Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Adventure classics -- Legend of the 'unsinkable' ship lives on

A Night to Remember

by Walter Lord


In 1955, more than forty years after the 1912 sinking of the “unsinkable” passenger ship Titanic, former OSS clerk Walter Lord’s book, A Night to Remember, single- handedly raised the ship, in the world’s consciousness, if not from its bed 13,000 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic.

Maybe the question is -- why did anybody care? And why, more than a hundred years later, do we still care?

“There have been massive changes in the world since 1912,” Lord wrote in his 1986 sequel, The Night Lives On, written after discovery of the wreck’s final resting place ignited a fresh round of excitement. “We don’t even cross the ocean the same way now, and two great wars have numbed us to casualty lists. Compared to the implications of a nuclear confrontation, the figures of ‘souls lost’ in a shipwreck -- any shipwreck -- seem almost quaint. Given the world today, one might supposed that people would no longer be gripped by the Titanic.”

Perhaps it makes us long for those supposedly simpler days when ship captains could be expected to go down with their ships, instead of crassly abandoning them, as the captain of a more recently wrecked cruise liner is alleged to have done. For an era of noblesse oblige, when fabulously wealthy socialites donned white tie and tails in the face of disaster. Or when devoted couples such as philanthropists Isidor and Ida Straus could proclaim their intention to die as they had lived, together.

The frequently-mentioned reluctance of wives to abandon their husbands sounds noble, but its effect was to delay filling the lifeboats, several of which had to be launched only
partially filled. And as Lord wrote, the reluctance may have been more often fueled by an unwillingness to leave the still apparently safe and warm ship for the 28 degree F. temperatures in the lifeboats. This reluctance vanished once the steeply sloping decks signaled the Titanic’s imminent doom. In all, more than 1,500 of the ship’s passengers and crew perished.

Lord’s book chronicled the final hours of the Titanic, beginning with her collision with an iceberg at 11:40 p.m., April 14, 1912. His meticulous reconstruction draws heavily on eyewitness testimony from the subsequent U.S. and British investigations, and placed the disaster in the context of its Edwardian world. Never again could a ship sail without enough lifeboats for all aboard. And although no one except the ship’s drowned Captain Edward J. Smith was held officially responsible for the disaster, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star company which owned Titanic, who helped himself to a seat on one of the last lifeboats, would spend the rest of his life trying vainly to shake his reputation as the “coward of the Titanic.”

Given the pandemonium accompanying the ship’s last hours, the official investigations (and Lord’s subsequent book) had to make some judgements about who to believe. So although several survivors stated the ship appeared to be breaking up as it went under, the original investigations held that the ship was intact when it sank.

(I chose Willy Stower’s contemporary drawing to illustrate this post for its dramatic appeal, even though it shows the ship intact instead of breaking up, as became apparent when the separate bow and stern sections of the wreck were finally located. Not to mention that the illustration shows all four funnels working although the fourth one was only a dummy added to the ship for cosmetic purposes.)

Even a century later, questions still remain, including why the ship sank so much faster than anyone thought possible. I found the suggestion in Brad Matsen’s Titanic’s Last Secrets -- that the hull of the Titanic as well as of its sister ships Olympic and Britannic suffered from weak expansion joints. Through all the speculation, Lord’s book stands alone for the breadth and depth of its coverage of the human side of the tragedy.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics ends an August of adventures at sea with Charles Nordhoff and James Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty.)

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