(Aboard Queen Elizabeth 2 during the first leg of 1994's world cruise, your editor was fortunate enough to meet William Johnson, the Albert V. Danielsen Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis University; he is also the Canon Theological of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City.
But years ago, Bill Johnson was a crewman on board the Swedish-American liner Stockholm on that mist-shrouded night in Nantucket Sound when, eastbound, she struck Andrea Doria.
Much has been written about events on board the Italian Line vessel that night but, conversely, very little of what happened aboard the other ship. In this 40th anniversary year of that epic collision, Bill Johnson's tragic and riveting account of his experiences serves as a sobering reminder of the harsh life of the seaman. Your editor is most grateful that Bill Johnson could be persuaded to put his memoir on paper for the Gazette's readers.)
by William Johnson
It was the spring of 1956. I had just completed a graduate degree in Theology and had received a small grant to study at the University of Lund in the southern part of Sweden. I had been the first of the seven children of Ruth and Charles Johansson (which became Johnson when my father chanced upon a less than literate immigration officer), who had emigrated from Sweden to the United States at different times in the early part of the 20th century. Because Swedish was my childhood language, but because I had not used it for almost two decades, I requested permission to work in the offices of the Swedish American Line on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. My idea was to attempt to bring my language skills up to a Swedish University level.
So I spent several months prior to leaving for Sweden employed in the stock room of the Line and spent most of my time packing advertising materials to be sent to prospective customers on what was then the Swedish American Line's fleet. I believed that with that kind of professional experience within the company, but also because my father had been a seaman for the Line, I could arrange with its then benevolent director, Mr Hilmer Lundbeck, to work my passage to Sweden. The Stockholm was to sail on July 25th, 1956, and it seemed that this sailing date best fit the academic schedule of the summer school in Lund.
Mr Lundbeck agreed to my working my passage over. He also agreed (although I was to be a crew member) that my wife Carol and our at that time 5-week-old daughter Karin could also sail on the same ship, a highly unusual arrangement as I was soon to find out.
So we managed to get two passports, one for me, Stockholm's newly-assigned "Glass Dish Washer," the other for my wife and daughter, who was so young that it was difficult to get a picture for the passport.
We departed from the company's Pier 97 berth in New York at 11:31 a.m. and were told that it would 8-10 days to sail to Gothenburg. I was immediately given the task of taking inventory of all the glasses on board, which turned out to be a large number, given the Swedish and general Scandinavian delight with alcohol. I was also given careful technical instructions as to how to operate the glass washer, a task I mastered in less than two minutes. All of this preliminary activity was taking place without any contact with my wife and child, which was part of the general terms of my contract, to whit, that I would not reveal that I had a family on board.
I was given a roommate in a forward cabin in the crew quarters. He was a young man from Gothenburg, who had been on Swedish American Line ships for five or six years. He was highly intelligent and extremely articulate in both English and Swedish. Our bunks were placed one atop the other, in a small cabin, and with not a great deal of room to move about. Our first night out, I sat opposite Alf and in my still feeble way, attempted to make myself understood in Swedish while all the time he responded to me in rather intelligible English.
But because of my desire to make myself understood in what almost seemed a new language, I stayed awake--not in my upper bunk--longer than perhaps I had thought wise. When the crash occurred, a little after 11:00 p.m., I was still sitting facing Alf, who was comfortably settled in for the night in the lower bunk. Because of where I was, my life was spared and his was not; he died later on the way to hospital in Nantucket. The crush of the collision pressed into our cabin with death-dealing force. I heard someone call out "Iceberg!" as I fell into unconsciousness, and perhaps in the few moments while I was not conscious, I though that it was indeed strange to encounter an iceberg just 12 hours out of New York in high summer.
When I got my bearings again and saw that the cabin was totally destroyed, and that I was trapped in the wreckage, I called for someone to help me. There were other crew members close by, further aft than I, who came quickly to my rescue. Of course, all of my possessions were gone and I recovered some semblance of my newly devastated work and faced it in my underwear. Then I went to my wife's cabin to see what had happened to her and our baby daughter. She told The New York Times reporter the next day that immediately before the collision, she had seen a huge ship through her cabin porthole and heard an orchestra playing Arrivederci Roma and thought that a crash might be imminent. Her cabin was amidships and she and our daughter were spared any physical injury.
We went together to the boat deck where all the passengers had gathered. Captain Gunnar H. Nordenson spoke told us over the loudspeakers what had happened, saying that he believed that the Stockholm would not sink, that we had hit, probably fatally, the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria, named for the most famous of the Genovese admirals and founders of the Genovese state. "But there is no danger," he assured us, "there is nothing to worry about."
He then ordered all available lifeboats on the Stockholm to be placed into service to attempt to save lives from the Andrea Doria. Yes, people sang Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past; and, yes, some of us wondered whether the deployment of the Stockholm's lifeboats was wise at a time when we were not filled with confidence that our vessel was still sea-worthy. And yes, I had to help man a lifeboat, for after all I was a member of the crew! Forget that we had not yet had time for a lifeboat drill, nor that I had not been in a lifeboat before. The sea was rough and a fog obscured the troubled waters.
When we came close to the Andrea Doria, we saw crew members from that ship (no doubt as inexperienced as I was) fighting with passengers for places in the lifeboats. A few babies and children appeared to fall, or were dropped, from higher decks of the stricken ship. It was a fearsome evening, filled with all the horrors of men and women dying before my eyes.
Early in the morning of the next day, we were again assured by our captain and his officers that Stockholm could remain afloat. I had to pursue my duties as the "Glass Dish Washer" on board Stockholm. To my happy astonishment, I soon discovered that most of the glasses had been broken in the force of the collision. I was then assigned the role with the interesting title of "Piccolo," general messenger factotum, called upon to do many tasks all over the ship. SUch a role allowed me the time to visit my family, not clandestinely as I had feared earlier, because the distinction between crew member and passenger had long since disappeared. It also gave me the mobility to wander all over the ship, to inspect at first hand all of the devastation and wreckage from the collision, and to participate with several other crew members in the discovery of a little child, Linda MOrgan, who had miraculously been lifted alive from her cabin on the Andrea Doria into the wreckage of the Stockholm. I was also able to see the ignominious end of Andrea Doria as she sank, first listing badly to the starboard side and then rolling over and out of sight with a mighty roar and roiling of water.
Two days late, we were returned to Manhattan and ten days after that, My family and I, my concussion healing and my head shorn of all hair, flew away for a year's residence in Lund on the flagship of Icelandic Airlines.