The Athenia Remembered: September 3, 1939-September 3, 2004 by Michael Poirier

By Michael Poirier. Originally published in Voyage magazine, Titanic International Society,

     The Athenia was not a remarkable ship. She was not noted for her speed, her size, or the beauty of her interiors; which is why only a handful of people remember her today. Yet, the outrage people felt when they heard that this ship, filled with women and children, had been torpedoed without warning caused an uproar and stories of the sinking filled newspapers for months. Imagine what it was like for the people aboard the Athenia? A bulletin was posted for them to read; War had been declared. A few hours later- the unthinkable. This article will take the reader through each step of the voyage. Extensive interviews were done with survivors and relatives of survivors to give the reader a feel as to what it was like to be on the Athenia which had the sad distinction of being the first liner to be sunk during World War Two.

Booking passage aboard the Athenia

Florence ( Kelly ) Roseman: Mother and I sailed from Canada to England in May 1939 on the Athenia ( I was 14 at the time and we had a great trip ) and we were already booked to return on the Athenia on Sept 2, 1939 from Liverpool. During that summer, we visited our relatives in the Isle of Man and traveled in England and Scotland- we had a great summer. We had our cousins and some good friends seeing us off.  Our cousins gave us a 'going home' gift which they bought at Stoners China Shop in Liverpool. They said, 'Don't open it till you get home, because it is specially packed.' Mom always regretted that she never saw that gift. They told us after that it was a tea pot, creamer and sugar bowl.

Charlie Grant: We left England as we were told by the government that war was going to start and that all Americans should leave.

Philip Gunyon: In the early morning hours of Saturday, 2nd of September, 1939, my mother, younger sister, brother and I left our home in London bound for Canada. The only smiling face my mother saw was on the agent who put us aboard the skirmisher, headed out to the Athenia. She was anchored in mid-stream Mersey, ready for a quick get away.

Gerry Hutchinson: I was a delegate from the SCM ( Student Christian Movement ) of Canada. In mid-August, I visited relatives in Scotland booked to sail from Glasgow, August 25th. When I got to the dock, they said, " 'The boat in no sailin'. " It was kept back as a troop ship. So a fresh booking put me on the Athenia a week later. We sailed to Liverpool and took on board 400 young people being evacuated from the anticipated war zone.

Thomas Ritchie: ( I ) was a nineteen year old assistant steward earning 8.75 British pounds a month. We had a regular routine of sailing across the Atlantic. We would leave Glasgow on the Friday afternoon, go down to Liverpool and Belfast where we would pick up more passengers.

Cynthia ( Hunt ) Gustafson: My mother took my sister and me back to England to visit her family sometime in late spring or early summer of 1939. My mother decided she had better get back to Canada because of the threat of war. The Athenia was the only ship available at the time.

Mary Lou Kelly: My sister Estelle and I had first spent the summer going about England and Scotland. Then in August, we went to the North of Ireland to visit my father's people... Well, we were booked to leave Ireland, the last Saturday in August, but on Thursday of that week we received word that the British government had taken over the ship- we knew war was possible... We were staying with cousins of my father and they inquired at once in Belfast. They learned the Athenia was the only ship leaving the British Isles. I was 30- very concerned about getting back late- as I and my sister were both teaching.

Wilhemina Greer: As our sailing was cancelled at the last moment, I took the first vessel I could get which happened to be the SS Athenia. I was so glad to be able to get a berth on that boat as the war clouds were gathering there in Europe. I wanted to return before anything really did happen.

Sylvia ( Greer ) Love: Days earlier, the SS California, on which Mother and I were originally booked out of Belfast, had failed to sail, and fate put us on the next boat out- the ill-fated Athenia.

Impressions of the Athenia

Florence ( Kelly ) Roseman: We boarded the Athenia in Liverpool in late afternoon- sailed that evening. Traveled the Irish Sea ( passed the I.O.M. ) and then around the north of Ireland into the Atlantic.
We had a cabin just for Mom and I ( but we had booked in May ). Of course, the Athenia, looked different than our May sailing; very crowded, all portholes and windows painted black, no one was allowed to smoke on deck or light a match.

Philip Gunyon: Our cabin was small, with three bunks for the four of us and she ( Mother ) spent the first night curled up at the foot of my two year old brother's bunk. Our cabin was on 'B' deck and we were travelling cabin class... I recall the ship's paint, shining white in the bright sun.

Gerry Hutchinson: It was homebound and it looked wonderful. Everything was crowded. The lounges, in the main, filled with bunks, and the dining room crowded as well. I think it ( the cabin ) had four bunks, but we had little time in it.

Thomas Ritchie: We were jam packed. They were sleeping everywhere, even in the bathrooms. Like the rest of the crew, I was surprised we were allowed to sail unescorted. We were sure that when we left Belfast there would be a destroyer with us, or some form of escort. But the only precautions we had were that our portholes were painted black and covered with metal plates.

Cynthia ( Hunt ) Gustafson: I do not know what class we travelled. All my mother could get was a cabin on 'D' deck.

Mary Lou Kelly:  Needless to say, it was stuffed to the brim- even the public rooms were turned into dormatories. We did have a stateroom, but many slept in the public rooms.

Sylvia ( Greer ) Love: Because I was sick in our cabin most of the time, I have no lasting impression of the Athenia, except that it seemed like an awfully big boat. The cabin was small, with bunk beds, no port hole.   ( third class, I think )

Daily routine aboard the Athenia

Florence ( Kelly ) Roseman: We only had about 24 hours on the ship before she was torpedoed. We did have a lifeboat drill and we signed up for our dining time and all the crew were very helpful and pleasant.

Charlie Grant: Not much time to see much of the ship as we only had about twenty four hours aboard, so no daily routine was set.

Philip Gunyon: The usual activities for children were walking on deck, touring the lounges. I particularly recall the gymnasium with it's mechanical horses, stationary bicycles and rowing machines. Finally, we had a 'mandatory' rest in the afternoon.

Gerry Hutchinson: I remember one evening of sing song, but again, we had so little time.

Thomas Ritchie: There were so many on board we had to serve meals in three sittings.

Mary Lou Kelly: I remember the overall was very pleasant- enjoyed the deck space and being on the deck for walking and such. We did meet people, especially in the dining room during meals. We did the usual- some reading. We had taken some books from the library- which I felt guilty about that we had not returned them.

Wilhemina Greer: The other passengers were looking forward to seeing their loved ones too, and each one of us would tell what we were bringing home to our friends and family. We planned to make them so happy with our gifts from the old country.

Sylvia ( Greer ) Love: I don't recall the ship's daily routine, except I do remember the lifeboat instructions. I had no opportunity to play with the others, because I was ill most of the time.

The last day on the Athenia

Florence ( Kelly ) Roseman: It was Sunday and we went to the Church service. After, the service, the Captain posted notices advising us that England and France had declared war on Germany. We spent the afternoon out on the deck and then we went for 6 p.m. dining time.

Philip Gunyon: The next morning, feeling very much rested, we were ready to enjoy the glorious sea air. During the day, Captain James Cook, OBE, ordered a lifeboat drill. Our boat station was on the deck just above our cabin. To reach it, we walked down a passage, through the smoking room, up a flight of stairs and then a short way along the deck.

Gerry Hutchinson: We had been informed at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, that war had been declared. Naturally fears were awakened- we were well out into the North Atlantic, but what if we were already in someone's sights? Three of us in our twenties joined forces in investigating the equipment if needed. We found there were 26 lifeboats and a few liferafts... We know that we had at least 1440 on board. The rule was 'women and children first.' In event of trouble, we young men would be at the back of the line. In all probability, there would be no boat for us.

Thomas Ritchie: When the Captain got word just after 11:00 a.m. that war had been declared, notices were posted through out the ship. The first reaction of young ones like myself was that it would be great action.

Cynthia ( Hunt ) Gustafson: I do not remember how we passed the time as you know, we were torpedoed on our first night out.

Mary Lou Kelly: We attended the church service Sunday. It was good- I remember that psalm 93 was part of the service. My mind goes back to that service every time I hear it read. They also sang, 'Eternal Father Strong to Save', I also think of that service when I hear that hymn.

Wilhemina Greer: On Sunday afternoon, a notice was posted, " England has declared war on Germany. " We were all sad about it, but still thought ourselves safe as we were getting farther and farther away from Europe.

Sylvia ( Greer ) Love: A notice of the war declaration had been posted earlier that day. The allies had stood by as Hitler invaded Austria, then Chechoslovakia and finally, Poland. Many on board had feared such an event.

The final moments before disaster

Florence ( Kelly ) Roseman: Mom and I had just come up from dinner about 7 p.m. - Mom decided to stay in the lounge and read while I decided to take a walk on the deck.

Charlie Grant: I was on deck, by the after hatch on the starboard side.

Philip Gunyon: Around 7 p.m., Mother dressed us for bed and helped us with our prayers, which end, " keep me safe till morning light. " Putting on an evening skirt and blouse, she tucked us into our bunks with our favorite stuffed animals and went down to dinner.

Gerry Hutchinson: I was in the second sitting for supper, and found on the table a letter from the Captain apologizing for the crowded conditions, explaining that, " I hope you will overlook any inconvenience that might occur. " Following the meal, I was walking alone in a darkened corridor to reach the deck when the 'first' incovenience occured!

Thomas Ritchie: We were serving the evening meal and I was in the pantry.

Cynthia ( Hunt ) Gustafson: My sister and I were alseep. Our mother was on her way up to dinner.

Mary Lou Kelly: We had had our dinner- my sister and I had gone to the cabin. I had gone up on deck for a little walk, but as it was getting dark, because the ship was in total blackout, I left to return to the room.

Sylvia ( Greer ) Love: Mother had stayed with me rather than going up to dinner.

The Torpedoing

Florence ( Kelly ) Roseman: Just as I opened the door and stepped out onto the deck, there was this terrific explosion and the ship seemed to shudder and you could feel it sinking down a little.

Charlie Grant: When the torpedo hit, it tossed me into the air and I landed on the deck with the other boys I was talking with.

Philip Gunyon: I was not quite asleep. Suddenly I heard and felt a terrific thump. In later years, watching war movies which showed merchant ships being torpedoed on the Atlantic convoys, I couldn't reconcile those spectacular explosions with the one I had felt on the Athenia. Still, it was severe and the huge ship suddenly lurched and took a decided list, then slowly went dead in the water.

Gerry Hutchinson: Complete darkness. Massive explosion in the rear, the ship lurched sideways, gun smoke thick in the air. I recovered my balance and reached the deck to find chaos everywhere. A friend told me that he taken an orange from supper, and was leaning on the rail enjoying the scene while lazily peeling the orange. His first impression was the orange had jumped out of his hands.

Thomas Ritchie: There was this enormous explosion followed by a sensation of great heat. All the lights went out immediately and everything was in total darkness.

Mary Lou Kelly: I had just stepped into the room when the torpedo hit. We were on the opposite side of where the torpedo hit. Our side was not damaged- many were killed where the torpedo hit. When we heard the bang, I remember saying, " I didn't think that they would do it. "

Wilhemina Greer: Sylvia had been sick most of the day so we retired early. About ten minutes after, we heard a terrible explosion.

Sylvia ( Greer ) Love: Mother and I were in bed in our cabin when the first torpedo struck- smashing through the galley and exploding in the engine room. We felt the shock, and the lights went out throughout the ship.

Aftermath of the explosion

Florence ( Kelly ) Roseman: When I looked up, I could see the hatch just ahead had been blown up and several people who had been sitting on the hatch had been blown up in the air and then landed on the deck- all blackened and lifeless. All the electricity was off, so when I looked into the lounge, it was pitch black. Knowing she was in the lounge, I waited for her and she finally came out. She had been thrown across the lounge... her purse was gone- all our money, passports, etc- gone.

Charlie Grant: After landing on deck, I headed towards the deck house to find my mother. All the lights were out and the stairway had collapsed, so I couldn't get to our stateroom, so I headed for the lifeboat station.

Philip Gunyon: I sat up in the bunk and waited. The stewardess arrived first, followed very soon by Mother. Down in the dining room, she had been seated at a table near the stairs. She ordered soup. While waiting for it to arrive, she read the Captain's notice apologizing for the reduced level of service. The soup soon came and she laid down the notice, took up her soup spoon and dipped it into the soup. It never reached her mouth. Mother made for the nearby stairs. She remembered the directions- two flights up and turn left twice. Reaching our passageway she turned into a cabin. It was empty! Hurrying out, she found the right one and found us. Together, the stewardess and Mother put lifebelts on my sister Barbara and I. Little Andrew was too small for one... We moved into the passageway. It seemed smoky and smelled of cordite.

Gerry Hutchinson: Families scattered and trying to find each other, a group sitting on the loose planking over the open hold, had apparently disappeared altogether, since of course the force of the blast followed that opening. The ship had already begun to sink at the tail end so that the lifeboats, hanging on pulleys, were awkward.  Very soon after the blast, the list was frightening, and produced panic, but presumably because of the bulkheads holding, it stopped at that level, then lurched again. 

Thomas Ritchie: When I came out of the pantry into the dining room there was screaming and panic. Some of the pipes on the deck heads burst and were spurting crude oil. The first staircase we came to was blown off and we had to climb to the deck above by little ledges.

Cynthia ( Hunt ) Gustafson: I do remember walking in water up to my knees when my mother came back and started up the stairs to the deck with us. I do not remember any list.

Mary Lou Kelly: We did put on lifejackets and warm clothing like our bathrobes, sweaters, and our coats. We did take our handbags and a flashlight and blankets.

Wilhemina Greer: We quickly got out of bed and rushed outside the cabin door; the gas fumes were terrible; debris lying around everywhere. I said to Sylvia, " What shall we do? We are going to drown and we will never see your father and the boys again. "

Sylvia ( Greer ) Love: In our night clothes, we rushed to the door. As we stepped into the corridor, we felt water around our bare feet. On the way to the stairs, I said to Mother, " We'd better take our lifejackets. "
We hurried back to the cabin and put them on. As we again sloshed our way through water ( which was almost up to our knees ) and debris toward the stairs, we smelled fuel oil fumes.

The scenes on deck

Florence ( Kelly ) Roseman: Every once in awhile, you could feel the ship sink a little. At the time of the explosion, there was some panic, but the crew handled the passengers very well and got us all directed to a lifeboat.

Philip Gunyon: The smoking room floor was wet and Mother fell. But she was up again quickly and moving through the swelling crowds, we hurried to our boat station to see the boat being lowered as we arrived. Now we prepared to enter our lifeboat. It was swinging from it's davits, in and out. Somebody lifted me to the ship's rail. Looking down, I saw dark and angry waves below. As the lifeboat swung in to the rail, I was pitched headlong into it. How Mother made it with two other children, I don't know.

Gerry Hutchinson: The crowd gradually thinned out, boat after boat. Late in the game, our ship was already tilted sharply upwards in front, low in the water in the rear. I came across two men holding tight to the heavy ropes of a lifeboat, calling for help. We learned later that the boats should be lowered empty, with passengers lowered into them, but in many cases the boats were loaded at the railing, and then lowered with heavy strain. I joined them and called for help. The weight of the boat pulled against the two men- it ran through my hands-  I involuntarily reached into my pockets to use tam for protection. The two men somehow summoned the strength to stop the running rope which threatened it's precious cargo.

Thomas Ritchie: I climbed into my boat and we were loading it with women and children, but we were hindered by groups of male passengers, all very excited and panicking. They were shoving the women and kids aside and trying to scramble on the boats. Each boat carries a couple of axes and I grabbed one. I'm only 5'3, but I must have looked a bit menacing with it. They all backed off and we got loaded up with women and children. I didn't at anytime see my Dad who was a saloon steward with a different lifeboat station.

Cynthia ( Hunt ) Gustafson: My mother described how she tapped a sailor who straddled the railing, by a lifeboat, on the shoulder. He turned and lifted my sister into the boat. She tapped him again and he put me in and then she climbed over the railing and jumped in to be with us.

Mary Lou Kelly: When we got to our boat station there was a woman in a white silk nightgown ( period! )
to whom we gave one of the robes. The lifeboat we were supposed to get into was loaded. That meant we wandered aboard the decks for sometime until we were able to get into a lifeboat. There was a sort of powder on the decks- they said that came from shelling.

Sylvia ( Greer ) Love: On deck, there was noise and confusion as we pushed our way to our pre-assigned lifeboat station. A man told us the boat could not be launched so we groped our way to another.

The lifeboat situation

Florence ( Kelly ) Roseman: When we went to a lifeboat station, and as soon as I started to get into the lifeboat- someone said the lifeboat was full- so I backed out because Mom could not get in with me. We waited for the next one, which turned out to be lucky for us, because as they lowered the first boat, one of the ropes broke and it dropped into the ocean. Our lifeboat was lowered safely... Our first job was to find the oars ( we had one crewman ) and then row away from the Athenia before she sank. It was a cold, dark night with a heavy roll on the ocean- also rained during the night. We had to bail water out of the lifeboat with our shoes. We did sing hymns and call to the other boats- but once we got away from the Athenia, we did not see any lifeboats until daybreak.

Charlie Grant: We got into a lifeboat, and as it was being lowered by the falls, the after end parted, almost dumping us in the ocean. The person at the forward end let go and we hit the water like a sub diving.

Philip Gunyon: There was trouble with the ropes at one end when we finally reached the water and they could not be released. We moved quickly in case we should be drawn in by the suction. A young girl took Andrew and the blanket and Mother held Barbara. I sat nearby. Not far away we all saw the huge, beautiful ship remaining very steady and with only a slight list. There was water in the boat up to our knees... Some people were being sick, others struck up a hymn and tried to keep spirits up by singing. The three of us huddled under a rug, like a tent, to keep off the rain and the wind.

Gerry Hutchinson: Once they were gone I suddenly realized that I stood alone on the deck- silent in the dark. Naturally, I had no way of knowing what was happening elsewhere, but felt, " Alone, all- all alone, alone on the darkened sea. And I would that my tongue could utter the thoughts that arise in me. "
I remembered my earlier realization that there would be no boat for me- but now felt the cold depth. Then, I heard voices- from the other side of the ship- Come! Come! A rope ladder hung from the railing to a boat, already crowded, waiting for me- and I live again- never quite the same. No water, good conditions of seats and oars. We had only two seriously hurt people. Two cooks were cooking fish in vats of boiling oil. The explosion dumped the oil over both of them.

Thomas Ritchie: We started rowing away as hard as we could away from the ship and when I looked back she appeared to be going down by the stern. We were unable to pick up any more survivors for if we had, we would have sunk too. The women had their shoes off and were bailing out with them.

Cynthia ( Hunt ) Gustafson: I believe it was a clear night. I do remember in my child's mind thinking that the boat had no bottom because my feet were in the water, but it did not concern me.

Mary Lou Kelly: We climbed into the boat from one of the top decks ( the regular boat stations were on the lowest decks- where one was supposed to step into the lifeboat as it was lowered. The boat should take about 50 people. They said there were about 70 in the boat- all women and children, except for five men. When we were lowered, the ropes did not hold and we were literally dumped into the ocean- we went completely under. But they did pull the boat on top of the water. The crash split some of the boards in the bottom of the boat, As a result of the damage we had to keep bailing all night.

Wilhemina Greer: For twelve hours we were tossed about in the boat, clad only in night clothes. On and off there were showers. Most of us were sick from the gas. Now as I look back upon those hours I can see the Lord's protecting power.

Sylvia ( Greer ) Love: It was crowded with some 70 people, mostly women and children, but with a few men to do the rowing. The lifeboat was lowered into heavy seas and we cleared the Athenia as quickly as possible. Directed by a ship's officer, our lifeboat joined a semicircle with several others. The point where we went down was described as 'The Devil's Hole' about 250 miles west of the Hebrides islands. Strange as it sounds, as nausea hit me, a kindly man handed me his hat- no barf bags on lifeboats.

The Rescue

Florence ( Kelly ) Roseman: At daybreak, we finally saw on the horizon, four ships- two gray ships and two white ships. These turned out to be two British destroyers, the HMS Escort and the HMS Electra. The Knute Nelson ( Norway ) and the Southern Cross ( Sweden ). We finally saw one gray ship 'zig-zag' toward us- it was the HMS Escort! With the lifeboat along side the destroyer, which then lowered a rope ladder. One at a time, we started up the ladder- as soon as we grabbed the ladder,  two sailors ( who were laying flat on the deck with two more sailors behind them holding their feet ) held us under our arms and pulled us up onto the deck. They were afraid we would fall in slip between the lifeboat and the destroyer.

Charlie Grant: The Knute Nelson picked us up the next morning and dropped us off in Galway, Ireland.

Philip Gunyon: As dawn brightened, we saw two British destroyers approaching. What a joyful sight. One of the destroyers, HMS Electra, soon drew near to our boat. Down came a rope ladder followed by a great, tall sturdy sailor. One look at him was enough- we were safe! More sailors dropped into the boat and began to get us onboard.

Gerry Hutchinson: We took some passengers from an overcrowded boat, and reached the rescue ship about 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. The Knute Nelson was enroute to South America when they received the distress signal. The sea was still rolling so it was difficult to keep position. The ship's crew had two methods of reaching us- the rope ladder or a single rope with a loop at the end fitted with a board. An older woman sat in the swing, leaning into the ropes in front of her. The team found the pull quite heavy and resorted to a heave-ho system. Some of us watching over the railing called out the warning that she seemed to be tiring, and leaning further back, so they steadied the pull. But just 7 or 8 feet below the railing, suddenly her hands slipped away from the ropes, and she tumbled backwards out of the swing. But miraculously, as she fell, her feet spread apart and caught in the V at each side of the swing board. She hung by the feet, skirts falling over her head. One man went over the railing, another held his feet ito the V. The rest pulled cautiously, soon others could reach them and then she was on her feet again on the deck- she pulled her clothes back into order and said, " Whew! That was a close one! If I had fallen into the boat, I would have killed them! "

Thomas Ritchie: It was about 4:30 in the morning and we were still rowing away when suddenly a search light was put on us from a ship nearby. When we got nearer we could see a glow. It was the Norwegian flag painted on her sides and lit up. The sea was running against us and it seemed we were taking two steps forward and three back. We were hauled aboard and a big Swede helped me, put a woolen jumper over my shoulders, gave me a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes and told me to go to lounge to get a cup of hot soup.

Cynthia ( Hunt ) Gustafson: We were picked up by a private ship called the Southern Cross out of Sweden. Then an American freighter, the City of Flint, arrived and we were given the option of transferring to it to continue our trip to North America.

Mary Lou Kelly: When some rescue ships came we could not get to them. I didn't feel strong enough to take an oar, but when our little fellow finally said, " It's no use- we will never get anywhere. " I found myself yelling, " Pull in the right and on the left. " I never felt myself decide to speak up- I guess God let it come out. We had to hold onto the rope ladder which was let down the side. It didn't always work- our hands were oily and could not hold on. Finally, my sister and I asked if they could pull us up. They said, " Oh yes, " and so they pulled us up like a bag of meal. Estelle insisted I go first, so I waited on the deck until she was pulled up.

Wilhemina Greer: We were picked up by a British destroyer. Words fail to express the kindness of those sailors. They gave us their beds and slept on the floor; they shared their food; gave us clothes, shoes, socks, even overcoats.

Sylvia ( Greer ) Love: Our boats were spotted by the Britsh destroyer Electra. Our men rowed the lifeboat alongside the warship, which dropped rope ladders to us. One man ( I think he had been drinking ) stood up and lurched toward the rope ladder. Just then, a wave caught our boat and threw him over the side. He was crushed between our boat and the destroyer.

The voyage home

Florence ( Kelly ) Roseman: As the Orizaba sailed down the Clyde from Glasgow, we saw the Queen Elizabeth I being painted gray. It was used as a troop ship during WWII. All the workmen knew we were survivors of the Athenia and they waved and called, 'good luck' to us. We stopped at Galway Bay for more survivors. The trip home on the Orizaba was nice and quiet- some passengers would not go their cabins and would not go on deck- they did not want to see the ocean again. My Dad met us in New York City and as we stood in Time Square- the ticker-tape read, 'Athenia Survivors Arrive in New York Today.'

Charlie Grant: We returned to the United States on the SS Orizaba.

Philip Gunyon: By morning, we came in sight of Scotland. A friend of my father's appeared like a fairy godfather. He had us installed in no time at a quiet hotel. I got a new stuffed toy, a Scottie dog I named 'Larry' to replace those who had gone down on the Athenia. On Sunday, 1st October, we embarked for New York aboard the United States Line's Washington. Arriving in New York Harbor on the 12th October, shipyard workers repainted the huge American flag on each side of the Washington's hull. Andrew's underpants hung out the porthole to dry, received a coat of red paint.

Gerry Hutchinson: The two cooks so badly burned were given their best treatment. Since I had been so recently hospitalized, I visited them. Our advice was that one of them had a 50-50 chance of survival, the other almost none. I think he knew. As I turned to leave, he said, " Will you take my watch? " I have it to this day.

Thomas Ritchie: As we headed back to Scotland, we came upon the Athenia. She was still afloat and listing that same way at the stern. She seemed to tip right up into a perpendicular position and went straight down. It had been peculiar seeing her again and brought a lump to my throat. The crew were each given 5 pounds from the shipping company who later deducted it from our wages. We met a young gentleman from London to see the American survivors. I'll always remember him- he was a lovely chap and seemed genuinely interested as he spoke to us about our ordeal. He was John F. Kennedy.

Cynthia ( Hunt ) Gustafson: We spent the rest of the trip in sailor's shirts and shoes made for us of a rope base and canvas uppers. I had my 6th birthday on the City of Flint and was presented with a birthday cake of bread and jam with toothpicks for candles. Spent our days playing with a puppy that was on board.

Mary Lou Kelly: There were people who were really injured and they treated them like a piece of china. We did not get to Glasgow till Tuesday p.m. Estelle and I were in the dining room all the time- used tables for a bed. The USA sent the Orizaba for us- a pleasant trip home.

Wilhemina Greer: Again, Sylvia comforted me saying, " Don't worry about it. God brought us here safely, and He'll take us home safely. " At last the ship arrived that USA had sent to take us home and the moment I set foot on the Orizaba such a calmness of spirit came over me. I had the assurance that we would have a safe voyage.

Sylvia ( Greer ) Love: US Ambassador to England, Joseph Kennedy sent his son, John, to look after the American survivors. he decided that only American citizens could board the Orizaba. There was a tense moment while Mother argued with the young future president who had ruled that I with my US passport could go, but my mother, who carried a British passport, from her native Ulster, could not. The argument was finally resolved in Mother's favor and we boarded the Orizaba. We arrived home September 27, 1939 and to this day, I have never set foot on an ocean-going vessel. I also will probably be the only person on the planet who will never see the movie, 'Titanic.' I hope James Cameron will understand.

Author's note: This project was begun many years ago, and now due to an influx of new material, it is now complete. Special thanks to survivors- Philip Gunyon, Cynthia Gustafson, Sylvia Love, Mary Lou Kelly, Charlie Grant, Gerry Hutchinson and Florence Roseman. Thanks also to Gregg Jasper, Gladys Krasse, and Rob Hutchinson ( son of Gerry Hutchinson ) who put me in touch with survivors; Alistair Ritchie who sent me a copy of his late father's account; Dr. Doug Willingham who supplied another first hand account I had not seen before. A big thank you to Jim Kalafus for his help and expertise in all projects.

Athenia trivia: Mary Lou Kelly and her sister Estelle had a connection to the Lusitania. Their mother graduated from Wellesley College with Sara ( Conner ) Fisher  whose sister, Dorothy Conner, and husband, Howard Fisher, were survivors of the Lusitania.

Used with permission.


Hello Terry

I had read Mac's log with much interest about 6 years ago. My father (Gerald M Hutchinson) was having a resurgence in his interest in his experiences aboard the Athenia in 1939.  I was also in contact with Emily Malcolm in Glasgow.

I am writing today to have his name removed from the list of survivors still alive. He passed away on April 14th, 2015, a peaceful death at 101 years.


Rob Hutchinson (son)


See Ahoy's "The Athenia Page, index to articles about Passenger Liner Athenia"


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