A SHIP! A SHIP!
This is a verbatim copy of an account by A. Donald Miller KIH, MBE (1893 - 1986) who along with his wife Marjorie (1891 - 1970) was travelling as a passenger on the ship. It is reproduced here courtesy of Donald's niece Margaret Bird. This was made possible after a visit to the site from Donald and Marjorie's great nephew Martin Bennett. I would also like to thank Christine Jennings niece of Donald Miller for additional site material. The booklet was originally published by the Mission to Lepers where Donald and Marjorie were both dedicated missionaries.
The booklet was written in 1943 and the author uses pseudonyms for all those in the lifeboat. The identities of those given pseudonyms are revealed at the bottom of the page.
A. Donald Miller (1893 - 1986)
Dr. Marjorie Miller (1891 - 1970)
An Apology for Writing
Lying before me is a crumpled pink programme. Between the printing of items of music there is a very irregular, and sometimes almost indecipherable, pencilled writing in my own hand. It is a programme which, in consequence, brings back to me not only the afternoon when, in Durban, I listened to Arensky's Quintet in D Major, but also the thirteen days and nights which I spent in a crowded open boat not long afterwards. For when I searched for some paper in my pockets on which to set down a log of our journeyings this was all I could find. This piece of pink paper reminds me of the beauty of much heard, and the rigours of hard days experienced. It represents to me the struggle of the sensitive artist seeking to capture and make vocal something of the unutterable beauty of God, and also the struggle of ordinary men and women in conflict with desolating circumstances, refusing to lose faith in His ultimate goodness and power.
From this brief log, and while the memory of our experience was fresh and vivid, I wrote a more extended diary which was checked by fellow-survivors, as we travelled in the ship which finally rescued us. And because of the circumstances which led to our rescue many friends have asked that I should set down in printed form the narrative of what happened. I have therefore drawn directly on papers written close upon, and even during the events themselves. And in writing this account I have only changed or withheld the names of fellow-passengers, and concealed the exact location of the spot where our ship was torpedoed.
I would not have wished in the ordinary way to "rush into print" to give publicity to this story. But I believe it holds in it elements which may help to strengthen the faith of some readers in the reality of communion between men and God in prayer, and of God's purpose that, as His children and not merely His creatures, we should co-operate through prayer in effecting His divine will. I have no theory of prayer, no special technique, to press. But it is my profound conviction and experience that men's prayers, however weak and misguided, but when offered in trustful humility, do open the way for God's action, action which would, were it not for this co-operating act of man, become merely that of a Divine Dictator and rob us of our real responsibility and manhood. It is the wonder of God's goodness that He calls us to bear a vital part in the operation of His will.
And I have this other purpose. The work which I had left behind when I sailed from India, and the work to which I came after this experience in the deep waters, is the same. It is a work for men shipwrecked in the journey of life, cast upon a lonely ocean, and depending for rescue upon other men led of God to meet them in their need. And I would that this narrative might quicken men to be more sensitive to God's call, in Christ, to share in the rescue of countless leper men and women, buffeted and lost, upon an inhospitable sea of ostracism and physical tribulation.
If my narrative quickens men and women to speed on its course this saving task, then those days and nights which I experienced in the mighty deep will have been most certainly worth while.
Boom! . . . Or was it the word Doom which resounded through the ship as the torpedo struck its hull? Immediately the electric current failed; the many bulbs in the Dining Room faded to a dull red glow which swiftly passed into nothingness; we were plunged into total darkness; the ship heaved over; there was a clattering of falling cutlery, breaking china and glass, and I, almost instinctively, found myself groping for my lifebelt beside my chair.
It had been so calm and pleasant a day, warmer than the six others which had preceded it since we had left Cape Town. It had seen the beginning of the Games Tournament; my wife had won her heat of deck tennis; I had lost mine at deck quoits. The evening had brought a rose and golden sunset. We went downstairs to our baths happy and hungry. Another day nearer home! And now we were far from land, away from ordinary courses, and would not be seeing port, so we reckoned, for another eight days. About as far away as we could be from any mainland, - miles done, - miles to go, before our next calling-place in our roundabout journey.
When we came up from our cabins for dinner the black-out had begun. Not a chink of light was allowed to peep through from doors or portholes. But within the ship all was brightly lit.
Passengers from First Dinner were already up in the lounge. Mothers had taken their children to bed. We entered the dining room with its gleaming silver, its white-clad Indian stewards moving quickly to and fro, its lively chatter. My wife and I faced one another from opposite sides of the table. Well had I reason to remember this last meal for many days! And after we had dined and cracked our nuts we lingered on, talking with the First Officer over coffee. And then - Boom! Doom!!
The ship quickly righted itself. "Are you there dear?" "Yes." "Let's keep together." So we felt our way down our respective sides of the table, joined hands and began to grope towards the doorway and up the stairs. There was no time to go down to our cabins below for overcoats, or the little bags holding our treasures. Our instructions had been that if we were struck without warning we were to go straight to our boat - No.8 port. Others were crowding up the staircase too. No panic; no shouting; voices steady and quiet. Just one mother pleading to get through against the stream of people going up. After her child, poor woman.
So we passed out on to the deck. By now small emergency flares were alight. We came to our deck stations. Already some of our number were there, and almost immediately, against the deep blue, star-studded sky, we saw the black outline of our lifeboat being lowered from the boat-deck above. "Now Mrs. Mayne," said the warden, "Are your four children here?" "Yes." "Then over you go." And so they went, in their night clothes and overcoats, Robert, Lucy, Jane and little Margaret and their mother. The names of the other ladies were called. "I don't want to go before you," said my wife. "You must, dear; I'll follow directly." And so, in perfect order, we got into the boat, and began to descend with a jerk, jerk, jerk, down into the calm waters below.
After we had drawn away from the ship for five or six minutes we rested oars and waited. We could hear the call of people still on the ship. Or were they in the water? We must wait a while for developments. I looked around. It was a most exquisite night. There was no moon, but the stars shone down in almost unbelievable brilliance and profusion, casting gleams of light upon the water, wherever it was ruffled. I found myself following a double train of thought. One was upon the immediate events - those poor people still on the ship, I thought, God grant they may get off in time. And the other - queer that it should be so - was upon the beauty of the scene; was there ever so marvellous a night? I found myself repeating:
When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained, What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?
And then someone said, "Look, there's the sub!". And nearby it had "surfaced" again, a long black ruler laid upon the blue-black waters. Our chatter stilled to silence. It was better not to act provocatively. And then, suddenly, another loud explosion, a great column of black smoke against the deep blue sky, a crumpling up sound, and we knew that the ship had sunk, only twenty-three minutes after the first explosion. The submarine, its work done, disappeared beneath the surface.
That night was spent in looking around to find any in need of our help. We came across a water-logged boat with people standing in it, half-submerged, and with others clinging to its side. As soon as we neared it two or three of the Indian crew threw themselves across. Although we were crowded to capacity we managed to take on Lady Pearce and two of her four children, John and Agnes, and another lady, separated from her only baby. They were shivering with cold and shock, after their exposure in the water, but preserved an heroic self-control. In the darkness they took off their things and wrapped themselves in the few blankets with which our boat was provided. I can still see Lady Pearce's beautiful row of pearls, luminous against the coarse grey blanket that enveloped her. Later we heard that the other two children had been taken in by another boat; and we found that the child of the other mother was also on another boat to which we were able to transfer her.
So the night passed as we hunted the waters, coming upon empty rafts and spars but finding no other people in need. Torch-lights flashed messages from boat to boat. We sat higgledy-piggledy in the positions we had first taken, I forward and my wife aft. The stars shone on in their profusion. The air grew colder. We waited for the dawn.
It was a brilliant morning when we set off upon our long journey. The six which had been successfully lowered drew together. Red sails were boisted. They cast bright purple reflections upon the blue sea as they flapped idly with the swell. An exchange of names was made to discover who was missing. A few names were called again and again . . . . Among them was the name of the chief wireless officer. Evidently he had gone on tapping his S.O.S. to the end; but it would seem that our instruments must have been putout of action by the first torpedo, for no ship appeared to pick up our message. The captain told us our position, and that to attempt to reach either Africa or South America was impossible. Our one hope of land was the tiny speck of island territory, St. Helena, 450 miles away, in a direction which was stated to us. Perhaps, if currents did not take us out of our course, we might reach there in a little over a fortnight.
And then, on our boat, we discovered a grievous loss. Our compass, so precious, was taken out of the locker and found to be splintered and thrown out of action by the shock of the first torpedo! What would happen if, as was so likely (and as indeed proved to be the case) we became separated from the other boats? To be in the wide ocean without a compass, with a tiny island far away as our only haven, was indeed a perilous situation.
My wife came to the rescue. "I have a compass in my pocket," she said to everyone's delighted surprise. And from it she produced her compass, looking like a hunter watch. "I'm a Guide, you see!" It was the compass she had used for trekking with the leper girls at the Purulia Leper Home and Hospital.
"Let's test it," called out the Captain from his boat, when he had heard of our loss and find. And so we kept parallel with his boat for a time, calling over our direction; until at last he called back, "Good; it's quite accurate." What a vindication of the Guides' motto to "be prepared!" The compass was our friend and guide during lonely days and cloudy nights to come; and when - to anticipate - we were at last rescued we were told that we were dead on our course.
Everyone was in amazingly good spirits. Repartee of the obvious kind was exchanged between the boats. "Is it to be bacon and eggs for breakfast this morning?" "Don't forget your round with me at Deck Tennis this morning at 10.30." "What about a cup of tea before we begin?"
While we were waiting for the Captain's word to start off in our little convoy I looked over the side of the boat into the clear pale blue water. A couple of feet below a great milk-coloured shark was patiently waiting, its little dark pilot fishes in close attendance. They wanted their breakfast, too!
We now began to sort ourselves out. We were a typically mixed crowd, fifty-five of us all told, in a twenty-eight foot boat. Forward of the mast were single British passengers and members of the crew. There was Max Johnson, transferred to us from another boat when it was found we had no navigating officer on board, and himself a ship's officer of another line who was a passenger going on leave; he became our skipper, and at his turn as helmsman he had to contend with a badly injured and painful hand which my wife dressed for him. The other two watches at the helm were taken by a couple of grand Quarter-masters, Scotsmen, Macmillan and Howard. There was a statuesque, Viking kind of grandeur in Mac's hatchet-jawed face as he sat at the rudder, lean and bronzed, his pale blue eyes scanning the horizon. We owed a very great deal to those three men, for helmsman's work can be very exhausting. There was Billy the electrician, whose clothes had been ripped to shreds in the most fantastic fashion, and who had a nasty groin wound which it fell to me to dress; he had been in his cabin when the torpedo struck, and the door had crumpled in on him, and he had been hauled out by a friend. He looked a ghost of a man from the shock which he had suffered. But he proved a fine fellow in the days ahead, and was expert at massaging swollen legs with oil. Then there were others, ranging from youth in "Young Sparks", the junior wireless officer, and four gunners - three military and one naval - to two men of advancing years, both of whom we lost before we touched land again. It was upon the older folk particularly that the strain was greatest.
Amidships were twenty-eight Indian members of the ship's crew. Only two were seamen, the others were stewards, bath boys, cooks, stokers. Some had very little clothing, but the wadded life-jackets issued to the crew were a great boon to them. They were from many parts of India - Bengal, Orissa, Madras, Bombay, the Punjab, Goa; and in consequence spoke many languages, Hindustani being our lingua franca. The fact that I was able to talk Bengali reasonably fluently, and that the natural leader among these men was a Mussulman Bengali, threw upon me the responsibility of acting as a kind of liaison officer, especially when, as the days passed, the strain of events created tension and misunderstanding at times. The group contained its variety of character; a few were definitely not good, others were passively resigned, others plucky and thoughtful for their neighbours. If, on the one hand, it was from this group that we discovered the theft of some of our precious water, it was also from one of the Indians that I saw the most lovely of unselfish acts. One day the slender ration of two ounces of water was being distributed. Our littlest passenger, only three years old, had had hers but was crying bitterly for more as the measure was being passed to and fro for others. She was hunched up in the bottom of the boat, next to where the block of Indians began. In time the measure came to a thin, anaemic-looking member of the crew, who sat next to this tired and overwrought little girl. I was sitting nearly opposite. I saw him put the measure to his lips, drink not more than a third of his tiny ration, and then swiftly - before he could be stopped - pass the measure to Margaret for her to drink the rest. That was an act of high courtesy, and costing unselfishness.
In the stern of the boat, behind the last seat for oars, were the rest of us. The two mothers and the eight children. Two lady missionaries from Delhi who had, with great agility, managed to reach their cabins after the torpedoing and to seize their "escape" bags and overcoats. The contents of these bags - torches especially - proved of great common value. Then a distinguished Civil Servant, returning to England for the last time after over thirty years of service to India. And my wife and myself, and whoever was on duty as helmsman. At night the children, with one of the mothers, squeezed down into the hollow of the boat below, our feet dangling above them (and I am afraid sometimes kicking them too!).
Finally, there was the cat. After the first day or two we began to hear a strange miaowing from behind the lockers, which grew more persistent and eerie as the days and nights passed. But we could never find the cat itself. Occasionally at night it would venture out and claw somebody's feet in the dark, only to retreat to its hidey-hole. It was a strange cat which had embarked, with others, as a stowaway at Cape Town. And when a pursuit was engaged in by the crew of those unauthorised passengers it had sought refuge in a lifeboat and there remained till the torpedoing, doubtless terrified by our sudden invasion. So every day a little of our precious water, and some scraps of biscuit, were put in a tin which was placed near its hiding place. And so it survived till we were rescued. Alas, it even then would not emerge and so went down with the lifeboat when our rescuers scuttled it.
It looked rather like Brixham regatta as the six boats set out, turns being taken at the oars. The sun shone burningly upon us. Resourcefully Mr. Howard cut into strips some red canvas which had covered the sail, sewed the folded ends with string, and provided us with hats which we donned with great glee and much comfort, and which made us look rather like a set of sea-faring brigands. The ladies gallantly tore up some of their underclothing into strips which we could dip in the water, and then bathe our hot heads and faces.
All day remained entirely windless, and at sunset we took our first drop of water, and our first biscuits and pemmican. Rationing had begun for us, even without coupons!
In order that we might not drift apart at night, during which rowing was discontinued, the Captain ordered that the six boats link up by ropes connecting them to one another. And then the flaming rose of the western sky faded to gold and green and violet, and one by one "night's glittering tapers" were lit, and we looked up again through another night at the tremendous spread of star-studded sky, our idle boat gently rolling with the swell.
When it was getting near to 11 o'clock on the next morning, Sunday, Mr. Robertson called across from the prow to me, "It'll soon be time for a spell of praise." "Indeed it will," I called back. I had been hoping that the initiative would come from others to offer to God our corporate act of worship. That our individual offerings of prayer were being made I had no doubt.
"You choose our first hymn," I said.
"I think it might be," said Mr. Robertson,
"Let us with a gladsome mind Praise the Lord, for He is kind: For His mercies aye endure, Ever faithful, ever sure."
And so there in a spot far from the earshot of man, we sang to the skies our faith that God was present to hear; and that, despite our condition and need, His mercies endured "ever faithful, ever sure."
Was that faith justified? When men, with loved ones far away, had been suddenly lost at the sinking of the ship? When one lady passenger had lost her husband just as he was coming down the rope ladder to the boat to join her, and the second torpedo hit the ship? When over 200 of us were now at sea, facing the likelihood of a slow death, which indeed came and claimed many as the days and weeks passed?
I am sure it was, but only as we distinguished clearly between what God did, and what evil did; and realised that, whatever might betide our mortal bodies, we could never fall beyond the range of God's love, victorious over death itself. Without such a conception of God, faith in His faithfulness could not persist. But with it, we could commit our ways to Him, and know that for us the vital question rather was this - what is His will for us in this situation, that we may do it?
And that so many had really touched the core of the matter was shown in the quiet courage, the cheerfulness and humour, the little acts of thoughtfulness, the uncomplaining response to the rigours and hardships of our situation, which were manifest again and again. And in none was that shining beauty of the God-lit spirit of man more evident than in Mr. Robertson. He was elderly, a man of most gentle and kindly nature, who had lost all his business and possessions in Burma, and who had tramped, a refugee, through many vicissitudes, to India. A son of his was prisoner in Singapore. On the ship we had talked together of the things of God, and his faith was undimmed. On the boat he gave without distinction of race or position, such little comforts as he had upon him, without thought of keeping back anything for himself.
And then, on the Sunday afternoon, the wind began to rise. No rowing was now needed to keep the boat moving. The sail filled; the boat heeled over and began to drive through the increasingly choppy sea. Spray began to drench us. At sundown we again, with some difficulty, tied up in a line with the other boats. The night came, cloudy and black and the wind blew chill upon us, as we huddled together, unprotected against the cold, tossing on the waves, longing for the warmth of the sun. And then it was that, just after midnight, there was a sudden cry "Man overboard!" And Mr. Robertson had gone. . . . He had become numbed with cold, asked his neighbour to move a little, tried to stand to ease his cramped and chilled body, when a roll of the boat swept him overboard. And in the darkness of the night, with our boats all tied in a long line and the wind blowing strong, he could not be rescued. If any man among us was ready to meet his Maker, it was Mr. Robertson. His loss was grievous; and yet, since we had many days of trial ahead and his age would have made the ardours a most wearing burden, too heavy for his strength, there was mercy in this swift translation to a fuller life. That God willed the situation in which Mr. Robertson found himself I do not believe. If I did, my conception of God would be different from the One revealed in Jesus Christ. Christ makes it so abundantly clear that there are again and again situations which God does not will, and yet which happen. But that no situation defeats God, and that in the worst situations created by the evil of men the essential purpose of God for His children may yet be fulfilled, were conclusions from which this tragic incident did not deflect me. As those thirteen days passed they confirmed to me that the first and final thing that really counted was the response of man's spirit to the circumstances with which he was confronted; and that that spirit of man, "the candle of the Lord," when lit at the flame of His great Light, could outshine any darkness of evil happening or natural calamity. In the sweetness of his humble spirit, and the confidence of his trust in the goodness and mercy of God through trial by land and air and sea, Mr. Robertson was easily victor over the hosts of evil which sought his destruction.
It had been our hope that our S.O.S. had been picked up and that, within forty-eight hours, some ship would come to our rescue, or some long-distance Catalina would fly over us to let us know that rescue was on the way. But now, on the third day, with no such sign to cheer us, we came to realise that our journey was likely to be a prolonged one. We began to settle down to a routine. It was remarkable how, with one thing and another to do, the days were filled. It was about now that we instituted a games hour for the children It survived for five or six days, after that weakness and weariness brought an end to this diversion. Young Robert Mayne with his eager, quick mind, was quite brilliant at "Yes and No". Others showed their memories were still good as we played "I went to the Grocer's and bought some bacon and bovril and biscuits, and butter . . ." The very thought of these good things cheered and amused us! Sir James Fall let Agnes snuggle against his shoulder as he recited to her amusing rhymes and taught her "Be kind unto the humble frog and do not call him names." We exchanged Limericks, discussed what we were going to have as our first meal when we got to St. Helena, and what kind of fashions the ladies would be clothed in by the inhabitants, and talked abut anything that might divert the children's (and our own) minds from present discomforts.
It was on the fourth day that there was a happy re-union which made a lump come to my throat and look busy about something so that I shouldn't be drawn into conversation while my voice might have betrayed my emotions. Until then Lady Pearce and John and Agnes were on our boat, but Peter and Hubert were on No.4, the boat which had picked them up out of the water. At times we would draw near enough to call across, but as their boat was less crowded we made no attempt to bring them over. But on the third night we had a heavy sea; and while the Captain had ordered that we should tie together again, it had meant an enormous strain in rowing, rowing, rowing to keep one boat from charging into another. Indeed, before the night ended, two boats cut adrift from the line, their passengers exhausted, and when dawn came only five instead of six boats were visible.
So we determined to try and get Peter and Hubert before there were further separations; and although a stiff breeze was blowing clever navigation brought the two boats side by side, and eager hands were outstretched to drag over those two plucky boys, drenched and cold, and very weary, but happy to be restored to their mother and brother and sister. It was a lovely and touching moment.
When we were safely back in England, we heard of the fate of this boat from which we had retrieved the two boys. It had gone on and on and on with no sign of land or ship till one by one all died, except the skipper and the one lady passenger, who were picked up after fifty-one days.
This one lady passenger was an heroic woman. She had lost her husband at the torpedoing of the ship, and then found herself the only woman passenger in the boat. Once or twice we suggested that she come over to us, but she preferred to remain. At last, on the eighth day, by which time we had got separated from all other boats except No.4, and when this boat was finding itself acutely short of able-bodied men capable of handling oars and sails, we were asked if we could make an exchange, taking Mrs. Merton and sending over a volunteer. A fine young ship's officer (a passenger on our ship), James Reed, volunteered, and the exchange was made. Mrs. Merton, quiet and wonderfully self-controlled, came to us; but seeing how very crowded our boat was compared with No.4 and that our arrangements for dressings, and the issue of the rations, were well-organised, began to feel that she had left her duty on the other boat. There were things, she said, which she could do for the men. Some were already in bad condition. And the result was that the next day she went back again, Mr. Reed, the volunteer, also remaining. No.4 had been generously keeping back with us, since all other boats had by now disappeared, and since it had its ship's compass intact. But now we decided that we ought not to hold it back any longer, especially as the hull of their boat had sustained some damage, and baling out had frequently to be engaged in. So we exchanged greetings and thanks. "Good-bye. Meet you at St. Helena! Tell 'em we're coming."
And then we saw our good companions forge ahead and, surprisingly, take a course a few points further west than the determined one. What was the reason, we wondered? We little dreamt that it would not be until after seven weeks from the time of the torpedoing that this boat would be found, drifting towards the South American coast, the skipper and our lady friend still alive. Only cabled newspaper reports have been received of the rescue. And when the skipper was able to speak he told of how this splendid Mrs. Merton, when others had lost hope and were dying, would joke to keep up their spirits, and try and sing, and be busy at the ministries of nursing.
It is not necessary to tell of each day, and each night, as they slowly passed. My torn pink programme mentions that on the first Wednesday, five days after we had been in the boat, and in a stiff sea, the sail was being hauled up again after it had been re-set when the mast split badly. Here was another disaster, so we feared. But the two quartermasters got to work, cut an oar in half, splinted the mast as the boat rolled helplessly on the waves, and made a fine neat job of their task. There were cheers as our red sail was hoisted again, and we began to plough forward again in the wind.
The experience of the rough night, when tying together had meant both danger to the boats and exhaustion to the rowers, resulted in the Captain not attempting it again, and this resulted in wide separations from each other in the hours of darkness, and gradual reduction of the little flotilla. On the Wednesday night we found ourselves in a very nasty patch of weather, the wind changeable, and our boat thrice swinging right round and running with the wind, instead of into it. The effort of oarsmen to get the boat round again into the wind was long and exhausting, and our one bottle of brandy began to come into use, my wife soaking small swabs of cotton wool, which were given to those who needed a quick restorative.
There was one bad night, rather later, when again the wind was strong, and the air bitterly cold, and in the darkness we had frequently to take turns at the oars, and the men for'ard had to readjust the sail. And then, on one occasion when the sail was being hauled up tighter, there was a sudden snap, and the heavy gaff came crashing down on the men about the mast. There were calls and cries. I crawled forward and found a scene of great confusion, and as I was attending to one man, while others were straightening out the sail, a senseless body fell full across me, suddenly released from the enveloping folds of canvas. It was one of the gunners, and the gaff had fallen on his spine. He recovered consciousness quickly, but we feared for a time that his back was broken. Somehow or other we managed to create room enough for him to be laid flat; and the rest of the night I had to spend as a kind of watch-dog, seeing that no one inadvertently humped against him.
We had another disturbing casualty in Mr. Prentice, an elderly ship's engineer, who began to be seized with heart-attacks During them he was possessed of great restlessness, and was a cause of much anxiety. Whatever it was possible to do for him was done; there was always unselfishness shown to those who were suffering most. The divine injunction of "We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak" prevailed over the sub-human precept of "each for himself and the devil take the hindmost." There was edginess at times, of course, thirst and weariness and discomfort were bound to create frayed nerves: but as one now looks back upon those thirteen days and nights of strain one's prevailing impression is of considerateness for others.
Mr. Prentice survived until our rescue. He was too exhausted and ill to be hauled up onto the ship by means of a bow-line, and the strong arms of the rescue crew; so a stretcher was lowered, and thus he was raised. But he did not rally from his grave condition, and on the afternoon after we were rescued the tired heart ceased to beat.
It was after five or six days that thirst began to be acute. We had taken stock of our supplies, our number of passengers, our possible long journey. I have the cover of a sixpenny novel which someone had in his pocket, and on which, some six days after we had been in the boat, I wrote out our assets, and John Pearce and Miss Steel worked out sums to see how long supplies would last at given rates. We reckoned that if we continued to take 2 oz. water in the morning, and 2 oz. at night, we would reach our last drop twenty-four days after the date of torpedoing. We did not feel we could reduce our ration further As it was, there were occasions when exception had to be made for the injured, or after specially exhausting work. So we worked out the other supplies to balance the estimate for twenty-four days. We found we could allot two biscuits a day, five small milk tablets (rather smaller in length and breadth than a postage stamp), two small chocolate tablets and three level teaspoonfuls of pemmican. But we were also to find that to allot and to eat were different matters. By this time our tongues and mouths had become so dry that one would put a milk tablet in one's mouth and find it very little smaller an hour later, because of the lack of saliva with which to dissolve it. The smallest children managed their food rations better. In proportion to their size the same water ration was (as we wished it to be) more generous. But even so, it was sometimes pitiful to see the urgent thirst of these children. I saw one child, seeing a single drop of water resting on the outside of a measure as it was being passed along, eagerly and carefully transfer it to a finger-tip and then raise it to her mouth. We were learning a new scale of values. A cup of cold water was more precious than many golden sovereigns. And the spirit of man, face to face with adversity, was more precious than either.
It was on the second Sunday morning that we saw, ahead of us and a little to starboard, a heavy cloud emptying itself upon the sea. Oh, that it would give its treasure to us! We arranged our tarpaulin to funnel water into our empty casks; we took empty provision tins to hold for the rain; we changed our course a trifle to reach this blessed spot; our spirits rose in anticipation; our skipper cheered us with hopes of a splendid catch. But we saw the line of rain moving slowly away . . . . Reluctantly we rolled up the tarpaulin again, and put our tins away.
On that second Sunday afternoon we again offered our prayers and praise to God. No singing now, for our throats were too parched for that! But we planned a little service, deciding on those parts of the Prayer Book service which we thought we knew by heart, and a Psalm the Pearce boys had memorised. It was significant that as we proceeded with the Confession, Lord's Prayer, Psalm, Creed and Prayers, we found our memories decidedly faulty, even over the most familiar passages. But by mutual promptings we got through, and then I offered a few special prayers. We remembered the other five boats from which we were now entirely separated. We remembered our loved ones far away. We remembered all brave seamen and soldiers, and men of the air, and the issue upon which the war was being fought. We prayed that we might be given strength for any further trials with which we might be faced, and that if it should be that our lives were spared, they might be spent with greater thoughtfulness of the needs of others. We committed ourselves to God.
And others were remembering us in prayer, too. I thought that afternoon of the Church at the Leper Home which had been my usual place of worship for the last twenty years; of six or seven hundred broken men and women gathered there, commending us in their simple faith to the God Whom they had come to know to be Love, in spite of, even rather through, their suffering. They would not know we were shipwrecked, but they knew we were at sea. Colleagues, too; and the dear parents at home. And leper folk of our great "family of friendship" in many different parts of India. Surely we were not alone. "To Him, who is everywhere," as St. Augustine wrote, "we come by love and not by navigation."
The condition of some of the Indians was now becoming bad. I found myself more and more having to move among them, giving swabs of brandy, or sal volatile, or special water if they were in extremity; because they were so crowded, and my clumsy feet would tread upon them, I removed my shoes and had them put away in the locker which held, when not in use, the first aid outfit. "Sahib," they would say to me, "when are we going to reach land? Are we going to be rescued?" Questions which were in my own mind, but which I certainly could not answer! One man inclined, under the strain, to be hysterical, and on one occasion stood dramatically at the mast, declaiming to heaven and God his frenzied anger that God did not save us. He was an English-speaking Goanese steward. Our skipper quickly and sternly rebuked him - that it was God's mercy that He did not strike him dead for his blasphemy. And the words had quick effect and the hysteria passed. Another man, also a Goanese, became slowly demented, and would stand with glassy, bulging eyes peering wildly, uncannily about him. Sometimes little quarrels flared up between individuals or groups; and on one occasion - the only one - there was a sudden, wild outburst of feeling between Indians and Europeans over the water question. The issue of water was in the hands of Europeans; and some Indians felt (quite without warrant) that we favoured ourselves; on the other hand, certain leakages from a water-tank made some Europeans incensed against the Indians. All knew that everything hung upon the water issue, and therefore the irritation of tired and taxed nerves focused upon it. At any rate, on this, the eleventh morning, there was a sudden eruption of feeling For a time the situation looked ugly, with waving arms, excited voices, the fear of physical violence. But better counsel prevailed. None of us was perfect, and we were all, very literally, "in the same boat". The great thing was not to stand upon our rights, but to let goodwill and forbearance do their sweetening work. The outburst subsided, and a reaction of greater cordiality set in.
It was on this eleventh morning also that our first death occurred. Uncomplainingly, having given trouble to no one, this Indian stoker just faded out. His Moslem friends composed his features; their leader recited prayers, while we sat silent; there was a pause, and then the worn body was committed to the sea.
And later in the day another Indian died, a Goanese, the one with staring eyes, who for days had seemed a spirit apart and forlorn. For him, a Roman Catholic, our skipper, Max Johnson, recited brief prayers; and in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, his body too was gently lifted over the side of the boat and laid to rest upon the waves.
When I was sitting during the day beside Miss Martin, a senior missionary from Delhi with a long record of service behind her, we reminded one another of a conversation we had had on board the ship, about Christian community life, and the shedding of personal possessions, and the giving up of personal freedom to order one's own life.
"We've all things in common now all right," I said, " . . . what there are of them!"
We thought of the possessions we were bringing home; Miss Martin was coming to England for the last time and bringing her Indian treasures. So were my wife and myself. We had twenty-seven crates and packages with all that we possessed, since we had been warned to bring as much as possible of our home, apart from furniture, in order to set up again in England without making demands on production. The slow garnering of twenty-one years in India, with many things of sentimental as well as intrinsic value. We looked at one another and laughed. Miss Martin was able to do so even though her glasses, her last possession, and without which she only saw with great difficulty, had fallen into the sea (it was remarkable how, of the little we did have, so much slipped overboard!). We looked across at my wife, in her torn evening jacket, and her auburn hair (now chopped short) blowing wildly in the wind. She laughed back at us.
"I never though I was going to have a husband with a beard!" she said.
"Yes, that is a new addition to my possessions!"
"It makes him look quite patriarchal," said Lady Pearce.
"But with a bit of the brigand chief, too!" commented someone else.
"One's scale of values does get a bit shaken up, doesn't it?" I said. "But it helps one also to see how precious the material things of life are. Do you remember my quoting to you Tagore's 'Renunciation is not for me . . .. '? I still think that, in the sense in which he meant it, he was right. He knew that gratitude for God's gifts was shown in accepting and using them, rather than in renouncing them. How the lack of the good things of God, and of man's labour, impoverishes life; I only hope that I'll use them more unselfishly, and more gratefully, when I can enjoy them again."
We still clung, you see, to a form of speech which implied that we had no doubt but that rescue would come. But were we as sure of that, down in our hearts?
It was getting on in the afternoon of the twelfth day when Max Johnson, who was at the tiller, and beside whom I was then sitting, turned to me with a quiet voice.
"Donald," he said, "I wish you'd send up a prayer for us that God will intervene and save us. We don't really know where we are. We've no means of telling what progress we've made. We've been alone for days now. And we're getting weaker, and supplies are going. Intercede with the Almighty for us, for we're in His hands." And so, refusing to believe that we were
"Alone, alone, all all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea!"
we offered our prayer to God. I remember that throughout the prayer little Margaret, feeling wretched and ill, kept up an accompaniment of crying. But I am quite sure that her cry ascended to God as well as our prayer! We confessed our utter dependence upon God's grace and power; we committed ourselves to His mercy. And we prayed that, if it were His will that our lives should continue upon earth (and with all those young lives on board it seemed that that must be His will) He would in His omnipotence and goodness bring deliverance to us the very next day, or at any rate some sign that deliverance was on the way..
Perhaps it may seem to have been audacious that, in leading the prayers of this mixed company of suppliants (for the Moslems amidships kept a reverent silence, though they could not understand my words), I should have asked God that - were it His will that rescue on this side of eternity should come at all - the very next day should bring deliverance, or some token of its coming. But we needed encouragement to fortify us; and, justifiably or not, this is what I prayed.
And when our prayer was over, I had a strange sense, almost of elation, that God had answered our supplication according to its asking. A little later, preparations for the long hours of darkness began. The first-aid tin was put away in a locker which had held my shoes for the last three or four days. To put it in straight my shoes had to be moved out for a moment.
"I'll want them tomorrow!" I said with a smile. And I meant it.
Darkness fell. The wind blew gustily and cold. We huddled together. Spray splashed over. Again and again, in the confused darkness and rolling of the boat, changes of sail had to be made and the oars got out to bring us around into the wind. My wife had more frequently than before to give swabs of wool soaked in brandy to steady fluttering hearts. Every expenditure of energy made thirst more urgent We decided that as soon as dawn came, we must give the ration of water instead of at about eight o'clock.
It was a bad night.
The thirteenth dawn came, grey and sunless and chill. The enamel "dipper", threaded on to a piece of string, was passed in and out of the bung-hole of the barrel, and carried along from hand to hand for each to have his two ounces of brackish water. We felt a little better.
We began cleaning our hands and faces, and attending to our personal needs. The first-aid box was called for. The boys and girls below pulled it out from the locker, and it was handed up.
"And my shoes, please," I said. "I'll need them today!"
So my salt-bleached shoes were handed up too. I put on one and then the other. And just as I had finished lacing the second one there was a startling, almost overwhelming cry.
"A ship! A ship!"
The hour that followed was perhaps the most deliriously excited one I have ever experienced. Everyone talking at once; the suspense of the first twenty minutes, when it was doubtful whether we had been seen, as the ship - a mere speck on the horizon - appeared to grow no larger; the incredible relief and joy when it was evident that the ship was approaching; the issue, as rapidly as was humanly possible, of more and more water from that barrel with its all too small aperture; the putting out of the oars for the last time, and the dropping of our red sail; the looming up of the grey and rusted iron wall of the ship's side, looking a very fortress of security; the figures above, running backwards and forwards; the sudden change into calmer water as we passed into the shelter of the ship; the ropes thrown and caught; the final drawing up of our little boat against those iron walls.
A netting of rope had been slung over the ship's side, and up scrambled the Indians, nimble as monkeys in spite of their weakness, and needing no help. Then men of the ship came over and picked up the children and carried them on board. The women followed, bow-line hitched ropes and strong arms of officers to help. And then the rest of us. I put the "dipper" with which I had just been issuing water - with reckless speed and spillings - into my pocket as a memento, and my turn came With wonderful strength and gentleness I was helped up and along; and then, everything swimming before me, I was in a little brown plush-upholstered saloon crowded with my companions, and hot coffee was being pressed to my lips. . . .
The narrative of our eight-day journey to port, our reception at Cape Town again, and our resumed journey to England - also marked with adventure - would make another story. One can here but briefly record the perfect hospitality of our hosts on the rescue ship to so many uninvited guests. The ship was a small British cargo steamer but to us all it was the finest luxury liner we had ever known. What marvellous men those ship's officers were, giving up their cabins, their clothing, and sharing their food! The Captain became the lowly servant of us all; the First Officer busied himself with a dozen services, which included becoming washerman of our soiled garments, which he afterwards ironed out on the dining room table! The second Wireless Officer, with his ukulele and inexhaustible fund of songs and party games, became the children's entertainer, diverting their minds each evening before bed-time, so that they went to their cabins happy and without fear, to dreamless slumber. Tommy, the imperturbable Chinese steward, discharged all his extra duties with perfect good humour. One and all joined in making our time of rest and recuperation on the ship an experience of treasured memory.
As the only married couple on board, my wife and I were given the Captain's cabin. It had a bunk and long sofa, so that for both of us there were beds.
"No, no, I always sleep up in the Chart Room," our smiling host said; and soon we were both clothed in borrowed garments, and lying at full length (what exquisite release in that!), and able to rest to our hearts' and bodies' content.
When we had had our first rest and the Captain had come into the cabin, we had our first real talk with him. We told him our position when our ship had been sunk, and the course we were making for St. Helena.
"You are still about 150 miles away," he said, "but you are right on your course."
My wife showed him the little pocket compass by which we had steered.
"That is wonderful," said the Captain. And there's another thing which is wonderful, too.
"We've been at sea for over forty days, and I was given my course before leaving Scotland all the way to the Cape And then, last night, we received a wireless message from the Admiralty, to change our course by so many points. And that is the only reason why I have come to cross your path!"
We were deeply moved. The Admiralty knew nothing of our position; the ship knew nothing. But God knew, and in this mysterious way our prayer had been answered.
"This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes."
As I finish the writing of this narrative a letter reaches me from a friend saying that he feels sure God must have had some special word for me in the experiences of those days adrift, and in that marvellous rescue.
God had many words for me. But chiefly two. The first was one of quickening, of challenging, to "stab my spirit broad awake" to what physical and material want, and isolation from one's fellows, mean, and what, on the other hand, the grasp of welcome and the provision of those material needs bring. And the second word was one of strong assurance that God uses all for good, that He hears man's cry, and that He uses man's co-operation to frustrate the assaults of evil and to bring, out of life's very disasters, a fuller life.
As the happenings of those thirteen days drift further away they become more and more symbolic, and even sacramental. For twenty years I had been engaged in the task of helping to provide havens of refuge and rescue for desperately needy men and women. I had seen them arrive in their tattered and soiled rags; looked into their careworn and ill-nourished faces; listened to their pitiful tales of separation from their loved ones and their homes as the disease of leprosy had shattered their lives. But I had never known hunger and thirst myself; I had never known what it was to be cut off from human aid, and access to the world of men; I had never looked in vain upon bare horizons that offered no sign of hope or help. And I had never known what it meant at last, stripped and possessing nothing, to be taken into strong and welcoming arms, clothed and fed and made clean, and all without price, all with the sweetness and the courtesies of gentle service.
But now I knew very much more of what these things meant. The material things of life took on a new value. While I learned on the one hand that so much is unnecessary, a mere weight and burden; on the other I also learned that much else is very necessary, if these earthly and yet heaven-bound lives of ours are to be lived as God intended them. And I saw that rescue ship of ours, coming to us when we were spent and stripped, as a symbol of what the Mission to Lepers, in its work of rescue, means to so many thousands of dispirited, diseased, and lonely folk. I saw it more and more as a divine task of human succour; at once sacramental and practical, making of the material service of human need a liberating act for the spirits of the children of God.
And then I saw that in that experience of human extremity, caused not by the goodness of God, but by the evil of man, the Maker of heaven and earth still was regnant, yet still awaited human co-operation and human instruments to enable His perfect will to be fulfilled. Those prayers of so many hundreds of my leper friends, of loved ones bound by blood, of ourselves brought to a position where we owned our inability to save ourselves, and our faith that God was able to do so; those prayers did not go unheard or unheeded. And the bravery and willing service of those good men upon the ship, and the devotion to duty of those who directed their course from afar, these too were seen and used of God to be His instruments. Our prayer, God's provision, and man's presentation of that provision, all met.
And again I recognised in this a symbol and representation of the history and fruitfulness of The Mission to Lepers. The prayers of many, from the foundation of the work in 1874 have been offered to God every day and night for men in direst need. "The Mission," wrote our founder, Wellesley Bailey, to a colleague, "was cradled in prayer, and it has been carried along in the arms of prayer ever since." "I ask from everyone," he wrote in the first "Occasional Paper" of the Mission in 1875, "earnest, expectant prayer that the Lord may bless us in this work." And God has answered those prayers by moving the hearts of His people to be His instruments of mercy, His hosts, His bearers of good tidings, His healing hands.
My mind goes back to the little cabin which the Captain placed at our disposal. For two days my wife and I had done little but rest and sleep and gradually take more substantial food. Together we had offered our thanksgiving to God. Now, rather falteringly, my wife was moving about the cabin, while I still lay back. On the Captain's table was a Prayer Book.
"Shall I read to you?" said my wife. "Do," I said. "Read the Psalm for the day." "What is the day? I've forgotten." "It's the twenty-second." So she opened the Psalms for the twenty-second day, and began to read Psalm 107.
"O Give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious; and his mercy endureth for ever . . .
"They went astray in the wilderness out of the way; and found no city to dwell in;
"Hungry and thirsty; their soul fainted in them.
"So they cried unto the Lord in their trouble: and he delivered them from their distress.
"He led them forth by the right way . . . . .
"O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness: and declare the wonders that he doeth for the children of men! "For he satisfieth the empty soul: and filleth the hungry soul with goodness. "Such as sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death . . ..
"They that go down to the sea in ships: and occupy their business in great waters;
"These see the works of the Lord: and his wonders in the deep . . .
"They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man: and are at their wit's end.
"So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble: he delivereth them out of their distress. . . .
"Then are they glad, because they are at rest: and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be. "O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness: and declare the wonders that he doeth for the children of men! . . .
"Whoso is wise will ponder these things: and they shall understand the loving-kindness of the Lord."
We pondered, and we understood.
Palm Sunday, 1943.
|In Narrative||Real Name|
|Mrs. Mayne||Mrs. Simms|
|Robert Mayne||David Simms|
|Jane Mayne||Mary Simms|
|Lucy Mayne||Louisa Simms|
|Margaret Mayne||Esther Simms|
|Lady Pearce||Lady Almond|
|John Pearce||Basil Almond|
|Agnes Pearce||Susan Almond|
|Peter Pearce||Francis Almond|
|Hubert Pearce||David Almond|
|Max Johnson||Chief Officer Thomas Green|
|Quartermaster Macmillan||Quartermaster McKelvie|
|Quartermaster Howard||Quartermaster Campbell|
|Billy the electrician||J. Scott|
|"Young Sparks"||J. Friel|
|The four gunners||Jones, Murphy, Kerr and MacLennan|
|Mr. Robertson||Mr. McNeil|
|Sir James Fall||Sir John Dain, KT, C.I.E.|
|Mrs. Merton||Mrs. Gordon|
|Mr Reed||Mr. Fred Powell|
|Mr. Prentice||Mr. Scaife|
|Miss Steel||Miss Ashdown|
|Miss Martin||Miss Norris|
|The Captain of the Rescue Ship||Captain W.C. Wilson|
Donald and Marjorie were repatriated from Cape Town to the UK aboard the Dutch ship ss STRAAT SOENDA arriving Belfast on 17th January 1943.
The ship departed Table Bay on 19th December 1942 part of convoy CF.10. The ship received very heavy weather damage during her voyage losing 3 of her 4 lifeboats. Eventually and somewhat battered, the ship limped into port. Donald writing some years later said: "The years only make the double deliverance more and more wonderful".