Friday, 11 December 2009

The sunken ship still making waves

In the early hours of Wednesday (9 December) I wrote about my grandfather Leslie Coleman, a ship's steward, who had frequently sailed on the Andalucia Star but never spoke about its sad demise. The posting, All at sea, also recalled William Wheeler’s courageous rescue of a passenger, a little five-year-old girl, after a torpedo attack by a German U-Boat submarine sank the Andalucia Star on 6 October 1942. 

Later that Wednesday, at 9.35pm, I receive an email from Jill McNichol-Harrell (née Bicheno). “I was the little girl,” says Jill.

Astonished, I read on. Jill, who lives in Texas, says in the autumn of 1942 she was crossing the Atlantic on the Andalucia Star with her father, S.G. Bicheno. Her father worked for Cable & Wireless in Chile. The Blue Star Line ship was off the West African coast when it was struck simultaneously by two of U-107’s three deadly torpedoes.

According to one account, Mrs L.A. Green, “an elderly stewardess”, switched on a red light on Jill's lifejacket before lifting the little girl into a lifeboat with other women and children. Most of the lifeboats had already been safely lowered but, as another survivor Douglas Gibson later recalled, one of the lowering lifeboats went down bow first, throwing many of its occupants, including Jill it seems, into the sea. "The bar steward and an elderly stewardess were crushed between the ship and the lifeboat and killed,” said Gibson. Mrs Green received a posthumous commendation, the Merchant Navy’s equivalent of a military ‘mention in dispatches’. Her cool, dutiful and devoted care for the women and children passengers received high praise. 

Jill, now 72, says: “Since I retired I have been able to find out quite a bit about the ship but I have not found any relatives of the stewardess, Mrs. Green. 
However, I did hear from the granddaughter of the brave man who saved my life.”
William Wheeler heard little Jill’s cry for help and then spotted her red light switched on earlier by Mrs Green. For saving Jill’s life, William Wheeler, the Andalucia’s lamp trimmer (the ship's lighting technician), was awarded the Bronze Medal for Gallantry in Saving Life at Sea.
An official citation in the The London Gazette, said: “The cry of a small child was heard some distance away. Wheeler immediately dived into the water, swam through wreckage for a distance of 600 yards to the child and supported it for 30 minutes…Wheeler displayed great courage in plunging overboard into a choppy sea…But for his gallant action the life of the child would have undoubtedly have been lost.”
Wheeler helped Jill into the lifeboat where she was handed to another survivor Marcia Maxwell (then Ferrier). Maxwell had served as an assistant in the Andalucia’s shop. Maxwell, speaking in 1977, recalled: “The awful cries for help led us in their direction. We picked up seven – one a little girl still clinging to her doll…I took charge of her. She was very good, but suffering from shock.”

The Andalucia Star is still making waves even though the ship sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean 67 years ago. In the late 1970s, Marcia Maxwell hailed a taxi outside the Sydney Opera House. The cab driver was Bryn Burris.  Maxwell and Burris had last met on that Andalucia Star voyage. Burris had been the ship’s quartermaster. He told an Australian newspaper: “Jill and her father were in separate lifeboats and he was frantically trying to find her. We were the last to reach the corvette (H.M.S. Petunia) and it was only then that he learnt that his daughter was still alive.”

Burris and Maxwell remembered that third torpedo zipping through the water and blasting into the stricken and soon to be sunken Andalucia. Jill tells me: "Daddy was getting into a lifeboat when the third torpedo struck. He was very lucky not to have been killed on the spot. Every year when he was alive he would phone me on the anniversary of the sinking and we would drink a toast to the ship and her brave crew."
Jill tells me that she asked the New Zealand artist Wallace Trickett to capture that moment in a painting. (Click to view). “It is hanging here in my house in Texas,” says Jill.

In All at Sea, I clumsily tried to guess why my grandfather Les never revealed to my father or I how he felt about the sinking of the Andalucia Star and the lives lost. Peter Stacey, who was at sea with the Blue Star Line for 15 years and is researching the sinking, suggests my grandfather had possibly "grown very attached" to the ship. "Seamen tend to view their ships as home, bonding very closely with their shipmates," says Peter. "From what I can gather, the Andalucia Star was a happy ship."

So, it seems my Grandad Les understandably felt it was too personal and painful to talk about the tragic sinking of one of his favourite ships. 
It's a possibility strongly supported by Jill’s own remarkable discovery about William Wheeler - the brave man who saved her life. 
Well, Jill ends her email, with this revelation: “His (William Wheeler’s) family knew nothing about the Andalucia Star until after he died when they went through his things and found the medal.”

  • Jill McNichol-Harrell would like to receive any information about Mrs L.A. Green and/or help to trace any of her relatives.
  • In writing this post, I am grateful for the help of Peter Stacey in Wellington, New Zealand. 
  • The photograph shows crew members in an Andalucia Star lifeboat, possibly during one of the ship's frequent boat drills that later paid off when so many lives were saved. Unfortunately, I've no way – currently(!) – to date the image.
  • For more Blue Star Line info, visit Fraser Darrah's well-crafted site.

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009.

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