Death of A Lady

S.S. Lady Hawkins

S.S. Lady Hawkins

At seven-thousand tons, she was still a graceful lady, a beautiful lady; strong, steadfast, and resolute.  She was serene and peaceful, even in this time of war.

But war is never kind, and the Lady Hawkins, with her three-hundred and twenty passengers and crew, had drifted into the wrong place, and at the wrong time.

The place: just off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.  The time: not long after two-hundred hours.

No one, not the ship’s captain, nor the forty men from Missouri, or the crew from Canada and Barbados, and not the passengers from all parts of the world either, could have foreseen what horrendous fate awaited them.

Ervin Oscar Allen

My great-grandfather, Ervin Oscar Allen (1887-1942).

In researching my genealogy, I learned that my great-grandfather, Ervin Oscar Allen, had died aboard the Lady Hawkins on that cold night in January. He was from St. Joseph, Missouri, where the majority of my father’s side of the family hails from. He was one of forty men from St. Joe and surrounding cities, who were headed to Bermuda for promised construction jobs on a naval base there.

The Lady Hawkins was a Canadian luxury liner, captained by Huntley Osborne Giffen. And the passengers, (save the Missouri men of course), had come aboard for the simple pleasure of a cruise.

The vessel sailed from Canada, to Boston (where the Missouri men boarded), and then began heading for its destination in Bermuda. She sailed unescorted in a zigzag motion; hopefully to make her a less likely target for enemy submarines.

And yet, on her fourth night at sea, the vessel was illuminated by two bright searchlights. The lights came from U-66, which broke water only 100 feet away. Two torpedoes were fired from the sub and struck the ship; the first one struck just forward of the bridge, the second torpedo struck the Number Three Hold, consequently blowing up the engine room, smashing two lifeboats, and cutting off the power supply, thus rendering the radio useless. The ship heeled over violently, listing to port, and flipped many people, most of whom had been asleep, into the black, icy waters below. The vessel burned for twenty-five minutes, and then sank.

Three hundred and twenty people set out on the Lady Hawkins; seventy-one of them survived.

Among those missing was Captain Giffen, the majority of the crew, twenty-five of the men from St. Joseph, and several passengers.

Lady Ships

The Lady Hawkins (center), and two of her sister ships; Lady Rodney (top), and Lady Nelson (bottom). Inset is the dining room of one of the Lady ships.

Several people tried to make it to the remaining lifeboats. Three of them were deployed, yet two of them were soon lost to sight, along with the people who occupied them, never to be seen nor found again. There were seventy-six people crammed into the remaining lifeboat whose maximum capacity was sixty-three. There were still so many people in the water, crying for help, asking those in the lifeboat to take them in.  But they were already too overloaded, and Chief Officer Percy Kelly, who was in command of the lifeboat, reluctantly gave the order to pull away. Although he commented that the cries of the men and women in the water rang in his ears for months afterward.

Kelly also rationed what little food and water was available in the lifeboat.

Ken Jackson, one of the survivors wrote in his diary: “For breakfast we each had half a hard biscuit and a dipper of water. The hard tack achieved a new level in durability and when I tried to soften mine by dipping it in salt water, the others fortunately restrained me. Lunch was a sip of condensed milk and a short, simple prayer for God’s help.” This last part was led by Marion Parkinson, a missionary; her husband, Robert Parkinson, also a missionary,  perished.

The lifeboat was so overloaded, that those in it had to take turns standing. Water kept pouring in as well, and the people in the lifeboat had to constantly bail the water out everyday.

Their first night, they encountered a storm that lasted into the second day, and they were surrounded by waves of twenty-five to thirty feet in height. That afternoon was when they realized that there was a two-year-old girl in the lifeboat with her mother; the girl’s father had not survived.

On the third day, they had their first death. They slipped the body over the side, but had no flag to cover it with, or weight to make it sink. And now that the sea had calmed, the sun reflected brightly from off the water’s surface with a heat that, as Ken Jackson put it, “burned the skin, dehydrated you, and left you crazy with thirst.”  That night they sent up some flares.

It rained the fourth day, and they tried to catch some, yet with little success. That day was also their second death. Two more died on the fifth day. That night, they heard a boat and fired up a flare. It was seen by the captain of the S.S. Coamo. By this time they had drifted some 120 miles. The ship pulled up beside the lifeboat and opened its side doors. One man from the lifeboat was in a hurry, and missed his step. He sank into the water and became the fifth fatality.

The sinking of the Lady Hawkins was certainly not the only maritime disaster from WWII, but it was one of them; and one of the worst.

S.S. Coamo

S.S. Coamo

I guess I felt compelled to write about it, not only because of my great-grandfather who perished along with so many others, but also because it’s difficult to find any information on the ship or its passengers.

From various websites, I’ve gathered what I could about the ship, and I have found passenger and crew lists; I also received a Missouri passenger list, and other articles from that time from other people who also had ancestors on board the Lady Hawkins.

Interesting as it was to learn about this incident, it was tragic nonetheless, and I can only begin to imagine the horror that those people must have felt, the second that the searchlights engulfed their ship. The chaos that reigned when one, and then two, torpedoes struck the vessel. The thoughts that must have gone through the minds of those who were lost, who knew that their final moments were upon them. And the hardships that still had to be endured by the survivors in that lifeboat.

Yet I admire the courage that each of them, the deceased and the survivors, possessed, the selflessness that I have heard took place as the ship sank, and the fortitude of those who lived.