Diasporational Part Twelve: The Irishman Who Reported the Sinking of the “Laconia”


War corrispondant Floyd Gibbons seated,

By Niall McArdle

Floyd Gibbons was one of the most famous – and the luckiest – newspapermen of his time. Quick-witted, garrulous, he was described by one of his peers as “a hard-swinging, battling Irishman, full of humour and inconsistency.”

He was born in Washington, DC in 1887. His father ran a butter-and-egg company, and wanted Floyd and his brother to follow him into the business. Floyd, though, sought a life of adventure. His first job was as a crime reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune.

During his time there, one of his biographers noted that “he had the pick of the city’s murders, fires, brawls and head-breakings. He spent his days and nights hanging around police stations and courts, periodically scuttling off to the scene of the most colourful crimes. These, invariably, were committed in the city’s slums, a teeming wellhead of stories that rapidly gave Gibbons the kind of education in the rawer side of human nature that no college can provide.”

In 1910 he managed to get into the home of a fugitive, John F. Dietz, getting an exclusive interview while the police surrounded the house and unloaded a thousand rounds of ammunition. When the Brunswick Hotel caught fire, Gibbons – knowing that the hotel was popular with wealthy businessmen and their mistresses – dashed into the burning building and grabbed the guest register. The day after the fire, he published his story of the fire, including the names of all the guests in the register.

During World War One he was a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune; he reported on the revolutionary Pancho Villa’s battles and scored an exclusive interview with him; he lost an eye at the Belleau Wood after being hit by machine gun fire; he became one of the first radio news reporters, his quick-fire delivery described as “a machine gun stream of syllables.”

English: RMS Laconia at New York.
English: RMS Laconia at New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1917 he got the scoop of the year when he was aboard the Laconia as it was torpedoed. His presence on the liner was no accident. In early 1917 Germany announced it would sink any vessel that it perceived as a threat in the North Atlantic. The German Ambassador to the United States, von Bernstoff, was expelled, and many war reporters felt it would be safe to cross the Atlantic with him on the Frederick VII. Ever vigilant for a story, Gibbons deliberately chose the Laconia instead, knowing it might well be attacked.

The ship sailed from New York on February 17th, carrying 73 passengers and 216 crew-members and “loaded with cotton, foodstuffs and war material.” The passengers had several lifeboat drills and knew they were entering “the danger zone.” When he asked the ship’s commander, Capt. Irvine, where they were located, Irvine’s response was “it is jolly well none of your business.” Gibbons wrote that “submarines had been a chief part of the conversation during the entire trip.”

On February 25th two German torpedoes slammed into the side of the ship off the Irish coast. Gibbons’ report of the moment, with First Class passengers dancing, playing bridge and blithely commenting on the war, is a triumph of understatement:

The first cabin passengers were gathered in the lounge Sunday evening, with the exception of the bridge fiends in the smoke-room.

“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?” I asked.

“Well,” drawled the deliberative Mr. Henry Chetham, a London solicitor, “I should say four thousand to one.”

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 a sub.”

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 Mr. Jerome.

“What a lousy torpedo!” said Mr. Kirby in typical New Yorkese. “It must have been a fizzer.”

German Submarine UC 97, WWI
German Submarine UC 97, WWI (Photo credit: photolibrarian)

Gibbons spent that night on a lifeboat and eventually was rescued and shipped to Queenstown (Cork), from where he immediately filed the story.

I have serious doubts whether this is a real story. I am not entirely certain that it is not all a dreamand that in a few minutes I will wake up back in stateroom B19 on the promenade deck of the Cunarder Laconia and hear my cockney steward informing 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 help.

Gibbons’ lively report of the sinking made headlines around the world. He spared no detail: the damage to the ship, the sense of panic and the hysterics of some passengers were described fully and with much colour:

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.

The lifeboat he was on slowly drifted away from the ship, even as passengers were jumping off and landing in the water.

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 it.”

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.

The men began pulling oars, and at one point Gibbons complains of “the gibbering, bullet-headed Negro” who sat behind him and whose oar was digging into his back.

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 the hold!”

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 everyone.

It was the give-way of nerve tension. It was bedlam and nightmare.

From the lifeboat the survivors watched the 18,000 tonne vessel sink into the murky depths.

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 spectacle.

Duggan’s lifeboat, along with two others, bobbed up and down like a cork in the choppy ocean for several hours, until “we were suspended in the husky, tattooed arms of those doughty British jack tars, looking up into the weatherbeaten, youthful faces, mumbling thanks and thankfulness, and reading in the gold lettering on their pancake hats the legend ‘HMS Laburnum.’

The survivors were landed at Queenstown and put up in local hotels. Thirteen people died in the sinking. After Gibbons had cabled his story of the German attack, the Chicago Tribune responded:

CONGRATULATIONS UPON YOUR FINE ARTICLE AND YOUR SAFE LANDING. GREETINGS WITH HANDS ACROSS THE SEA.

To which Gibbons wryly answered:

THANKS FOR YOUR CONGRATULATIONS. GREETINGS FROM “HANS” UNDER THE SEA.

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