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Great Ocean Liner Disasters
By WILLIAM H. MILLER JR.
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2006 William H. Miller, Jr.
All rights reserved.
The idea for this particular title was put forward by Dover Publications itself. Usually, I would propose the title and the content, always with an eye on readily available photographs. Dover felt strongly about the subject of doomed passenger liners, but suggested we avoid the already heavily documented Titanic, which sank following a collision with an iceberg in the western Atlantic on April 15, 1912. They decided on beginning the book with another, very famous British liner disaster, the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. And so, being in full agreement, we had our starting point, our launch of sorts. There have been many passenger ship disasters since then, of course. Quite simply, there have been far too many. Including them all, however, would have greatly exceeded the page allotment for this title. And quite obviously, during the very destructive years of the Second World War, between 1939 and 1945, the sheer number of ships destroyed required that only the more notable tragedies be included. One-third of the world's passenger ship fleet was destroyed during those grim times. There has been some emphasis, however, on more recent tragedies, those since the 1960s, which involve some liners sinking on their very last voyages, bound for Middle- and Far-Eastern scrap yards.
The final complete list herein is actually quite interesting. The Lusitania, the Morro Castle, the Normandie, and the Andrea Doria are among the most famous doomed ships and their stories have been frequently recounted in books, lectures, television documentaries, and specialized videos. As I pen this work, there are at least two major books in the works, one on the celebrated, innovative Normandie, and another on Italy's postwar flagship, the Andrea Doria. It seems there is always more to be written, more to be learned, more perhaps to question and ponder over in the matter of maritime misfortunes. Other disasters of note are included here as well, which doomed such ships as the Europa, L'Atlantique, President Hoover, Berengaria, Empress of Britain, Viceroy of India, Rex, Wilhelm Gustloff, Yarmouth Castle, Leonardo da Vinci, Achille Lauro, and the Oriana.
Sometimes the strange workings of fate bring about surprising coincidences. Soon after I began planning for this book—outlining, making lists, organizing the first file folders, and assembling the photos (noting gaps and weak spots)—I headed off, in October 2005, on a one-month voyage to the Orient. Booked a year in advance, I was one of the guest lecturers onboard one of the world's finest cruise ships, the Seven Seas Mariner, a contemporary floating palace with an all-suite configuration, walk-in closets, and marble tubs. There were complimentary select wines at dinner and separate grill rooms featuring French and Asian delicacies. In the six-star league, we were very pampered guests living like seagoing royalty. By coincidence, among my 700 or so fellow passengers, two of them had direct connections to noted ships and their tragic endings. Their first-person recollections of the burning of the Morro Castle in 1934 and the salvage of the fire-gutted Normandie in 1942—43 are included in the following pages. I interviewed both parties, who were happily agreeable to share their stories over luncheon tables, and I soon felt a stronger connection to my title. Yes, this book was, as one might say, "picking up steam and gaining speed." I was off and running.
Although still a schoolboy in 1956, I well recall the black-and-white television images of the sinking of the Andrea Doria on July 26. It was the very first maritime tragedy of note brought into the homes of America and the world. In near disbelief, we could see this grand ship, well known to New York harbor buffs such as myself, capsizing gradually to starboard and then sinking beneath the waves of the western Atlantic off Nantucket. The final sights were the most dramatic, perhaps even horrifying, as the stern section and an exposed propeller, part of the underbelly of the 700-foot liner, poked above those otherwise sun-splashed waters for the last time. Then, as it sank, there was a turbulence, a flour-ish—the last breath and sigh of a doomed vessel. Debris filled the waters, some of it in a washing machine-like swirl. The Andrea Doria was gone—she was officially dead. Because she had been an extremely familiar sight along New York's Luxury Liner Row and reputedly one of the safest liners yet built, I could not bring myself to believe she had sunk, even after buying the daily newspapers with their blazing headlines of the liner's loss, which reinforced those television news films and photos. I asked my father to take me by car from our home in I Hoboken to the cliffs of nearby Weehawken for a better view of the West Side liner piers in Manhattan. It was Friday, July 27, and I was sure that it was all incorrect, that the Andrea Doria would be at her regular berth at Pier 84, at West 44th Street. She could not have really sunk—so I thought. But, of course, the slip was empty, lonely, sad, and desolate.
As if to reinforce it all further, I could see the little, all-white Swedish Stockholm, now securely berthed at Pier 97, some thirteen blocks north at West 57th Street. She was being called the "villain," the ship that sank the splendid, larger Andrea Doria in a collision on the foggy night of the 25th. As the Stockholm lay there still and quiet, the damage she had sustained was quite apparent. I could see that her raked bow was missing, the fore portion gutted and smashed from ramming the Andrea Doria. The small, 12,000-ton Stockholm was outbound at the time of the tragedy, headed on an otherwise typical summer's voyage to Scandinavia, while the 29,000-ton Andrea Doria was just completing a crossing from the western Mediterranean, only hours away from her arrival in New York harbor. The shock of the collision and the loss of the Italian liner lingered in the public mind for some time. Stories were featured in Life, Look, Newsweek, and the ever-fascinating Popular Mechanics, of ways in which the Andrea Doria, resting on the bottom on her starboard side, could be raised, salvaged, and later repaired.
Filling her hull with thousands of Ping-Pong balls was one of the curious ideas. Dragging her on shore with huge chains was another. It all made, of course, for fascinating and fanciful reading. Later, in December 2005 as I busily prepared this book, our Ocean Liner Council at New York's South Street Seaport Museum was laying plans for an all-day, Saturday salute six months away, in June, to the still-alluring Andrea Doria. Lectures, slide shows, exhibits of artifacts and memorabilia, and eve accounts from survivors, as well as divers who had investigates the wreck, were included. The event would finish off with a celebratory dinner in one of Manhattan's Italian restaurants. The festivities were thoughtfully dubbed, Italian Dreamboat: The Andrea Doria.
But back to that Asian cruise in October 2005. Our First stop in China was Dalian, once part of old Manchuria and now a teeming city of skyscrapers, shopping malls, high-rise apartments, and amusement parks. It is also a very busy seaport. As we arrived in the first, soft light of day, I hurried to an open upper deck. My purpose: to spot the remains of the former P&O liner Oriana, the last liner mentioned in these pages. Partially capsized during a typhoon the year before, she was finally righted, but reports of repair and restoration proved false for the forty-five-year-old liner. By the summer of 2005 it was reported that she would be scrapped locally, perhaps at one of the large, nearby shipyards. China has, of course, the largest need anywhere in the world for recycled steel. But my top-deck investigation came to nothing. She was nowhere to be seen. Once ashore, about to board a tour bus waiting on the dockside, I came across some harbor officials. They knew of the former Oriana, of course, but told me that she had been towed away and demolished in another Chinese port, at remote Jiangsu. And so, what might have been a link to the last of the passenger ships listed herein proved illusive.
Nevertheless, the list remains very interesting. Great ships, often with busy lives, tending to their passengers and crew, and providing crucial global links, have sometimes ended in tragedy. Fires, torpedoes, collisions, desperate calls of SOS and requests for lifeboats, heroic rescues and daring escapes, blaring newspaper headlines and formal inquiries. These are all elements in the fascinating stories recounted here ofDoomed Ships: Great Ocean Liner Disasters.
BILL MILLER Secaucus, New Jersey Winter 2005—06
Excerpted from DOOMED SHIPS by WILLIAM H. MILLER JR.. Copyright © 2006 William H. Miller, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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