Sunday, April 15, 2018

Torpedoes, the doomed Athenia and Martha Bonnett

The Chariton Leader announced Martha Bonnett's rescue with a banner headline in its edition of Sept. 5, 1939.

Miss Martha Bonnett was 24 in late June of 1939 when she sailed from New York aboard the SS Normandie, anticipating six pleasant weeks in Europe as part of a tour group of 18 young women, mostly college students from Texas, coordinated and chaperoned by Annette Brock and Gladys Strain, also Texans.

Many Americans remained blissfully unaware of the potential in war clouds then gathering over Europe --- and Mrs. Brock and Mrs. Strain, who organized these regular tours as professionals, surely must have been among them.

Martha was a little older than most of the young women, and the only Iowan. She had grown up on the family farm of her parents, John R. and Lillian (Fain) Bonnett, just west of Chariton, their only child; and had been a classmate at Chariton High School of my late mother before continuing her education at Iowa State University, where she had earned a degree in home economics.

Martha would marry Willis Good during 1942, not long before he was drafted into World War II service, so most of us remember her as Martha Good. After the war, the Goods settled down on what had been the farm of her parents and grandparents, Daniel G. and Sarah (Rowles) Bonnett, along what now is U.S. Highway 34, to raise their three daughters, Vicky, Linda and Patty.


By all accounts, the tour --- nine countries in roughly six weeks --- was a great success. But when the time came to sail home during late August, the realities of impending war became frighteningly evident. 

The young women had booked passage on the SS California, a British liner scheduled to depart on August 26. Before it could sail, the California was requisitioned for the British war effort.

The parents of several of Martha's travel companions were influential people in Texas and elsewhere, however; a few strings were pulled; and berths were found on the SS Athenia for 15 of the young women and makeshift quarters for the remaining three aboard the City of Flint, a merchant freighter.

Martha was one of the 15 who sailed from Glasgow on Sept. 1 aboard the Athenia --- and that was how she came to be aboard a liner that on the night of Sept. 3 some 200 nautical miles offshore became the first ship of the United Kingdom to be torpedoed and sunk by German submarines.

In all, 1,103 passengers and 315 crew members were aboard that night, including 500 Jewish refugees and 311 U.S. citizens. Of that total, 117 crew members and civilian passengers died. 

Almost miraculously, the remainder survived --- including Martha, whose report of the experience must surely be one of the most riveting first-person accounts ever published in the Chariton newspapers. It appeared under her byline on the front page of The Chariton Leader of Oct. 10, 1939, a few days after she had been met in New York by her mother and had returned home safely to Lucas County. Here's Martha's report:


We had originally planned to sail from Glasgow on the Californian, but because of the tense diplomatic situation in Europe, the British government cancelled the sailing.

Finally, after some delay, we succeeded in booking passage on the Athenia and even though we knew the boat would be crowded, we were very happy to get accommodations. On Friday morning, Sept. 1, the Athenia left Glasgow, Scotland, in a pouring rain.

The SS Athenia, photographed in 1933.
The boat was prepared for wartime conditions although no declaration had then been made. The portholes were blackened and only a few lights were lit in the main passageways. The whole thing seemed almost "spooky." When we got out to sea on Sunday, we learned that England had declared war on Germany. Since we sailed, we had had but one lifeboat drill.

The party I was with had been on deck along about dusk and went to the dining room after second call. There were about 18 of us at a long table. After we had been in the dining room about fifteen minutes, there was a big "boom." The lights went out, dishes flew over the table, and chairs were turned over. It seems strange now, but somehow we all seemed to know just what had happened --- that the boat had been torpedoed.

I left the dining room and went down two flights of stairs to my cabin where I got my lifebelt, my coat and my purse. Then I remembered that one of the girls in our party was still in her stateroom so I groped my way down the hall until I came to the door. The girl had been knocked out of her bed by the force of the explosion and was standing in the middle of the room. I told her to get her coat, lifebelt and purse and come along. We then went up on deck to our lifeboat stations.

Mad Scramble

When we reached the top deck everything was a mad scramble and it was a horrible sight. There were bodies everywhere. Evidently everyone who had been on deck at the time of the explosion had been killed. Several crew members were dead and the rest, merely a handful, were attempting to get the people into the boats. One crew member with a broken leg and a broken arm was standing by a boat heroically directing the loading.

When we got to the boat we were supposed to go in, it was full and they told us to go to another. We went to another lifeboat station to find that that boat, too, was full. We tried several other stations without success. Then we decided to wait in one place. At last we spotted a boat that hadn't been completely filled. From then on it was everyone for himself. I pushed Helen (Helen Hannay of Houston, Texas, who was with Miss Bonnett's party) into the boat and somehow I got in, too.

Each lifeboat had a capacity for fifty. In our boat there were between 75 and 100. For some time the boat swung from the davits and no one could seem to lower it to the water. Finally, someone cut the pulley ropes and the whole load dropped "plunk" into the water. One of the pulley ropes whipped back and struck Helen in the eye, causing a blood clot. Then the pulley blocks fell, striking and killing one woman. Someone threw the dead woman overboard and we began to try to get away from the Athenia.

The next twelve hours were a nightmare. The boat was overloaded and the seams had been sprung when it fell to the water. There was nothing on the boat except some oars --- no food, blankets, or flares. It was so crowded that everyone had to stand up and even then we were packed together. Water was coming in through the floorboards  pretty fast so one of the crew members told us to take off our shoes and start bailing.

Pretty Lucky

I was pretty lucky as I had shoes on that had both the heel and toe. Some of the other girls had the toeless and heeless shoes --- and you couldn't dip much water out with them. There were just a few of us dipping water out. We dipped and dipped until we thought our backs would break from the strain. We tried to get some of the other people to dip the water out but they just stood there and didn't say a thing. Finally I just took one of my shoes and pushed it at a person near me and told her to dip. She did.

I took a turn at rowing several times. The crew members, and the one with a broken arm and leg who was in the boat with us, would tell us to "backwater." I didn't know what that meant so I just rowed away the best way I knew. The moon had come out by then and I remembered looking at it and saying to myself, "You'd better take a good look at it."

There were only four men in the boat --- all the rest were women and children. The children behaved very well and they didn't cry. One little girl who had been separated from her governess kept saying, "I don't want to die, I live such a sweet life." It was pretty rough and a lot of people got sick. However, after I would get sick, I would feel better and dip some more until I got sick again. Some of the people started to sing, but I didn't like this and wished that they would be still.

First Boat

About 2:30 a.m. we finally sighted the first rescue boat. it came fairly near and put out oil to quiet the water although it didn't seem to help much.

We rowed and rowed but we couldn't seem to get very close to the boat. It was an awful feeling to be apparently very close to the boat one moment, and then to have it completely hidden from sight the next by a swell of the sea. We couldn't seem to get any nearer after considerable effort and were very depressed. Then we saw coming near us a steel grey boat which we knew was a warship. We were afraid for a while that this might have been a German boat but we began to scream and wave anyway to attract attention so that we could be rescued.

Drew Nearer

The boat drew nearer and we saw that it was an English destroyer. The captain shouted to us to stay where we were and that they would come closer. Then they seemed to sail away from us. But after a short time we saw that they were merely circling to get between us and the wind and when they came back to us they were very close.

When the destroyer got close enough, the crew threw down rope ladders but none of us could seem to catch them at first. The sea was quite heavy and several times a wave would bang us against the side of the destroyer. At last some of us caught the ladders and began to climb. One lady who was among the first to climb out of our lifeboat got just about to the top when she slipped and fell. She was crushed and instantly killed when the lifeboat, tossed about by a wave, pinned her against the destroyer. The crew members sent down buckets on ropes to pull the children to safety.

The minute we got up on the destroyer's deck, we were picked up by members of the crew and carried to the officers' quarters. There we were given tea with rum in it and were given warm blankets to wrap up in while our clothes were taken to dry in the boiler rooms. I was a sight by then. I was almost completely covered by oil and grease and my hair was just one stringy tangle ,matted with grease and oil. The English boat had been out of port for some time and the supplies were low but they gave us everything that they could. I sure have a warm spot in my heart for sailors because they gave us the very best of treatment.

All Over Boat

That night, Monday night, the survivors on the boat were quartered all over the boat. I and another girl started to sleep on the captain's table but it was too hard so we fixed us up a bed underneath the table. Many of the people off the Athenia were nervous wrecks and one of the crew members asked some of our party if we would try and quiet them down so that they could get some sleep We began to whisper to them to just lie back and rest and finally they all fell asleep. But if I had known what the boat did that night, I don't think I would have slept much. The next morning we found out that the boat had been hunting German submarines all night.

The next morning, Tuesday, we went back to the site of the Athenia sinking. They told us not to be frightened by any shots because they were going to sink it to get it out of the way of other ship traffic. But it wasn't necessary to fire. Soon after we got there the boat slid down beneath the water. I didn't watch as it went down --- I had already seen enough of that boat.

Then we put in to Grennack near Glasgow, where we landed shortly after noon. It seemed as though the whole country had turned out to welcome us and we were given every attention by those people. When we landed, all I had was my dress, hat and hose, and my hose were mesh at that. A sailor found me some tennis shoes, however, which I was very glad to get even if they were much too big for me.

Return to Glasgow

Back at Glasgow, our party returned to the same hotel in which we had stayed before we sailed on the Athenia. the American Counsel there gave us each $2.50. The thing that bothered me most at the time was the fact that I had no suitable shoes. I went out to buy some in Glasgow but all the big stores were closed. Finally I found a pair for which I paid $10 but they were too big. That was alright, though, because my feet had swollen a lot. Then the Red Cross in Glasgow came to our aid. They gave us each a dress, silk hose, a slip, underwear, a comb, sweater and coat. They weren't exactly the latest styles but they were new and I can't say how glad I was to get them. I have nothing but the highest praise for the helpful generosity shown to us by the Red Cross. Besides clothing, they also gave us a few shillings.

The next morning, we had to report for gas mask fittings. We had not had to do this before we left on the Athenia because war had not been declared. If we had had to do this before we sailed, we would have been bothered but by now it didn't worry us much. it was nerve racking in Glasgow because of all the noise such as news boys shouting and bells on the street cars. You see, when a ship goes down at sea, it gives a few blasts on the whistle and then the bells start to ring --- and they ring continuously until the ship has been abandoned. So bells meant danger to us and you can see why most of the party couldn't stand the sound of them.

From Glasgow, we went out into the Highlands to escape the excitement and await a boat to take us to the United States. We were right near Loch Lomond and the place was a lovely one --- restful and quite. While there we picked some white heather. Before we sailed on the Athenia, we had picked some purple heather but we now found out that the purple kind is considered bad luck.

Ambassador (Joseph) Kennedy's son (later President John F. Kennedy) came up to Glasgow while we were there and through him I got word from the Embassy at London that Cordell Hull had passed on a cable from Senator Herring saying, "if you need anything, the state of Iowa will stand behind you."

Representative Karl M. LeCompte was also very kind. Although he was in Iowa a the time of the disaster, he kept in constant touch with the state department in Washington and kept Mother informed as to my whereabouts and safety as soon as the word came through.

Passage on Orizaba

By this time, our party had been scattered over Scotland. So the four of us that were still together  went back to Glasgow where we got passage on the S.S. Orizaba. We went down to the harbor to look at it and were far from favorably impressed. The day we sailed we went to the boat early and practically had to drive ourselves on board. The first thing we did after getting on was to look at the lifeboats. They were all in good shape with blankets, flares, and food stocked in them so we began to feel a little better.

After the Orizaba sailed, we found it almost impossible to sleep. We slept in our clothes --- what little sleep we did get --- and kept our lifebelts, flashlights, coats and shoes handy at all times. Once, we heard bells ringing and we grabbed up our stuff to run out on deck only to find that someone had accidentally set off the alarm. This gave us quite a fright.

On the Orizaba we had lifeboat drill every day. Much of the time we stayed together in the ship lounge and played the nickelodeon. And the piece we played most was "God Bless America." When we neared New York we finally took off our clothes long enough to take a short shower and get a little sleep. The nearer we got to land, the surer we were that we were all going to cry when the boat got in. So we decided we would have a cry right then and there and get it over with. But it didn't do much good because we cried anyway when we landed.

The first one to greet us was the father of one of the girls from Texas (Judge Allen B. Hannay of Houston). He was a federal judge and got to come out on the customs boat. All of the girls that were around when he came on board cried and we kissed him just as if he were one of our own relatives.

When the boat finally got in we thought they were never going to let the gangway down and let us off. As we stood by the rail, we would think we saw someone we knew and began to wave only to see later that the person was a total stranger. Finally we got off the boat. All we had were small paper sacks with our "baggage," but we had to go through customs anyway.

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