This article is taken from Floyd Gibbons — Your Headline Hunter, a biography by his brother, Edward Gibbons. The biography was published by the Exposition Press, New York, 1953. The notes at the end of the article are Edward’s.
It was early 1917 and the allied blockade against Germany was beginning to bring the war home to the German people in the form of widespread shortages — morale was beginning to decline. Germany, which had backed off unrestricted submarine warfare at the urging of the United States after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, would once again resume the practice in an attempt to bring the war to an end.
This time, The Great Neutral, the United States watched with unease as German U-boats began to again attack allied shipping in an attempt to block armament and food shipments bound from the US for the UK and Europe. The popular isolationist leanings of the United States began to weaken as Americans lost their lives as a result of travelling on these targeted vessels.
On 17 February 1917, the Cunard passenger liner RMS Laconia set sail from New York bound for England. Among its passengers was Floyd Gibbons, the soon-to-be famed headline hunter of the Chicago Tribune. His published account of the sinking of the Laconia some eight days later off the Irish coast played no small part in changing American isolationist sentiment and pushing us into the declaration of war against Germany that would follow in less than two months.
The Sinking of the Laconia
by Floyd Gibbons
(Floyd’s story appeared in newspapers throughout the United States.)
Queenstown, February 26, 1917
I have serious doubts whether this is a real story. I am not entirely certain that it is not all a dream. I feel that in a few minutes I may wake up back in stateroom B-19 on the promenade deck of the Cunarder Laconia and hear my cockney steward informing me with an abundance of “and sirs” that it is a fine morning.
It is now a little over thirty hours since I stood on the slanting decks of the big liner, listened to the lowering of the lifeboats, and heard the hiss of escaping steam and the roar of ascending rockets as they tore lurid rents in the black sky and cast their red glare over the roaring sea.
I am writing this within thirty minutes after stepping on the dock here in Queenstown from the British mine sweeper which picked up our open lifeboat after an eventful six hours of drifting and darkness and bailing and pulling on the oars and of straining aching eyes toward that empty, meaningless horizon in search of help.
But dream or fact, here it is:
The Cunard liner Laconia, 18,000 tons burden, carrying seventy-three passengers — men, women, and children — of whom six were American citizens — manned by a mixed crew of two hundred and sixteen, bound from New York to Liverpool, and loaded with foodstuffs, cotton, and war material, was torpedoed without warning by a German submarine last night off the Irish coast. The vessel sank in about forty minutes.
Two American citizens, mother and daughter, listed from Chicago, and former residents there, are among the dead. They were Mrs. Mary E. Hoy and Miss Elizabeth Hoy. I have talked with a seaman who was in the same lifeboat with the two Chicago women and he has told me that he saw their lifeless bodies washing out of the sinking lifeboat.
The American survivors are Mrs. F. E. Harris, of Philadelphia, who was the last woman to leave the Laconia; the Rev. Father Wareing, of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Baltimore; Arthur T. Kirby, of New York, and myself.
A former Chicago woman, now the wife of a British subject, was among the survivors. She is Mrs. Henry George Boston, the daughter of Granger Farwell, of Lake Forest.
After leaving New York, passengers and crew had had three drills with the lifeboats. All were supplied with lifebelts and assigned to places in the twelve big lifeboats poised over the side from the davits of the top deck.
Submarines had been a chief part of the conversation during the entire trip, but the subject had been treated lightly, although all ordered precautions were strictly in force. After the first explanatory drill on the second day out from New York, from which we sailed on Saturday, February 17, the “abandon ship” signal — five quick blasts on the whistle — had summoned us twice to our lifebelts and heavy wraps, among which I included a flask and a flashlight, and to a roll call in front of our assigned boats on the top deck.
On Sunday we knew generally we were in the danger zone, though we did not know definitely where we were — or at least the passengers did not. In the afternoon during a short chat with Captain W. R. D. Irvine, the ship’s commander, I had mentioned that I would like to see a chart and note our position on the ocean. He replied: “Oh, would you?” with a smiling, rising inflection that meant, “It is jolly well none of your business.”
Prior to this my cheery early-morning steward had told us that we would make Liverpool by Monday night and I used this information in another question to the captain.
“When do we land?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” replied Capt. Irvine, but my steward told me later it would be Tuesday after dinner.
The first cabin passengers were gathered in the lounge Sunday evening, with the exception of the bridge fiends in the smoke-room.
“Poor Butterfly” was dying wearily on the talking machine and several couples were dancing.
About the tables in the smoke-room the conversation was limited to the announcement of bids and orders to the stewards. Before the fireplace was a little gathering which had been dubbed as the Hyde Park corner — an allusion I don’t quite fully understand. This group had about exhausted available discussion when I projected a new bone of contention.
“What do you say are our chances of being torpedoed?” I asked.
“Well,” drawled the deliberative Mr. Henry Chetham, a London solicitor, “I should say four thousand to one.”
Lucien J. Jerome, of the British diplomatic service, returning with an Ecuadorian valet from South America, interjected: “Considering the zone and the class of this ship, I should put it down at two hundred and fifty to one that we don’t meet a sub.”
At this moment the ship gave a sudden lurch sideways and forward. There was a muffled noise like the slamming of some large door at a good distance away. The slightness of the shock and the meekness of the report compared with my imagination were disappointing. Every man in the room was on his feet in an instant.
“We’re hit!” shouted Mr. Chetham.
“That’s what we’ve been waiting for,” said Mr. Jerome.
“What a lousy torpedo!” said Mr. Kirby in typical New Yorkese. “It must have been a fizzer.”
I looked at my watch. It was 10:30 P.M.
Then came the five blasts on the whistle. We rushed down the corridor leading from the smoke-room at the stern to the lounge, which was amidships. We were running, but there was no panic. The occupants of the lounge were just leaving by the forward doors as we entered.
It was dark on the landing leading down to the promenade deck, where the first-class staterooms were located. My pocket flashlight, built like a fountain pen, came in handy on the landing.
We reached the promenade deck. I rushed into my stateroom, B-19, grabbed my overcoat and the water bottle and special life-preserver with which the Tribune had equipped me before sailing. Then I made my way to the upper deck on that same dark landing.
I saw the chief steward opening an electric switch box in the wall and turning on the switch. Instantly the boat decks were illuminated. That illumination saved lives.
The torpedo had hit us well astern on the starboard side and had missed the engines and the dynamos. I had not noticed the deck lights before. Throughout the voyage our decks had remained dark at night and all cabin portholes were clamped down and all windows covered with opaque paint.
The illumination of the upper deck on which I stood made the darkness of the water sixty feet below appear all the blacker when I peered over the edge at my station, boat No. 10.
Already the boat was loading up and men were busy with the ropes. I started to help near a davit that seemed to be giving trouble, but I was stoutly ordered to get out of the way and get into the boat.
We were on the port side, practically opposite the engine well. Up and down the deck passengers and crew were donning lifebelts, throwing on overcoats, and taking positions in the boats. There were a number of women, but only one appeared hysterical — little Miss Titsie Siklosi, a French-Polish actress, who was being cared for by her manager, Cedric P. Ivatt, appearing on the passenger list as from New York.
Steam began to hiss somewhere from the giant gray funnels that towered above. Suddenly there was a roaring swish as a rocket soared upward from the captain’s bridge, leaving a comet’s tail of fire. I watched it as it described a graceful arc in the black void overhead, and then, with an audible pop, it burst into a flare of brilliant white light.
There was a tilt to the deck. It was listing to starboard at just the angle that would make it necessary to reach for support to enable one to stand upright. In the meantime electric floodlights — large white enameled funnels containing clusters of bulbs — had been suspended from the promenade deck and illuminated the dark water that rose and fell on the slanting side of the ship.
“Lower away!” Someone gave the order and we started down with a jerk towards the seemingly hungry rising and falling swells.
Then we stopped with another jerk and remained suspended in mid-air while the man at the bow and the stern swore and tussled with the lowering ropes. The stern of the lifeboat was down, the bow up, leaving us at an angle of about forty-five degrees. We clung to the seats to save ourselves from falling out.
“Who’s got a knife, a knife, a knife!” shouted a sweating seaman in the bow. “Great God, give him a knife!” bawled a half-dressed, jibbering Negro stoker, who wrung his hands in the stern.
A hatchet was thrust into my hand and I forwarded it to the bow. There was a flash of sparks as it crashed down on the holding pulley. One strand of rope parted and down plunged the bow, too quick for the stern man. We came to a jerky stop with the stern in the air and the bow down, but the stern managed to lower away until the dangerous angle was eliminated.
Then both tried to lower together. The list of the ship’s side became greater, but, instead of our boat sliding down it like a toboggan, the taffrail caught and was held. As the lowering continued, the other side dropped down and we found ourselves clinging on at a new angle and looking straight down on the water.
A hand slipped into mine and a voice sounded huskily close to my ear. It was the little old German-Jew traveling man who was disliked in the smoke-room because he used to speak too certainly of things he was uncertain of and whose slightly Teutonic dialect made him as popular as smallpox with the British passengers.
“My boy, I can’t see nutting,” he said. “My glasses slipped and I am falling. Hold me, please.”
I managed to reach out and join hands with another man on the other side of the old man and together we held him in. He hung heavily over our arms, grotesquely grasping all he had saved from his stateroom — a goldheaded cane and an extra hat.
Many hands and feet pushed the boat from the side of the ship and we sagged down again, this time smacking squarely on the pillowy top of a rising swell. It felt more solid than midair, at least. But we were far from being off. The pulleys twice stuck in their fastenings, bow and stern, and the one axe passed forward and back, and with it my flashlight, as the entangling ropes that held us to the sinking Laconia were cut away.
Some shout from that confusion of sound caused me to look up and I really did so with the fear that one of the nearby boats was being lowered upon us.
A man was jumping, as I presumed, with the intention of landing in the boat and I prepared to avoid the impact, but he passed beyond us and plunged into the water three feet from the edge of the boat. He bobbed to the surface immediately.
“It’s Duggan!” shouted a man next to me.
I flashed the light on the ruddy, smiling face and water-plastered hair of the little Canadian, our fellow saloon passenger. We pulled him over the side. He sputtered out a mouthful of water and the first words he said were:
“I wonder if there is anything to that lighting three cigarettes off the same match? I was up above trying to loosen the rope to this boat. I loosened it and then got tangled up in it. The boat went down, but I was jerked up. I jumped for it.”
His first reference concerned our deliberate tempting of fates early in the day when he, Kirby, and I lighted three cigarettes from the same match and Duggan told us that he had done the same thing many a time.
As we pulled away from the side of the ship, its ranking and receding terrace of lights stretched upward. The ship was slowly turning over. We were opposite that part occupied by the engine room. There was a tangle of oars, spars, and rigging on the seat and considerable confusion before four of the big sweeps could be manned on either side of the boat.
The jibbering, bullet-headed Negro was pulling directly behind me and I turned to quiet him as his frantic reaches with his oar were hitting me in the back. In the dull light from the upper decks I looked into his slanting face, eyes all whites and lips moving convulsively. Besides being frightened, the man was freezing in the thin cotton shirt that composed his entire upper covering. He would work feverishly to get warm.
“Get away from her; get away from her,” he kept repeating. “When the water hits her hot boilers, she’ll blow up, and there’s just tons and tons of shrapnel in the hold!”
His excitement spread to other members of the crew in the boat. The ship’s baker, designated by his pantry headgear, became a competing alarmist, and a white fireman, whose blasphemy was nothing short of profound, added to the confusion by cursing everyone.
It was the give-way of nerve tension. It was bedlam and nightmare.
Seeking to establish some authority in our boat, I made my way to the stern and there found an old, white-haired sea captain, a second-cabin passenger, with whom I had talked before. He was bound from Nova Scotia with codfish. His sailing schooner, the Secret, had broken in two, but he and his crew had been taken off by a tramp and taken back to New York. He had sailed from there on the Ryndam, which, after almost crossing the Atlantic, had turned back. The Laconia was his third attempt to get home. His name is Captain Dear.
“The rudder’s gone, but I can steer with an oar,” he said. “I will take charge, but my voice is gone. You’ll have to shout the orders.”
There was only one way to get the attention of the crew and that was by an overpowering blast of profanity. I did my best and was rewarded by silence while I made the announcement that in the absence of the ship’s officer assigned to the boat, Captain Dear would take charge. There was no dissent and under the captain’s orders the boat’s head was held to the wind to prevent us from being swamped by the increasing swells.
We rested on our oars, with all eyes turned on the still-lighted Laconia. The torpedo had struck at 10:30 P.M. According to our ship’s time, it was thirty minutes after that hour that another dull thud, which was accompanied by a noticeable drop in the hulk, told its story of the second torpedo that the submarine had dispatched through the engine room and the boat’s vitals from a distance of 200 yards.
We watched silently during the next minute, as the tiers of lights dimmed slowly from white to yellow, then to red, and nothing was left but the murky mourning of the night, which hung over all like a pall.
A mean, cheese-colored crescent of a moon revealed one horn above a rag bundle of clouds low in the distance. A rim of blackness settled around our little world, relieved only by general leering stars in the zenith, and where the Laconia lights had shone there remained only the dim outline of a blacker hulk standing out above the water like a jagged headland, silhouetted against the overcast sky.
The ship sank rapidly at the stern until at last its nose stood straight in the air. Then it slid silently down and out of sight like a piece of disappearing scenery in a panorama spectacle.
Boat No. 3 stood closest to the ship and rocked about in a perilous sea of clashing spars and wreckage, As the boat’s crew steadied its head into the wind, a black hulk, glistening wet and standing about eight feet above the surface of the water, approached slowly and came to a stop opposite the boat and not six feet from the side of it.
“Vot ship was dot?” the correct words in throaty English with the German accent came from the dark hulk, according to Chief Steward Ballyn’s statement to me later.
“The Laconia,” Ballyn answered.
“The Laconia, Cunard line,” responded the steward.
“Vot did she veigh?” was the next question from the submarine.
“Eighteen thousand tons.”
“Seventy-three,” replied Ballyn, “men, women, and children, some of them in this boat. She had over two hundred in the crew.”
“Did she carry cargo?”
“Vell, you’ll be all right. The patrol will pick you up soon,” and without further sound, save for the almost silent fixing of the conning tower lid, the submarine moved off.
“I thought it best to make my answers truthfuland satisfactory, sir,” said Ballyn when he repeated the conversation to me word for word. “I was thinking of the women and children in the boat. I feared every minute that somebody in our boat might make a hostile move, fire a revolver, or throw something at the submarine. I feared the consequences of such an act.”
There was no assurance of an early pickup, even though the promise was from a German source, for the rest of the boats, whose occupants — if they felt and spoke like those in my boat — were more than mildly anxious about our plight and the prospects of rescue.
We made preparations for the siege with the elements. The weather was a great factor. That black rim of clouds looked ominous. There was a good promise of rain. February has a reputation for nasty weather in the north Atlantic. The wind was cold and seemed to be rising. Our boat bobbed about like a cork on the swells, which fortunately were not choppy.
How much rougher weather could the boat stand? This question and the conditions were debated pro and con.
Had our rockets been seen? Did the first torpedo put the wireless out of business? Did anybody hear our S.O.S.? Was there enough food and drinking water in the boat to last?
That brought us to an inventory of our small craft, and after much difficulty we found a lamp, a can of powder flares, a tin of ship’s biscuits, matches, and spare oil.
The lamp was lighted. Other lights were visible at small distances every time we mounted the crest of the swells. The boats remained quite close together at first. One boat came within sound and I recognized the Harry-Lauder-like voice of the second assistant purser, last heard on Wednesday at the ship’s concert. There was singing, “I Want to Marry ‘Arry,” and “I Love to Be a Sailor.”
Mrs. Boston was in that boat with her husband. She told me later that an attempt had been made to sing “Tipperary” and “Rule, Britannia,” but the thought of that slinking dark hull of destruction that might have been a part of the immediate darkness resulted in an abandonment of the effort.
“Who’s the officer in that boat?” came a cheery hail from a nearby light.
“What the hell is it to you?” bawled out our half-frozen Negro, for no reason imaginable other than, possibly, the relief of his feelings.
“Brain him with a pin, somebody!” yelled our profound oathsman, and accompanied the order with a warmth of language that must have relieved the Negro’s chill.
The fear of some of the boats crashing together produced a general inclination toward further separation on the part of all the little units of survivors, with the result that soon the small craft stretched out for several miles, all of them endeavoring to keep their heads into the wind.
And then we saw the first light, the first sign of help coming, the first searching glow of white brilliance, deep down on the sombre sides of the black pot of night that hung over us. I don’t know what direction that came from — none of us knew north from south — there was nothing but water and sky. But the light — it just came from over there where we pointed.
We nudged violently sick boat-mates and directed their gaze and aroused them to an appreciation of the sight that gave us new life.
It was over there — first a trembling quiver of silver against the blackness, then, drawing closer, it defined itself as a beckoning finger, although still too far away to see our feeble efforts to attract.
We nevertheless wasted valuable flares and the ship’s baker, self-ordained custodian of biscuit tin, did the honors handsomely to the extent of a biscuit apiece to each of the twenty-three occupants in the boat.
“Pull starboard, sonnies,” sang out old Captain Dear, his gray chin whiskers literally bristling with joy in the light of the round lantern which he held aloft.
We pulled lustily, forgetting the strain and pain of innards torn and racked from vain vomiting, oblivious of blistered hands and yet half-frozen feet.
Then a nodding of that finger of light — a happy, snapping, crapshooting finger that seemed to say “Come on, you men,” like a dice player wooing the bones — led us to believe that our lights had been seen. This was the fact, for immediately the coming vessel flashed on its green and red sidelights and we saw it was headed for our position.
We floated off its stern for a while as it maneuvered for the best position in which it could take us on with the sea that was running higher and higher, it seemed to me.
“Come alongside port!” was megaphoned to us, and as fast as we could we swung under the stern and felt our way broadside toward the ship’s side. A dozen flashlights blinked down to us and orders began to flow fast and thick.
When I look back on the night, I don’t know which was the more hazardous — our descent from the Laconia or our ascent to our rescuer. One minute the swell lifted us almost level with the rail of the low-built patrol boat and mine sweeper; the next receding wave would carry us down into a gulf over which the ship’s side glowed like a slimy, dripping cliff. A score of hands reached out, and we were suspended in the husky, tattooed arms of those doughty British jack tars, looking up into the weather-beaten, youthful faces, mumbling thanks and thankfulness, and reading in the gold lettering on their pancake hats the legend “H.M.S. Laburnum.”
We had been six hours in the open boats, all of which began coming alongside one after another. Wet and bedraggled survivors were lifted aboard. Women and children first was the rule.
The scenes of reunion were heart-gripping. Men who had remained strangers to one another aboard the Laconia wrung each other by the hand, or embraced without shame the frail little wife of a Canadian chaplain who had found one of her missing children delivered up from another boat. She smothered the child with ravenous mother kisses while tears of joy streamed down her face.
Boat after boat came alongside. The waterlogged craft containing the captain came last. A rousing cheer went up as he landed his feet on the deck, one mangled hand hanging limp at his side.
The jack tars divested themselves of outerclothing and passed the garments over to the shivering members of the Laconia’s crew.
The little officers’ quarters down under the quarter-deck were turned over to the women and children. Two of the Laconia’s stewardesses passed boiling basins of navy cocoa and aided in the disentanglement of wet and matted tresses.
The men grouped themselves near steam pipes in the petty officers’ quarters or over the gratings of the engine rooms, where new life was to be had from the upward blasts of heated air that brought with them the smell of bilge water and oil and sulphur from the bowels of the vessel.
The injured — all minor cases, sprained backs, wrenched legs, or mashed hands — were put away in bunks under the care of the ship’s doctor.
Dawn was melting the eastern ocean gray to pink when the task was finished.
In the officers’ quarters, now invaded by the men, somebody happened to touch a key on the small wooden organ, and this was enough to send some callous seafaring fingers over the keys in a rhythm unquestionably religious and so irresistible under the circumstances that, although no one knew the words, the air was taken up in a serious humming chant by all in the room.
At the last note of the amen, little Father Wareing, his black garb snaggled in places and badly soiled, stood before the center table and lifted his head back until the morning light, filtering through the open hatch above him, shone down on his kindly, weary face. He recited the Lord’s Prayer, all present joined, and the simple, impressive service ended as simply as it had begun.
Two minutes later I saw the old German-Jew traveling man limping about on one lame leg with a little boy in his arms, collecting big round British pennies for the youngster.
A survey and cruise of the nearby area revealed no more occupied boats and the mine sweeper, with its load of survivors numbering 267, steamed away to the east. A half an hour’s steaming and the vessel stopped within hailing distance of two sister ships, towards one of which an open boat, manned by jackies, was pulling.
I saw the hysterical French-Polish actress, her hair wet and bedraggled, lifted out of the boat and handed up the companionway. Then a little boy, his fresh pink face and golden hair shining in the morning light, was passed upward, followed by some other survivors, numbering fourteen in all, who had been found half drowned and almost dead from exposure in a partially wrecked boat that was just sinking.
This was the boat in which Mrs. Hoy and her daughter lost their lives and in which Cedric P. Ivatt of New York, who was the manager for the actress, died. It has not been ascertained here whether Mr. Ivatt was an American or a British subject.
One of the survivors of this boat was Able Seaman Walley, who was transferred to the Laburnum.
“Our boat — No. 8 — was smashed in lowering,” he said. “I was in the bow, Mrs. Hoy and her daughter were sitting toward the stern. The boat filled with water rapidly. It was no use trying to bail it out — there was a big hole in the side and it came in too fast. It just sunk to the water’s edge and only stayed up on account of the tanks in it. It was completely awash. Every swell rode clear over us and we had to hold our breath until we came to the surface again. The cold water just takes the strength out of you.
“The women got weaker and weaker, then a wave came and washed both of them out of the boat. There were lifebelts on their bodies and they floated away, but I believe they were dead before they were washed overboard.”
With such stories singing in our ears, with exchanges of experiences pathetic and humorous, we came steaming into Queenstown harbor shortly after ten o’clock tonight. We pulled up at a dock lined with waiting ambulances and khaki-clad men, who directed the survivors to the various hotels about the town, where they are being quartered.
The question being asked of the Americans on all sides is: “Is it the casus belli?”
American Consul Wesley Frost is forwarding all information to Washington with a speed and carefulness resulting from the experiences in handling twenty-five previous submarine disasters in which the United States has had an interest, especially in the survivors landed at this port.
His best figures on the Laconia sinking are: total survivors landed here, 267; landed at Bantry, 14; total on board, 294; missing, 13.
The latest information from Bantry, the only other port at which survivors were known to have landed, confirms the report of the death of Mrs. Hoy and her daughter.
The story caused a sensation when it appeared in metropolitan dailies throughout the country. Acclaimed as one of the outstanding reportorial achievements of the war, it was read from the floor of both houses of Congress. Legislators, in off-the-record conversations, even cited it as prima-facie evidence that Germany had committed the overt act which was to send this country into war five weeks later.
Floyd also received complimentary cablegrams from newspaper editors in the United States, his colleagues and friends who were relieved to know that he had reached England safely. But the person who suffered most when news of the Laconia’s sinking reached New York was Mother, who had seen him off, particularly during the twenty-four hours delay between the first report of the sinking and the first list of survivors.
The Tribune employees cabled Floyd:
CONGRATULATIONS UPON YOUR FINE ARTICLE AND YOUR SAFE LANDING. GREETINGS WITH HANDS ACROSS THE SEA.
To which Floyd responded:
THANKS FOR YOUR CONGRATULATIONS. GREETINGS FROM “HANS” UNDER THE SEA.