The Sinking of the Laconia
by Floyd Gibbons
(Floyd's story appeared in newspapers throughout the
Queenstown, February 26, 1917
I have serious doubts whether this is a real story.
I am not entirely certain that it is not all a dream. I feel that
in a few minutes I may wake up back in stateroom B-19 on the promenade
deck of the Cunarder Laconia and hear my cockney steward
informing me with an abundance of "and sirs" that it
is a fine morning.
It is now a little over thirty hours since I stood
on the slanting decks of the big liner, listened to the lowering
of the lifeboats, and heard the hiss of escaping steam and the
roar of ascending rockets as they tore lurid rents in the black
sky and cast their red glare over the roaring sea.
I am writing this within thirty minutes after stepping
on the dock here in Queenstown from the British mine sweeper which
picked up our open lifeboat after an eventful six hours of drifting
and darkness and bailing and pulling on the oars and of straining
aching eyes toward that empty, meaningless horizon in search of
But dream or fact, here it is:
The Cunard liner Laconia, 18,000 tons burden,
carrying seventy-three passengers men, women, and children
of whom six were American citizens manned by a mixed crew of
two hundred and sixteen, bound from New York to Liverpool, and
loaded with foodstuffs, cotton, and war material, was torpedoed
without warning by a German submarine last night off the Irish
coast. The vessel sank in about forty minutes.
Two American citizens, mother and daughter, listed
from Chicago, and former residents there, are among the dead.
They were Mrs. Mary E. Hoy and Miss Elizabeth Hoy. I have talked
with a seaman who was in the same lifeboat with the two Chicago
women and he has told me that he saw their lifeless bodies washing
out of the sinking lifeboat.
The American survivors are Mrs. F. E. Harris, of
Philadelphia, who was the last woman to leave the Laconia;
the Rev. Father Wareing, of St. Joseph's Seminary, Baltimore;
Arthur T. Kirby, of New York, and myself.
A former Chicago woman, now the wife of a British
subject, was among the survivors. She is Mrs. Henry George Boston,
the daughter of Granger Farwell, of Lake Forest.
After leaving New York, passengers and crew had had
three drills with the lifeboats. All were supplied with lifebelts
and assigned to places in the twelve big lifeboats poised over
the side from the davits of the top deck.
Submarines had been a chief part of the conversation
during the entire trip, but the subject had been treated lightly,
although all ordered precautions were strictly in force. After
the first explanatory drill on the second day out from New York,
from which we sailed on Saturday, February 17, the "abandon
ship" signal five quick blasts on the whistle had summoned
us twice to our lifebelts and heavy wraps, among which I included
a flask and a flashlight, and to a roll call in front of our assigned
boats on the top deck.
On Sunday we knew generally we were in the danger
zone, though we did not know definitely where we were or at
least the passengers did not. In the afternoon during a short
chat with Captain W. R. D. Irvine, the ship's commander, I had
mentioned that I would like to see a chart and note our position
on the ocean. He replied: "Oh, would you?" with a smiling,
rising inflection that meant, "It is jolly well none of your
Prior to this my cheery early-morning steward had
told us that we would make Liverpool by Monday night and I used
this information in another question to the captain.
"When do we land?" I asked.
"I don't know," replied Capt. Irvine, but
my steward told me later it would be Tuesday after dinner.
The first cabin passengers were gathered in the lounge
Sunday evening, with the exception of the bridge fiends in the
"Poor Butterfly" was dying wearily on the
talking machine and several couples were dancing.
About the tables in the smoke-room the conversation
was limited to the announcement of bids and orders to the stewards.
Before the fireplace was a little gathering which had been dubbed
as the Hyde Park corner an allusion I don't quite fully understand.
This group had about exhausted available discussion when I projected
a new bone of contention.
"What do you say are our chances of being torpedoed?"
"Well," drawled the deliberative Mr. Henry
Chetham, a London solicitor, "I should say four thousand
Lucien J. Jerome, of the British diplomatic service,
returning with an Ecuadorian valet from South America, interjected:
"Considering the zone and the class of this ship, I should
put it down at two hundred and fifty to one that we don't meet
At this moment the ship gave a sudden lurch sideways
and forward. There was a muffled noise like the slamming of some
large door at a good distance away. The slightness of the shock
and the meekness of the report compared with my imagination were
disappointing. Every man in the room was on his feet in an instant.
"We're hit!" shouted Mr. Chetham.
"That's what we've been waiting for," said
"What a lousy torpedo!" said Mr. Kirby
in typical New Yorkese. "It must have been a fizzer."
I looked at my watch. It was 10:30 P.M.
Then came the five blasts on the whistle. We rushed
down the corridor leading from the smoke-room at the stern to
the lounge, which was amidships. We were running, but there was
no panic. The occupants of the lounge were just leaving by the
forward doors as we entered.
It was dark on the landing leading down to the promenade
deck, where the first-class staterooms were located. My pocket
flashlight, built like a fountain pen, came in handy on the landing.
We reached the promenade deck. I rushed into my stateroom,
B-19, grabbed my overcoat and the water bottle and special life-preserver
with which the Tribune had equipped me before sailing.
Then I made my way to the upper deck on that same dark landing.
I saw the chief steward opening an electric switch
box in the wall and turning on the switch. Instantly the boat
decks were illuminated. That illumination saved lives.
The torpedo had hit us well astern on the starboard
side and had missed the engines and the dynamos. I had not noticed
the deck lights before. Throughout the voyage our decks had remained
dark at night and all cabin portholes were clamped down and all
windows covered with opaque paint.
The illumination of the upper deck on which I stood
made the darkness of the water sixty feet below appear all the
blacker when I peered over the edge at my station, boat No. 10.
Already the boat was loading up and men were busy
with the ropes. I started to help near a davit that seemed to
be giving trouble, but I was stoutly ordered to get out of the
way and get into the boat.
We were on the port side, practically opposite the
engine well. Up and down the deck passengers and crew were donning
lifebelts, throwing on overcoats, and taking positions in the
boats. There were a number of women, but only one appeared hysterical
little Miss Titsie Siklosi, a French-Polish actress, who was
being cared for by her manager, Cedric P. Ivatt, appearing on
the passenger list as from New York.
Steam began to hiss somewhere from the giant gray
funnels that towered above. Suddenly there was a roaring swish
as a rocket soared upward from the captain's bridge, leaving a
comet's tail of fire. I watched it as it described a graceful
arc in the black void overhead, and then, with an audible pop,
it burst into a flare of brilliant white light.
There was a tilt to the deck. It was listing to starboard
at just the angle that would make it necessary to reach for support
to enable one to stand upright. In the meantime electric floodlights
large white enameled funnels containing clusters of bulbs
had been suspended from the promenade deck and illuminated the
dark water that rose and fell on the slanting side of the ship.
"Lower away!" Someone gave the order and
we started down with a jerk towards the seemingly hungry rising
and falling swells.
Then we stopped with another jerk and remained suspended
in mid-air while the man at the bow and the stern swore and tussled
with the lowering ropes. The stern of the lifeboat was down, the
bow up, leaving us at an angle of about forty-five degrees. We
clung to the seats to save ourselves from falling out.
"Who's got a knife, a knife, a knife!"
shouted a sweating seaman in the bow. "Great God, give him a knife!" bawled
a half-dressed, jibbering Negro stoker, who wrung his hands in the stern.
A hatchet was thrust into my hand and I forwarded
it to the bow. There was a flash of sparks as it crashed down
on the holding pulley. One strand of rope parted and down plunged
the bow, too quick for the stern man. We came to a jerky stop
with the stern in the air and the bow down, but the stern managed
to lower away until the dangerous angle was eliminated.
Then both tried to lower together. The list of the
ship's side became greater, but, instead of our boat sliding down
it like a toboggan, the taffrail caught and was held. As the lowering
continued, the other side dropped down and we found ourselves
clinging on at a new angle and looking straight down on the water.
A hand slipped into mine and a voice sounded huskily
close to my ear. It was the little old German-Jew traveling man
who was disliked in the smoke-room because he used to speak too
certainly of things he was uncertain of and whose slightly Teutonic
dialect made him as popular as smallpox with the British passengers.
"My boy, I can't see nutting," he said.
"My glasses slipped and I am falling. Hold me, please."
I managed to reach out and join hands with another
man on the other side of the old man and together we held him
in. He hung heavily over our arms, grotesquely grasping all he
had saved from his stateroom a goldheaded cane and an extra
Many hands and feet pushed the boat from the side
of the ship and we sagged down again, this time smacking squarely
on the pillowy top of a rising swell. It felt more solid than
midair, at least. But we were far from being off. The pulleys
twice stuck in their fastenings, bow and stern, and the one axe
passed forward and back, and with it my flashlight, as the entangling
ropes that held us to the sinking Laconia were cut away.
Some shout from that confusion of sound caused me
to look up and I really did so with the fear that one of the nearby
boats was being lowered upon us.
A man was jumping, as I presumed, with the intention
of landing in the boat and I prepared to avoid the impact, but
he passed beyond us and plunged into the water three feet from
the edge of the boat. He bobbed to the surface immediately.
"It's Duggan!" shouted a man next to me.
I flashed the light on the ruddy, smiling face and
water-plastered hair of the little Canadian, our fellow saloon
passenger. We pulled him over the side. He sputtered out a mouthful
of water and the first words he said were:
"I wonder if there is anything to that lighting
three cigarettes off the same match? I was up above trying to
loosen the rope to this boat. I loosened it and then got tangled
up in it. The boat went down, but I was jerked up. I jumped for
His first reference concerned our deliberate tempting
of fates early in the day when he, Kirby, and I lighted three
cigarettes from the same match and Duggan told us that he had
done the same thing many a time.
As we pulled away from the side of the ship, its
ranking and receding terrace of lights stretched upward. The ship
was slowly turning over. We were opposite that part occupied by
the engine room. There was a tangle of oars, spars, and rigging
on the seat and considerable confusion before four of the big
sweeps could be manned on either side of the boat.
The jibbering, bullet-headed Negro was pulling directly
behind me and I turned to quiet him as his frantic reaches with
his oar were hitting me in the back. In the dull light from the
upper decks I looked into his slanting face, eyes all whites and
lips moving convulsively. Besides being frightened, the man was
freezing in the thin cotton shirt that composed his entire upper
covering. He would work feverishly to get warm.
"Get away from her; get away from her,"
he kept repeating. "When the water hits her hot boilers,
she'll blow up, and there's just tons and tons of shrapnel in
His excitement spread to other members of the crew
in the boat. The ship's baker, designated by his pantry headgear,
became a competing alarmist, and a white fireman, whose blasphemy
was nothing short of profound, added to the confusion by cursing
It was the give-way of nerve tension. It was bedlam
Seeking to establish some authority in our boat,
I made my way to the stern and there found an old, white-haired
sea captain, a second-cabin passenger, with whom I had talked
before. He was bound from Nova Scotia with codfish. His sailing
schooner, the Secret, had broken in two, but he and his
crew had been taken off by a tramp and taken back to New York.
He had sailed from there on the Ryndam, which, after almost
crossing the Atlantic, had turned back. The Laconia was
his third attempt to get home. His name is Captain Dear.
"The rudder's gone, but I can steer with an
oar," he said. "I will take charge, but my voice is
gone. You'll have to shout the orders."
There was only one way to get the attention of the
crew and that was by an overpowering blast of profanity. I did
my best and was rewarded by silence while I made the announcement
that in the absence of the ship's officer assigned to the boat,
Captain Dear would take charge. There was no dissent and under
the captain's orders the boat's head was held to the wind to prevent
us from being swamped by the increasing swells.
We rested on our oars, with all eyes turned on the
still-lighted Laconia. The torpedo had struck at 10:30
P.M. According to our
ship's time, it was thirty minutes after that hour that another
dull thud, which was accompanied by a noticeable drop in the hulk,
told its story of the second torpedo that the submarine had dispatched
through the engine room and the boat's vitals from a distance
of 200 yards.
We watched silently during the next minute, as the
tiers of lights dimmed slowly from white to yellow, then to red,
and nothing was left but the murky mourning of the night, which
hung over all like a pall.
A mean, cheese-colored crescent of a moon revealed
one horn above a rag bundle of clouds low in the distance. A rim
of blackness settled around our little world, relieved only by
general leering stars in the zenith, and where the Laconia
lights had shone there remained only the dim outline of a
blacker hulk standing out above the water like a jagged headland,
silhouetted against the overcast sky.
The ship sank rapidly at the stern until at last
its nose stood straight in the air. Then it slid silently down
and out of sight like a piece of disappearing scenery in a panorama
Boat No. 3 stood closest to the ship and rocked about
in a perilous sea of clashing spars and wreckage, As the boat's
crew steadied its head into the wind, a black hulk, glistening
wet and standing about eight feet above the surface of the water,
approached slowly and came to a stop opposite the boat and not
six feet from the side of it.
"Vot ship was dot?" the correct words
in throaty English with the German accent came from the dark hulk,
according to Chief Steward Ballyn's statement to me later.
"The Laconia," Ballyn answered.
"The Laconia, Cunard line," responded
"Vot did she veigh?" was the next question
from the submarine.
"Eighteen thousand tons."
"Seventy-three," replied Ballyn, "men,
women, and children, some of them in this boat. She had over two
hundred in the crew."
"Did she carry cargo?"
"Vell, you'll be all right. The patrol will
pick you up soon," and without further sound, save for the
almost silent fixing of the conning tower lid, the submarine moved
"I thought it best to make my answers truthfuland satisfactory, sir," said Ballyn when he repeated the
conversation to me word for word. "I was thinking of the
women and children in the boat. I feared every minute that somebody
in our boat might make a hostile move, fire a revolver, or throw
something at the submarine. I feared the consequences of such
There was no assurance of an early pickup, even
though the promise was from a German source, for the rest of
the boats, whose occupants if they felt and spoke like those
in my boat were more than mildly anxious about our plight and
the prospects of rescue.
We made preparations for the siege with the elements.
The weather was a great factor. That black rim of clouds looked
ominous. There was a good promise of rain. February has a reputation
for nasty weather in the north Atlantic. The wind was cold and
seemed to be rising. Our boat bobbed about like a cork on the
swells, which fortunately were not choppy.
How much rougher weather could the boat stand? This
question and the conditions were debated pro and con.
Had our rockets been seen? Did the first torpedo
put the wireless out of business? Did anybody hear our S.O.S.?
Was there enough food and drinking water in the boat to last?
That brought us to an inventory of our small craft,
and after much difficulty we found a lamp, a can of powder flares,
a tin of ship's biscuits, matches, and spare oil.
The lamp was lighted. Other lights were visible at
small distances every time we mounted the crest of the swells.
The boats remained quite close together at first. One boat came
within sound and I recognized the Harry-Lauder-like voice of the
second assistant purser, last heard on Wednesday at the ship's
concert. There was singing, "I Want to Marry 'Arry,"
and "I Love to Be a Sailor."
Mrs. Boston was in that boat with her husband. She
told me later that an attempt had been made to sing "Tipperary"
and "Rule, Britannia," but the thought of that slinking
dark hull of destruction that might have been a part of the immediate
darkness resulted in an abandonment of the effort.
"Who's the officer in that boat?" came
a cheery hail from a nearby light.
"What the hell is it to you?" bawled out
our half-frozen Negro, for no reason imaginable other than, possibly,
the relief of his feelings.
"Brain him with a pin, somebody!" yelled
our profound oathsman, and accompanied the order with a warmth
of language that must have relieved the Negro's chill.
The fear of some of the boats crashing together produced
a general inclination toward further separation on the part of
all the little units of survivors, with the result that soon the
small craft stretched out for several miles, all of them endeavoring
to keep their heads into the wind.
And then we saw the first light, the first sign of
help coming, the first searching glow of white brilliance, deep
down on the sombre sides of the black pot of night that hung over
us. I don't know what direction that came from none of us knew
north from south there was nothing but water and sky. But the
light it just came from over there where we pointed.
We nudged violently sick boat-mates and directed
their gaze and aroused them to an appreciation of the sight that
gave us new life.
It was over there first a trembling quiver of silver
against the blackness, then, drawing closer, it defined itself
as a beckoning finger, although still too far away to see our
feeble efforts to attract.
We nevertheless wasted valuable flares and the ship's
baker, self-ordained custodian of biscuit tin, did the honors
handsomely to the extent of a biscuit apiece to each of the twenty-three
occupants in the boat.
"Pull starboard, sonnies," sang out old
Captain Dear, his gray chin whiskers literally bristling with
joy in the light of the round lantern which he held aloft.
We pulled lustily, forgetting the strain and pain
of innards torn and racked from vain vomiting, oblivious of blistered
hands and yet half-frozen feet.
Then a nodding of that finger of light a happy,
snapping, crapshooting finger that seemed to say "Come on,
you men," like a dice player wooing the bones led us to
believe that our lights had been seen. This was the fact, for
immediately the coming vessel flashed on its green and red sidelights
and we saw it was headed for our position.
We floated off its stern for a while as it maneuvered
for the best position in which it could take us on with the sea
that was running higher and higher, it seemed to me.
"Come alongside port!" was megaphoned to
us, and as fast as we could we swung under the stern and felt
our way broadside toward the ship's side. A dozen flashlights
blinked down to us and orders began to flow fast and thick.
When I look back on the night, I don't know which
was the more hazardous our descent from the Laconia or
our ascent to our rescuer. One minute the swell lifted us almost
level with the rail of the low-built patrol boat and mine sweeper;
the next receding wave would carry us down into a gulf over which
the ship's side glowed like a slimy, dripping cliff. A score of
hands reached out, and we were suspended in the husky, tattooed
arms of those doughty British jack tars, looking up into the weather-beaten,
youthful faces, mumbling thanks and thankfulness, and reading
in the gold lettering on their pancake hats the legend "H.M.S.
We had been six hours in the open boats, all of which
began coming alongside one after another. Wet and bedraggled survivors
were lifted aboard. Women and children first was the rule.
The scenes of reunion were heart-gripping. Men who
had remained strangers to one another aboard the Laconia wrung
each other by the hand, or embraced without shame the frail little
wife of a Canadian chaplain who had found one of her missing children
delivered up from another boat. She smothered the child with ravenous
mother kisses while tears of joy streamed down her face.
Boat after boat came alongside. The waterlogged craft
containing the captain came last. A rousing cheer went up as he
landed his feet on the deck, one mangled hand hanging limp at
The jack tars divested themselves of outerclothing
and passed the garments over to the shivering members of the Laconia's
The little officers' quarters down under the quarter-deck
were turned over to the women and children. Two of the Laconia's
stewardesses passed boiling basins of navy cocoa and aided
in the disentanglement of wet and matted tresses.
The men grouped themselves near steam pipes in the
petty officers' quarters or over the gratings of the engine rooms,
where new life was to be had from the upward blasts of heated
air that brought with them the smell of bilge water and oil and
sulphur from the bowels of the vessel.
The injured all minor cases, sprained backs, wrenched
legs, or mashed hands were put away in bunks under the care
of the ship's doctor.
Dawn was melting the eastern ocean gray to pink when
the task was finished.
In the officers' quarters, now invaded by the men,
somebody happened to touch a key on the small wooden organ, and
this was enough to send some callous seafaring fingers over the
keys in a rhythm unquestionably religious and so irresistible
under the circumstances that, although no one knew the words,
the air was taken up in a serious humming chant by all in the
At the last note of the amen, little Father Wareing,
his black garb snaggled in places and badly soiled, stood before
the center table and lifted his head back until the morning light,
filtering through the open hatch above him, shone down on his
kindly, weary face. He recited the Lord's Prayer, all present
joined, and the simple, impressive service ended as simply as
it had begun.
Two minutes later I saw the old German-Jew traveling
man limping about on one lame leg with a little boy in his arms,
collecting big round British pennies for the youngster.
A survey and cruise of the nearby area revealed no
more occupied boats and the mine sweeper, with its load of survivors
numbering 267, steamed away to the east. A half an hour's steaming
and the vessel stopped within hailing distance of two sister ships,
towards one of which an open boat, manned by jackies, was pulling.
I saw the hysterical French-Polish actress, her
hair wet and bedraggled, lifted out of the boat and handed up
the companionway. Then a little boy, his fresh pink face and golden
hair shining in the morning light, was passed upward, followed
by some other survivors, numbering fourteen in all, who had been
found half drowned and almost dead from exposure in a partially
wrecked boat that was just sinking.
This was the boat in which Mrs. Hoy and her daughter
lost their lives and in which Cedric P. Ivatt of New York, who
was the manager for the actress, died. It has not been ascertained
here whether Mr. Ivatt was an American or a British subject.
One of the survivors of this boat was Able Seaman
Walley, who was transferred to the Laburnum.
"Our boat No. 8 was smashed in lowering,"
he said. "I was in the bow, Mrs. Hoy and her daughter were
sitting toward the stern. The boat filled with water rapidly.
It was no use trying to bail it out there was a big hole in
the side and it came in too fast. It just sunk to the water's
edge and only stayed up on account of the tanks in it. It was
completely awash. Every swell rode clear over us and we had to
hold our breath until we came to the surface again. The cold water
just takes the strength out of you.
"The women got weaker and weaker, then a wave
came and washed both of them out of the boat. There were lifebelts
on their bodies and they floated away, but I believe they were
dead before they were washed overboard."
With such stories singing in our ears, with exchanges
of experiences pathetic and humorous, we came steaming into Queenstown
harbor shortly after ten o'clock tonight. We pulled up at a dock
lined with waiting ambulances and khaki-clad men, who directed
the survivors to the various hotels about the town, where they
are being quartered.
The question being asked of the Americans on all
sides is: "Is it the casus belli?"
American Consul Wesley Frost is forwarding all information
to Washington with a speed and carefulness resulting from the
experiences in handling twenty-five previous submarine disasters
in which the United States has had an interest, especially in
the survivors landed at this port.
His best figures on the Laconia sinking are:
total survivors landed here, 267; landed at Bantry, 14; total
on board, 294; missing, 13.
The latest information from Bantry, the only other
port at which survivors were known to have landed, confirms the
report of the death of Mrs. Hoy and her daughter.
Floyd Gibbons in 1907;
some 10 years before his fateful voyage.
The story caused a sensation when it appeared in
metropolitan dailies throughout the country.
Acclaimed as one of the outstanding reportorial achievements of
the war, it was read from the floor of both houses of Congress.
Legislators, in off-the-record conversations, even cited it as
prima-facie evidence that Germany had committed the overt act
which was to send this country into war five weeks later.
Floyd also received complimentary cablegrams from
newspaper editors in the United States, his colleagues and friends
who were relieved to know that he had reached England safely.
But the person who suffered most when news of the Laconia's
sinking reached New York was Mother, who had seen him off,
particularly during the twenty-four hours delay between the first
report of the sinking and the first list of survivors.
The Tribune employees cabled Floyd:
CONGRATULATIONS UPON YOUR FINE ARTICLE AND YOUR SAFE LANDING. GREETINGS
WITH HANDS ACROSS THE SEA.
To which Floyd responded:
THANKS FOR YOUR CONGRATULATIONS. GREETINGS FROM "HANS" UNDER
© 1953 Edward Gibbons All rights reserved