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Surviving the sinking of the Tuscania

March 15, 2018 GMT

Editor’s note: The year was 1918. America was embroiled in World War I, women were pushing for the right to vote, and a flu pandemic would soon devastate the country. Our Throwback Thursday takes a look back at our most popular stories from this month in history, from the quirky to the heartbreaking.

Last month, we read about a Wilmington man fleeing a mob after making unpatriotic statements about the sinking of the Tuscania, a commandeered luxury liner carrying American troops. On Feb. 5, 1918, the Tuscania, was torpedoed by a German submarine, leading to the deaths of 210 of the more than 2,000 people on board. This letter, written immediately before and after the attack and published March 14, 1918, captures both the tedium of life onboard and the drama of the ship’s sinking. Kimball and his fellow survivors were transported safely to Ireland after being rescued, while the wreck of the Tuscania remains at the bottom of the Irish Sea.


Survivor of the Tuscania; experiences

A letter from Lt. J.C. Kimball, a Joliet physician and a first cousin of T. M. Foley of the Kankakee Ice, Feed & Fuel Co., tells of adventures after sinking of the Tuscania.

The letter indicates the attack was an entire surprise and was made during severe weather. Dr. Kimball was in company with the 20th Engineers. He was in the water for six hours before being rescued by a British trawler, but suffered no ill effects from his experiences. He also was able to save his kodak, razors and field glasses.

Tells of voyage

He writes shortly before the attack: “We are still on board ship, which by the way is rocking and swaying crazily and adds nothing to the comfort of myself and the others. Still, it has its advantages, I am told, as the submarines cannot operate effectively in such weather.

“I was half sick the first few days out, but have found my sea legs now. So, outside of hanging on to everything that is hangable on to, when moving around, and the discomfort of having to chase one’s soup around the dish, or one’s plate across the table, we get along quite well. As I am writing this, I hear quite a noise nearby and laughter. Evidently someone went down the stairs hurriedly and in an undignified manner. The other day at dinner one of the men tumbled out of his chair and under a nearby table when the ship rolled. He got up, rather sheepishly, and after rubbing his head for a while, sat down and finished his dinner. Another fellow got a plate of soup in his lap. Then the sideboards were put up and the chairs chained to the floor, which helped some.


Never intended for sailor

“I am sure that I was never intended for a sailor and there are a great many more like me on this ship. The ceaseless motion of the engine around and about me gets on my nerves, until a place that stays put seems like the last word of real comfort.

Isolation seems strange

“It seems strange to be isolated as it were; no papers, with only once in a while a stray bit of news passed around. This is generally what is picked up by the Marconi man and it is seized upon avidly and usually furnishes much food for argument and speculation. We are all wondering how things are doing in the world round about us and it almost seems that we were a part of another sphere.

“From the gossip and from indications, we will be landing soon. There are is much that is interesting to tell about this voyage but nothing really starting yet. We must not write anything but the most indefinite sort of a letter, which is proper of course.

Tells of experiences

“The letter is continued following the sinking of the Tuscania by the German submarine: “I will try to finish my letter, or perhaps I had better say write the sequel. No doubt the accounts of the sinking of our ship have been published in the papers at home, but my cablegram has reassured you of my safety long before this will reach you.

“To go into details, of course, is out of the question. Suffice it to say that I, plus those with me in that boat, had all the thrills that can come to the average. I am surprised to find that after spending six hours in the water ‘on my own,’ wet to the skin and cold, awaiting rescue, that I felt practically no ill effects aside from the weariness due to the unusual exertion.

“My boat drifted about five hours before the trawler found us and I was wet and cold, it was miserable weather. The rescue ship looked about like, I imagine, the Pearly Gates would appear, when she pulled up alongside of us.”