship sank off the south coast of Ireland in less than 20 minutes.
While the sinking of the Lusitania was a horrible tragedy, there were heroics too. One such hero was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Sr. Vanderbilt was an extremely wealthy American businessman and sportsman, and a member of the famous Vanderbilt family, but on this trip, he was so much more than that. On May 1, 1915, Alfred Vanderbilt boarded the RMS Lusitania bound for Liverpool as a first class passenger. Vanderbilt was on a business trip. He was traveling with only his valet, Ronald Denyer. His family stayed at home in New York. On May 7, off the coast of County Cork, Ireland, German U-boat, U-20 torpedoed the ship, triggering a secondary explosion that sank the giant ocean liner within 18 minutes. Vanderbilt and Denyer immediately went into action, helping others into lifeboats, and then Vanderbilt gave his lifejacket to save a female passenger. Vanderbilt had promised the young mother of a small baby that he would locate an extra life vest for her. Failing to do so, he offered her his own life vest, which he proceeded to tie on to her himself, because she was holding her infant child in her arms at the time.
Vanderbilt had to know he was sealing his own fate, since he could not swim and he knew there were no other life vests or lifeboats available. They were in waters where no outside help was likely to be coming. Still, he gave his life for hers and that of her child. Because of his fame, several people on the Lusitania who survived the tragedy were observing him while events unfolded at the time, and so they took note of his actions. I suppose that had he not been famous, people would not have known who he was to tell the story. Vanderbilt and Denyer were among the 1198 passengers who did not survive the incident. His body was never recovered. Probably the most ironic fact is that three years earlier Vanderbilt had made a last-minute decision not to return to the US on RMS Titanic. In fact, his decision not to travel was made so late that some newspaper accounts listed him as a casualty after that sinking too. He would not be so fortunate when he chose to travel on Lusitania.
These days, it is rare to have siblings serving on the same post…much less the same ship. Nevertheless, it was a practice that did take place in the past. In fact, in the case of the USS Juneau, five brothers were all serving together on the ship. It was the height of World War II, and it was imperative that every available man was out there fighting. The Sullivan brothers, Francis Henry, George Thomas, Joseph Eugene, Madison Abel, and Albert Leo enlisted in the navy on January 3, 1942, with the stipulation that they all serve together on the same ship. The Navy had a policy of separating siblings, but this was not strictly enforced. Two brothers, George and Frank had served in the Navy before, but their brothers had not. All five were assigned to the light cruiser USS Juneau.
I stumbled upon the story of the five Sullivan brothers on the Find a Grave site while looking for disaster losses. Every time I have found numerous deaths in the same family, I have been surprised and shocked. Mostly, they have occurred because of some illness like typhoid fever, the plague, or some other illness, and those are all really sad, especially when it is a disease we can cure now. This was different, however. The Sullivan brothers were not sick…there was no epidemic, this was war. This simply a demonstration of why brothers were not normally on the same ship.
The Juneau engaged in a number of battles during the months of the Guadalcanal Campaign which began in August 1942. Early in the morning of November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The Juneau was struck by a Japanese torpedo and forced to withdraw. Later that day, it was leaving the Solomon Islands’ area for the Allied rear area base at Espiritu Santo with other surviving United States warships, when the Juneau was struck again, this time by a torpedo from Japanese submarine I-26. The torpedo most likely hit the thinly armored light cruiser at or near the ammunition magazines and the ship exploded and quickly sank. The Helena and San Francisco, who were also in the area, but they had assumed that there were no survivors, and quickly departed without attempting to rescue any of the survivors.
More than 100 sailors survived the sinking of Juneau, but they were left to fend for themselves in the open ocean for eight days before rescue aircraft finally arrived. While awaiting rescue, all but 10 died from the elements and shark attacks, including the five Sullivan brothers. Two of the brothers apparently survived the sinking, only to die in the water. Two others presumably went down with the ship. Some reports indicate the fifth brother also survived the sinking, but disappeared during the first day in the water. On 20 November 1942, USS Ballard recovered two of the ten survivors. They were found in separate rafts, five miles apart. One of the survivors recovered by Ballard stated he had been with one of the Sullivan brothers for several days after the sinking. In that one day, Thomas and Alleta Abel Sullivan, lost all five of their sons. They were left only with their daughter, Genevieve Marie Sullivan Davidson. Their other daughter, Kathleen Sullivan had died at birth. Amazingly, daughter Genevieve decided to serve in the Navy too, as a Wave. While she survived her service, I’m sure her parents, while proud of her, were tormented by her decision.