Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Rescue at Sea

(by Diane Cooper, Museum Specialist)

For the crew of the British cargo transport ship Mary Horlock built in 1919, late January 1924 on the Pacific Ocean 700 miles off-shore of Japan was a nightmare.  Not only were they fighting shifting cargo that caused the vessel to list dangerously, but nature also conspired against them in the form of a major storm growing to typhoon proportions.  On the morning of January 26, the captain ordered an SOS issued in hopes that another vessel might be able to assist them.

One hundred miles away, the radio operator on board the old Pacific Mail steamship President Taft picked up that distress call and passed the information on to Captain Girard T. January.  Immediately Captain January changed course and the Taft began battling her way through the storm to the sinking Mary Horlock.  By afternoon the President Taft reached the Horlock to find her barely afloat.  Without her cargo of lumber she would have slipped beneath the waves long before help arrived.

Watercolor of the President Taft (SAFR 14110)
When the Taft hove in sight, it quickly became obvious that the raging seas made it impossible to close in on the sinking vessel or to ship a gangway as an access point for the rescued men to board the Taft.  At the same time, the crew on board the Horlock determined that lifeboats could not be launched filled with passengers.  In desperation they dropped a boat over the side and, when it remained afloat, half of the crew managed to jump into it as it rose and fell on the turbulent seas and then struggled against the elements and, "...miraculously reached the side of the Taft."  (S. Miller Holland, transcription of newspaper article in Park's accession folder for P05-005.)  According to Chief Engineer Dugan, 2,575 barrels of oil were pumped overboard to calm the turbulent sea next to their ship so that when the lifeboat came alongside, the crew of the President Taft was able to deploy their cargo nets to haul the twenty exhausted members of the Horlock crew from their lifeboat.

S. Miller Holland, a special correspondent for the Universal Service and a passenger on board the Taft, reported that the storm was, "...one of the most terrific storms that ever lashed the Pacific [with] plunging waters of a convulsed sea [and that it] had grown so violent that it meant almost certain death for anybody to attempt to reach the Mary Horlock in so frail a craft as a lifeboat." (Typescript of newspaper article by S. Miller Holland, in accession file P05-005, hereafter "(Holland).")  Captain January called for volunteers willing to brave the dangerous seas as part of a livesaving party.  To a man his crew responded to his request.  Chief Officer Frank J. Sommer, placed in charge of the rescue party, quickly chose six Filipino able-bodied seamen to man the lifeboat and make the journey with him, "...because the American seamen we got in those days were taxi drivers and everything else.  They couldn't handle it.  And those Filipinos were very loyal.  They would do what I wanted them to do.  Strictly obey orders...They were wonderful boatmen."  (Frank J. Sommer oral history interview on April 15, 1965)  

Frank J. Sommer with 6 Filipino crew members, January 10, 1924, SFMNHP, P05-005.1p (SAFR 20643). Frank Sommer donated this photograph at the time of his oral history interview on April 15, 1965.

Sommer and his Filipino crew quickly fought their way across the open sea between the ships and positioned their boat alongside.  One by one the remaining crewmembers jumped into the lifeboat.  With the last of the Horlock's crew accounted for, the lifeboat headed, "...across a fierce, foaming, bursting tide, with every mad wave almost drowning the sky, [as] Mr. Sommer's heroic band fought their way to the side of their own staunch ship the President Taft.  The ocean rolled fiercely and unmercifully, hell opening up every time the lifeboat plunged down from the crest of a billow to the watery valley below."  (Holland)

More than an hour after setting out from the Taft, the last member of the Horlock's crew was safely on board, and Sommer and his crew of Filipino sailors once again stepped onto the Taft's deck, to "...a universal round of applause and cheering from the passengers and others of the crew of the President Taft.  The intensity of the cheering for a moment almost echoed louder than the loud ocean."  (Holland)

The Mary Horlock slipped beneath the Pacific's waves shortly after the completion of this rescue operation, leaving no identifiable flotsam in her wake.

Captain January referred all congratulations to Chief Officer Sommer and his crew.  Sommer, however, stated that Captain January "...was greatly responsible for the success of this rescue oepration.  I am afraid that it would have been a failure, had it not been for his perfect cooperation and handling of the President Taft.  He was very successful in creating a perfect lee for the returning lifeboat."  (Holland)  In addition, Sommer expressed gratitude and praise for "...the six loyal Filipino sailors, who volunteered and almost insisted to man the lifeboat with me.  I will always remember the names of Laxinto, Sim, Demerin, Valencia, De la Cruz and Fernandez."  (Frank J. Sommer oral history interview on April 15, 1965)  

The British Government, under King George V, recognized the efforts of the crew of the President Taft, especially those of Frank J. Sommer, Laxinto, Sim, Demerin, Valencia, De la Cruz and Fernandez, all of whom received a medal for "Humanity and Gallantry."

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