THE BURNING OF THE 'VOLTURNO' - PAGE 14
'STAG' ARTICLE - NOVEMBER 1958
by A. A. HOEHLING
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Here is another page of data, exclusively respecting an article of about four pages by A. (Adolf) A. Hoehling that was published in 'Stag' magazine of Nov. 1958, (cover next at left). 'Stag' magazine, long since out of publication, is, I understand, a male adventure magazine with 'adult' content. The magazine article was kindly provided to the Webmaster by Rod Julkowski of Plymouth, near Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rod's family were aboard the Volturno in 1913. Rod, thank you so much!
I was trying to find a way to contact Mr. A. A. Hoehling, to seek permission to reproduce his article here. But without success. A most prolific author indeed! I have now read however that he was born c 1910 and died in Mar. 2004. Similarly I have tried to find reference for Joe Little, who illustrations grace the 1958 article. But have not found a single one.
Should this page need to be removed from this non-profit and informational site, I would be happy to do so - though with regret. Because it is an article that I would not wish to lose. And I make the same comment re Joe Little's fine artwork.
The article commences at page 32 and that page & page 33 form a two page spread. Next is Joe Little's splendid & most dramatic illustration spread, as best I can provide it. I was kindly provided with photocopies of each of the two pages and put them together for this image. But the image parts have a small 'gap' in the middle. Which does not however detract, to me at least, from the visual impact of Joe Little's wonderful illustration.
And now A. A. Hoehling's fine article. I have added space between the paragraphs for easier reading on screen.
The DESPERATE CROSSING OF CAPTAIN INCH by A. A. HOEHLING
On a calm October evening, midway between the British Isles and New York, the small Dutch tanker Charlois hove to alongside a burned derelict of the sea lanes. Its stern bore the name Volturno.
Captain Schmidt lowered a boat over the side and boarded the derelict. The decks were hot, smoke wisped from a score of torn, blackened hatchways; in the forecastle he found several charred bodies.
The ship was deserted and entirely burned out; its bulkheads looked like the walls of a fire-swept building. Furniture, railings, paneling, wire insulation - everything combustible - had been reduced to cinders. Not a lifeboat was to be seen at the davits.
There was no radio on the Charlois. So far as Schmidt knew, not a soul had survived. So the Dutch captain resolved to scuttle the wreck and get it off the sea lanes. A group of his sailors cautiously descended to the engine room where they opened the sea cocks.
Within the hour, the Volturno was gone, a hiss of steam her nautical requiem. The Charlois continued her voyage. . . .
Eight days before, the Volturno, out of Rotterdam, butted through a howling gale. She was a medium-sized vessel, 3,600 tons, and loaded to her Plimsoll line with cargo: oils, wines, gin, burlap, rags, peat moss, chemicals and other merchandise.
She also carried 564 passengers, most of them immigrants in steerage. They came from the Balkans, from the Levant, from Poland and, in smaller numbers, from Germany.
Those of the Jewish faith were awaiting Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement which would commence the next morning. One rabbi had accompanied them, bringing the shophar, or ceremonial ram's horn trumpet, and the sacred scrolls.
The crew totaled 93 on this seven-year-old Canadian Northern Steamship Co. vessel, then under charter to the Uranium Line. Her destination was New York by way of Halifax, still some 1,200 miles over the western horizon.
Thursday, October 9, 1913, dawned wild and gray. Few had slept through the ship's rolling and pitching, much as the youthful skipper, Captain Francis J. D. Inch, tried to find an easy course.
In the limited first-class accommodations, Mrs. F. W. Alexander of New York, who had traveled aboard the Volturno before, was awake and troubled. The previous evening she had been talking to C. J. Pennington, junior wireless operator.
In a recurrent dream, he told her, he saw the ship ablaze as he frantically worked the Morse key, calling for help. He'd even written a letter to London requesting reassignment, he confided.
Dawn came and went, with no change in the leaden skies or the wind velocity. Until a few minutes before seven A.M., however, it was just another bad day on the North Atlantic. That was the opinion of Second Officer Lloyd, for one.
At exactly 6:55 by the bridge clock, he spotted yellowish smoke curling from the canvas of a forward hatch.
Lloyd knew how rapidly flames could spread in this wind - especially when the cargo included chemicals and liquor. Advising Captain Inch, he raced forward against the gale and combers which swept the decks. He was a big, powerful man and required but a few swings with an ax to crash a hole through the hatch planking.
He trained a fire hose into the opening and called for full pressure. But even as the salt water gushed into the black abyss he suspected the Volturno was doomed. The volume of smoke and the intensity of the heat were omen enough.
This standard shipboard procedure of fighting fire had unexpected results. An explosion in the hold scattered and spread the fire and widened the opening in the hatch. The Atlantic gale roared in, converting the forward portion of the Volturno into a blast furnace. Nor could the flood valves be turned on. The ship was too heavily loaded as it was.
The fire might be extinguished by allowing water to rush into the entire hold. But the ship would sink from the weight, Captain Inch reasoned. If only the sea were calm. . . .
News of the fire could no longer be hidden from the passengers. Inch sent crewmen to every cabin and steerage compartment to warn of the peril.
Pennington, the junior wireless operator, started tapping out the call which the Titanic had dramatized only the preceding year - SOS . . . SOS . . . save our souls!
Pennington could not believe it. He wondered whether he was asleep dreaming his terrible dream once more, or awake and recalling the dream with such realism that he believed the ship actually was ablaze.
Dramatically, almost within seconds, there was an answer - less than 80 miles away, the Carmania was plowing towards Ireland.
"Hold on, chaps," tapped the cheery message from the radio operator aboard the big Cunarder. "We're coming!"
Captain Barr ordered all off-duty stokers out of their bunks. They heaved coal into the glowing furnaces of the Carmania until the boilers' safety valves hissed and strained threateningly. Her speed, however, had been increased from a leisurely 15 to nearly 22 knots. She hurled herself at the mountainous seas.
On the Volturno there was great distress. The flames were spreading, fanned by the gale into incandescent intensity. They burned through the antenna stays on the foremast and consumed a stack of life rafts nested at the mast's base.
Officer Lloyd climbed up the shrouds. With tongues of flame licking about him, and half-blinded by smoke, he succeeded in refastening the antenna. When he was almost down again, a lurch of the ship, a blast of wind, snatched him and hurled him to the deck.
Dazed from the impact, he picked himself up and limped to the bridge.
Passengers, having donned their life belts, arrived on deck. They were badly frightened. They looked at the seas, saw and heard the all-engulfing fire forward, then returned to their cabins and compartments.
The rabbi was heard blowing the mournful notes of the shophar. He unfolded his sacred scrolls to beseech the Lord in a language strange to most people aboard before he returned below decks.
Caption re image at right. 'Lloyd spotted smoke curling out of a forward hatch, crashed through the planking and trained a hose on the blaze.'
With the aerial lashed back in place, Pennington was receiving messages from other ships, the Czar, the Rappahannock, the Kroonland, the Minneapolis, the Devonian, the Grosser Kurfuerst. All were within a day's steaming or less of the Volturno and were coming as fast as their propellers would drive them.
Yet, although the fastest and nearest of this rescue fleet, the Carmania, should be alongside by noon, it began to appear that the Volturno could not survive even the next three or four hours. And if she did, Captain Inch wondered, could boats navigate the seething water between the two vessels?
He ordered one boat over the side, in command of the chief officer. It was lowered with a complement of two dozen passengers, mostly women and several crewmen. Almost on the water, it capsized, spewing out its occupants.
None was saved, although the chief officer, the chief steward and several others were seen clambering into the boat after it righted. It vanished into the opaque curtains of rain.
"Prepare No. 6 boat for lowering!" ordered Captain Inch. Even after the first tragedy he believed that they had a better chance of survival on the sea than on the blazing ship.
Time ticked on. . . .
In America, it was a day like any other, even though fog screened the east coast and temporarily paralyzed shipping. The Athletics and the Giants had each won a game in the World Series and would play their third that afternoon at the Polo Grounds.
In Washington, D.C., President Wilson was planning to review a detachment of cavalry from Fort Myer, Virginia.
In Salisbury, Massachusetts, burglars, surprised when rifling a U.S. post office, shot and killed a policeman. And off Gloucester, the schooner Quinnaponitt drove hard onto the rocks.
Mrs. Vance Cheney, president of the International League of Right Living and Right Thinking, was preparing to discuss her favorite topics before a group of Portland, Maine, women.
The last dike standing in the way of the nearly completed Panama Canal was blown up. . . .
And at 11 A.M., lost in the churning waters of the Atlantic, an insignificant wooden toy known as Lifeboat No. 6 was launched from the burning Volturno.
Passengers on deck cheered as their erstwhile shipmates safely reached the water. Then it sailed out of sight - and into oblivion.
Lifeboat No. 7 was next. It, too, was launched successfully, in spite of 30-foot waves which smashed against its sides. It was, however, swept aft. Those on the ship watched helplessly as the stern of the Volturno smashed down from the crest of a wave and crushed the boat and everyone in it to nothingness.
"Lower no more boats!" shouted Captain Inch.
Caption re image at left. 'Even after the first lifeboat capsized, armed seamen had to restrain the panicked crowd from overloading the next ones.'
More than 100 people had now perished. A French newlywed couple clasped hands and jumped over the side together. The fumes were stifling; the young pair preferred death by drowning to suffocation.
One man rushed toward a lifeboat still secured to its falls. He had broken into a linen locker and stolen an officer's coat which he was wearing. A seaman knocked him to the deck, shocking him out of his panic.
Near the stern a group of equally terrified passengers - men and women, some with babies in their arms - were trying to steal a lifeboat in the hope of launching it and rowing away before the officers could notice. They, too, were restrained before they succeeded in what surely would have been their self-destruction.
Shortly before noon, the Carmania completed her dash and hove to alongside the Volturno. Captain Barr ordered Chief Officer Gardiner and his best oarsmen into the water. He knew the seas were too high for safe lifeboat work, but the sight of the smoke and flames from the Volturno told him there was not much more time left, if any.
For nearly two hours Gardiner fought to get beside the Volturno, but the seas hurled his little boat away each time he came near. He gave up and was hoisted back aboard the big Carmania which could make her own lee from the storm.
Captain Barr circled the Volturno as close as he dared, wondering if perhaps he could lay alongside her for brief periods, allowing the passengers to jump. He looked at them, trussed in their life belts, huddled near the stern, staring at his liner. But he realized he would have to devise other means of rescue.
The fire was spreading amidships. The navigation bridge was abandoned. The radio shack was unbearably hot.
"Can't you string a breeches buoy?" Captain Inch signaled the Carmania.
Captain Barr knew that he could not. Yet, to demonstrate his good will, in spite of the futility of such an effort, he ordered one to be floated from the Carmania. The wind and sea quickly drifted it astern. There was no chance of it spanning the frothing channel between the two vessels.
At 3:30 P.M. the German freighter Seydlitz poked out of the murk. By blinker, semaphore and radio she added her voice to this desperate mid-ocean consultation.
Within the hour, the Grosser Kurfuerst was on the scene, followed almost at once by the Kroonland.
The Seydlitz put over a boat at 4:30, but was no more successful than the Carmania.
At the same time, Captain Inch, commanding his furiously blazing ship from a post aft on the boat deck, ordered a radio plea for a tanker. If only oil could be pumped onto the seas. . . .
The master's shoes, like those of all his officers and crew, were seared almost through by the scorching decks. His uniform was greasy and torn. He saw no hope of salvation, and a weary, numb resignation had taken possession of him.
Even the passengers were now calmer. Their hysteria, as expressed by the abortive attempt to commandeer and launch a lifeboat by themselves, had turned into a tired sense of hopelessness.
Those of the Jewish faith were gathered around their rabbi who was intoning his prayers. They had appropriated as their own a small segment of the fantail on the port side. They clung to it tenaciously as though this were a plot of earth, and here they expected to go to their final rest.
Shortly after six P.M. Pennington received a dramatic message in response to his skipper's call for a tanker. It was from Captain Harwood of the Anglo-American tanker Narragansett, a night's steaming distance away. However he promised:
"Will come with the milk in the morning."
This optimistic spontaneity had a cheering effect on Captain Inch's spirits, but he knew help would be too late.
Darkness fell, stabbed only by tongues of flame from the blazing ship. Inch radioed:
"Cannot something be done to help us? We must abandon ship. Her plates are buckling. Stand close as I may have to jump for it."
Somehow, he stuck to his ship.
In America, Thursday was also nearing its end. The A's had won the third game of the Series by a score of 8-2 before a capacity crowd of 35,000. President Wilson had reviewed the cavalry. In Portland, Maine, Mrs. Vance Cheney had unburdened herself of her no doubt important message on right living and right thinking.
And on the Volturno, Second Officer Lloyd decided to demonstrate to the circling rescue fleet that a boat could navigate this North Atlantic nightmare. Though burned and half-crippled from his fall, he commanded a small gig with three crewmen. He put out into the darkness, using only running lights for identification, and steering by the searchlights of the other ships.
In 45 minutes he had done the impossible. Half-filled with icy sea water, his boat came alongside the Grosser Kurfuerst and was hauled up. All four men were safe. They were taken below decks, where warmth, German beer and hearty congratulations awaited them.
Even so, the captains of the waiting ships - now joined by the Devonian and La Touraine - did not think it prudent to attempt to move passengers off the Volturno until morning.
About nine P.M., as Captain Barr himself was to record the scene:
". . . When darkness was at its blackest, the flames burst through amidships of the Volturno from her engine room and coal bunkers. As the fire lighted up the ship there came an explosion which sent into the air burning wreckage like the flight of rockets. It lit the surrounding ships."
Yet, those who still lived aboard the Volturno clung to their uncertain bit of steel. The rabbi prayed. Mothers held their babies. Strong men were tormented with a sense of frustration. What could they do?
At midnight, the Grosser Kurfuerst could not watch the spectacle any longer. A group of hardy seamen from Kiel stripped to their undershirts - so as not to be encumbered if they were swept overboard - and manned a lifeboat.
They pulled away into the darkness.
Meanwhile the Narragansett was taking the seas like a half-submerged submarine. No one could stand up on her pipe-latticed decks. Captain Harwood, refusing to sleep, was by the helm, hanging onto an upright for support and peering into the blackness of the Atlantic night.
He confided to his mate on watch that he'd be at his destination in the morning as promised with the "milk" if he had to "crack every frame in the ship!" From the roar which every head-on made in the forecastle, his seamen could believe him.
Captain Inch, about two A.M., sent this despairing entreaty dot-dashing through the air:
"For God's sake, do something. . . !"
As if in derisive answer, a new explosion tore the radio mast from the Volturno; it was the end of her transmission.
The boat from the Grosser Kurfuerst circled the fiercely blazing steamer as its officer in charge shouted to the passengers to jump.
"Schnell! Schnell!" he called in German.
But no one obeyed - no one except Pennington, the wireless operator who now had no further duties to perform. After his nightmares, he was sure he would die, although he felt a bitter satisfaction in cheating destiny in the manner of his going.
"I went down so far, I didn't care whether I came up again. . . ." he told his rescuers a few minutes later. He missed the closer boat from the Grosser Kurfuerst, however, and was hauled in by the Kroonland.
Just before dawn the remaining passengers began jumping into the sea. The smoke and flames were blinding, suffocating, even on the stern. There was a new element now, but a welcome one - oil.
The Narragansett, just as Captain Harwood had promised, had arrived. She was pumping her greasy, iridescent "milk" onto the boiling seas as fast as her machinery would permit.
It helped. There were 11 rescue vessels now on hand, and all were able to launch boats and ring the stricken liner close to. It was a weirdly festive spectacle, like some mad early-morning regatta.
With skies brightening in the east, at one time as many as 35 such lifeboats were counted rowing across the seas which the heavy oily coating was blanketing into a mere steady chop.
Among the last to leave the ship was an opera singer from Moscow. In true heroic style he first sought out Captain Inch and asked permission to abandon ship. The singer then took off his coat and jumped.
Sailors formed human ladders down lines and cargo nets strung over the Volturno's sides. Older women and babies were passed from hand to hand into the cluster of boats waiting below.
Aboard the rescue fleet was a retired newspaperman, Arthur Spurgeon, formerly managing editor of the National Press Agency of Great Britain. He started a wireless to London:
"It was a strange company that filled the last boat to put off from the side of the flame-swept Volturno. It carried Captain Inch. It carried the officers. It carried a dog. And it carried a cook who was one of the big heroes of the tragedy, for he stood at his post and baked and made coffee until the flames were so close that his shoes were literally burned off."
Captain Inch was temporarily blinded by the smoke, coughing, burned and on the verge of collapse. One by one, the survivors were brought onto the rescue ships. The Grosser Kurfuerst held the greatest number - 105.
When the final tally came in after much signaling back and forth over the waters, it was found that 133 lives had been lost out of the 657 persons who had sailed from Rotterdam on October 2nd.
The Carmania, finished with her mission, was about to order the engine room "full speed ahead" when the bow watch spotted a swimmer - the last to be fished from the water.
He turned out to be a muscular German who had been stroking through the waves for no one knew how many hours. His rescue lowered the total of lives lost to 132, and there it would stand.
It was Friday, October 10, 1913, the beginning of Yom Kippur and, incidentally, the day of the fourth game of the World Series.
Not until Saturday, because of delays in transmission, did the American press carry headlines reminiscent of the Titanic:
Steamer Burns - Mountainous Seas
Sink Lifeboats - Human Cargoes
Fall to Water
As the other ships docked at destinations on either side of the Atlantic, the story was finally pieced together. It made dramatic reading, even though to editorial writers it did not make much sense. Why should such a small ship, with so many passengers aboard, be loaded not only with an inflammable cargo but also apparently without adequate fire-fighting equipment?
There was one need the Volturno had demonstrated by going to her fiery death. The cry, after the Titanic's loss, had been for an unsinkable ship. Now, thumped the press, naval architects must design a fireproof ship.
The shipyards obliged, and some 30 years later the liner Normandie burned in her dock at New York. Just as the Titanic had been labeled "unsinkable," the Normandie was, of course, "fireproof."
There is now a vast amount of data on this site re the events covered in the above article and you can read what actually happened. You can specifically read about the Pennington dream, about Walter Trentepohl the muscular German, who was in fact I believe the very first to be rescued - by Carmania on October 9, 1913 and was in the frigid water for about an hour. And many other matters.
If YOU have any new data about the Volturno, or in any way related to the Volturno, I would welcome your dropping me a line.
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