Monday January 28, 2013

One of the few places where Depression-weary people could escape from the stark realities of a country plunged into one of the worst economic crises in its history was a sea voyage. Embarking in New York, steaming down the Eastern Seaboard and spending a few days in sunny, pre-Castro Cuba couldn’t help but make the Depression a little less depressing - at least for a few days. In 1934, 72,000 Americans took a sea cruise to forget their troubles.

The Ward Line was reaping the benefits of the public’s fondness for travel. Its flagship was an elegant, 500 foot-long liner built in 1930 and named after the imposing fortress that guards the entrance to Havana harbor. The Morro Castle was powered by two state-of-the-art General Electric turbine engines and boasted what the company called a natural air conditioning system that was, basically open space between the vented hull and the highly lacquered, wood-paneled interior walls and ceilings. The liner was capable of carrying 534 passengers but, times being what they were, the ship rarely left New York booked to capacity.

That proved fortunate on the Labor Day cruise that began at Pier 18 along the East River on Sept.1, 1934.

Although the trip down to Cuba was relatively uneventful, a number of factors contributed to an uneasy atmosphere aboard ship. The Ward Line, like many companies during the Depression, was taking advantage of the fact that jobs were at a premium. Wages were low and dissatisfaction rampant. Passengers began to notice a slackening in the level of accommodation on the part of some crew members. Captain Robert Willmott, a 30-year veteran of the company, began to exhibit behavior that betrayed his own fear of what might happen if labor agitators in the crew stirred up enough resentment.

During the return trip to New York, Captain Willmott thought it best to isolate himself in his cabin, to the annoyance of passengers who looked forward to his presiding over social events and officers who began to question the captain’s mental stability. Willmott complained of not feeling well.

On the day of September 7, the Morro Castle was sandwiched between a hurricane that was advancing up the East Coast and another storm off the New Jersey Coast. Capt. Willmott didn’t attend the party celebrating the last night of the voyage, again citing illness and asking that the ship’s doctor be sent around to his cabin. When First Officer WIlliam Warms checked on Willmott at 7:30, it seemed to vindicate the captain’s claims of sickness. As a matter of fact, Capt. Willmott was dead.

Warms suddenly found himself in charge of a ship with a hurricane coming up behind it and another storm directly ahead. The captain’s sudden death put a damper on the party, but many passengers decided to drink away their last night at sea anyway. For his part, Warms thought he finally had the opportunity to show the Ward Line that he was capable of commanding one of their liners.

At around 2:50 A.M., a passenger told a steward named Daniel Campbell that he thought he smelled smoke. Campbell traced it to a storage locker off the ship’s Writing Room on B-deck. The compartment was where the cleaning fluids were kept and directly below the area where the ship’s Lyle gun, a device that fired a buoy to connect the Morro Castle to a nearby vessel, was stored. Ten minutes after the fire was discovered, the Lyle gun exploded spreading the fire into the open air spaces between the interior walls.

The Morro Castle was an inferno 30 minutes later. Passengers were faced with the choice of burning to death or tossing themselves into seas buffeted by the same high winds that were fanning the fire aboard the ship.

Throughout the height of the conflagration, Radio Operator George White Rogers remained at his post waiting for the order from Warms to send out a distress call. The acting captain was convinced that the fire was containable even when he couldn’t see anyone else on the ship’s bridge through the smoke. Finally, Warms conceded what had been obvious for a long time. When Rogers sent out the SOS, the radio room was illuminated by the curtains burning nearby. The Coast Guard had already received inquiries from people on the Jersey shore about the bright glow on the horizon.

Four hundred and twelve of the Morro Castle’s total complement of passengers and crew survived the inferno at sea. One hundred and thirty seven drowned or were burned to death. The hulk eventually came to rest in the shallows next to the Convention Center in Asbury Park, where it continued to smolder for two days. The spectacle totally rejuvenated the city’s lackluster tourist season.

George White Rogers became a national hero, feted and toasted, awarded and honored. He was paid $1,000 a week during the Depression to tell his story at a Times Square theater in between showings of an Andy Devine movie. He later applied his radio expertise to shortening response times as a member of the Bayonne Police Dept.

The problem, however, with working around detectives is that they seem to be a curious lot. Capt. Vincent Doyle asked one too many questions. George Rogers confessed that he didn’t particularly like Capt. Willmott because he intended to have him fired when the Morro Castle reached New York. It wasn’t the first time that Rogers had been in trouble with an employer. After the owner of the Manhattan radio shop began to suspect that his employee had been stealing merchandise, his store burned in Sept. of 1929, destroying any evidence of the crimes.

The bomb that was sent to Capt. Doyle looked like the heater for an aquarium. When it exploded, it mangled one of his hands. It didn’t kill him, which was clearly the intent. Once again, Rogers escaped prosecution. A few years later, George Rogers White took a hammer and brutally beat an elderly man and his daughter to death. The old man wanted to be paid back money he had loaned Rogers and retire to Florida.

The "hero" of the Morro Castle died in prison on January 10, 1958 taking the true story of one of the last century’s greatest crimes to the grave with him.

Alden Graves is a Banner columnist and reviewer.