Vessel Sank In 4 Minutes Soldier Tells
Toronto Pal Among 122 Lost On Atlantic, Writes Halifax Corporal
A ship sank in four minutes in darkness on the Atlantic with a loss of 122 lives. Debris from the vessel, ripped apart by two torpedoes, endangered crew members and passengers struggling in the water.
Corpl. John W. Chisholm, Halifax who drifted around in the icy water for many hours, first clinging to a plank, then to an empty oil drum, and finally to an overturned lifeboat was one of those who survived.
When he was rescued by a destroyer which took him to the old country, he set down his experience in narrative form, while his impressions were still vivid, and sent them to his wife in two installments marked “Letter No. 1” and “Letter No. 2”-35 closely written sheets of notepaper.
When the ship was attacked, Tillbrook was on his way to talk with the gunners stationed at the stern. He was opening the door from the companionway to the deck when there was “a blinding flash of pale blue-green light, a terrific explosion which I believe would deafen one under ordinary circumstances, and a smell like that of burned matches.”
“At the instant of the explosion,” his narrative continues, “the door was blown inward, one piece striking me on the legs, below the knees. I squeezed through to the deck, propelled by fright and instinct. Clutching my lifebelt, I stumbled across the deck toward the stairway. I fell into a hole of some sort but managed to scramble out and made my way to the next deck.
HURT LEGS IN FALL
“While I was hesitating to clear my brain somebody was calling to a chap by the name of Bill, directing him to ‘A’ deck – the lifeboat deck. I went up to ‘A’ deck like a shot. Running toward the lifeboat to which I had been assigned, I stumbled again and this time when I got up my legs were paining tremendously. I hobbled over to where the boys were lined up in front of the lifeboat and spoke to somebody in the dark asking if I could hold on to his shoulder. He said, “Yes are you scared?” I replied no, that my legs were injured and felt numb.
“We stood watching a group of seamen and soldiers trying to lower our lifeboat and they were having difficulty. The boat was at a cant of about 60 degrees and a sailor was standing on the railing of the ship hitting at something that was holding one end uppermost. While this was going on some fellows were shining their flashlights around and others were yelling angrily at them to put the lights out, that they were giving Fritz a target.
LIFEBOAT PLUNGED SUDDENLY
“Suddenly the efforts of the sailor were successful and the lifeboat went down toward the water at a great speed. At the same time as the boat was released there was a second flash and explosion and the ship listed from starboard to port.
“We started to the other side between the smokestacks and the skipper’s cabin. I grasped the rail along the outside of the cabin and waited thinking it was my end. From here I saw perhaps more than the average individual. First I saw the stern of the ship part from the rest and seem to sink. The ship lurched toward the stern and I was thrown violently to the other side of the small aisle between the cabin and the smokestacks. I grabbed hold of the other rail. I saw someone dive off the bridge. “Just then a rush of water, with a sound like Niagara Falls, came at me, and about now the third torpedo must have hit, because I saw several more flashes and there was a great explosion. I went sky high, and came down and hit something which seemed to be the deck; then water pounded over me dragging me down at a terrific speed. This part of the experience, to me, was the most terrifying.
FOUGHT AS NEVER BEFORE
“I closed my mouth, but as I was swept down the weight on my shoulders increased until I had the sensation of being gradually crushed. While in this predicament strange to say I never once thought of giving up, but fought as I have never fought before.
“I kept struggling upward, but the weight kept pushing me down. I was washed along and then came up and hit my head, then the water turned me around again. The next thing I remember was coming to the surface and grabbing hold of a plank and kicking like the mischief. While still on the deck, I had put on my lifebelt, which was fortunate.
“I had been floating about an hour with the plank for support when I saw an iron drum and transferred to that. Three other fellows were clinging to the drum and I went to it just for the sake of human companionship, although I knew it was not as safe as the plank.
TRANSFERRED TO LIFEBOAT
“The four of us clung to the drum for what seemed to be hours, being ducked by each wave that chose to come our way. Then one chap yelled that an overturned lifeboat was floating by. I did not stop to take into consideration the fact that I could not swim, but struck out for the lifeboat, using every bit of willpower and effort I could, and believe it or not, I got there first.
“I straddled the keel and helped aboard an air force chap whose eye was seriously wounded. Then the two of us pulled up a fellow whose leg was mangled. When we finished getting everybody near us on, we were five in all. Later a sixth man was picked up and we all six survived.”
In the second letter, Tillbrook again took up the story, telling what happened before he and his fellows were finally picked up by a destroyer. He wrote:
“On top of the overturned lifeboat we had at least 10 hours of shivering cold that I have never experienced before and pray God I shall never experience again.
“It was some time before my breathing returned to near normal and as it did I began to chatter and shake . . . When my mind cleared sufficiently to enable me to survey the situation, I decided if we could last for two or three days help was certain.
SANG “RED SAILS IN THE SUNSET”
“Someone started reciting The Lord is my Shepherd.” And the words were hardly distinguishable. Then I more or less commanded that we sing, and of all songs to think of I chose the worst-‘Red Sails in the Sunset.’ I called for another song and another, and found it was quite easy to make this crowd do what ever I suggested. Nobody cared who said what to do but just obeyed impulsively.
“After three or four hours, the fellow nest to me said he was going to give up. At first I did not pay much attention, but as time went on I could see he was serious. I spoke to him bringing forth all kinds of arguments, but he began to slip off the boat. I pulled hard at him and he scrambled back to sit on the keel again. Somebody remarked that the man was going off his head.
“This must have brought some latent instinct of mine into play, because before I realized it I was slapping his face-first slapping one side with my palm, then the other side with the back of my hand.
“An air force lad who was sitting on the other side was I believe the bravest of all. His left eye seemed to me to be hanging down the side of his face and was bleeding profusely, and there is no doubt in my mind that his pain was almost beyond human endurance, but every time I started a song he would join in and sing as best he could. I took a bandage from the ankle of a fellow who said he did not need it and the air force fellow bandaged his own wound.
SHIP’S CARPENTER CAME ABOARD
“Around 2.30 in the morning another overturned lifeboat washed quite close to us, with 13 men on top. One of them jumped aboard us and turned out to be the ship’s carpenter and an able seaman.
“The next and most important episode was the sighting of the destroyer, well on in the morning. It was a considerable time b4efore she actually arrived at the scene and started to pick up the survivors. We were the second to last group0 to be picked up. Debris from the vessel, ripped apart by two torpedoes, endangered crew members and passengers struggling in the water..
Corpl. John W. Chisholm, Halifax resident now overseas, wrote friends that “many fellows were lost” after the ship was attacked around 10.30 p.m., and that among his shipmates who went down with the vessel were “Cal Lang, Wilkinson, Rose and McGovern.”
(He was believed to be referring to C.S.M. Calvert Lang, Halifax; Leslie Wilkinson, Toronto; Farrel McCovern, Ottawa, and Corpl. Lloyd Rose, Sydney, whose loss had been announced previously.)
TELLS OF HIS ESCAPE
Describing how he was awakened from a sound sleep by a great explosion, Chisholm said the blast threw him “out of bed and on to my feet on the deck of the cabin.”
“The water started to pour into the cabin immediately, and although I had on only a pair of pants and a shirt I did not wait to get any more clothes on. I ran into the corridor and saw a steward carrying a flashlight. I followed and got to the boat deck, where there was a lifeboat to which I was assigned.
“About 30 of us managed to get clear of the ship when the second torpedo struck.” Chisholm said in his letter. “I thought the end had come as tons of water and debris of all kinds, including rivets from the boilers, rained down on us.
THINGS HAPPENED FAST
Things happened very fast. We were only about 30 feet away in our boat when the ship plunged to the bottom. We drifted in the dark all night. At 11 next morning a destroyer picked us up. I was the only survivor of the local bunch as Cal Lang, Wilkinson, Rose and McGovern all were lost.
“I can’t imagine how Wilkinson didn’t come through.” Chisholm wrote. The first torpedo put all the lights out, but I heard Wilkinson and he was then moving around all right. I thought he was behind me but in the noise and confusion I could not be sure. He was assigned to my boat but did not make it.”
Chisholm said he believed Rose, sleeping directly above him, had been struck by flying debris. Those who stopped to get their clothes did not have a chance he said.