Alden Graves | Graves Registry: So, you think you are having a bad day!
I am going to refrain once again from expounding upon my opinion that Donald Trump is a terrible president and, very likely, a worse human being. The big difference right now is that his incompetence is making people sick literally instead of just figuratively. His response to this pandemic is a little like Captain Smith's decision not to slow the Titanic down after he had been repeatedly warned of ice in the vicinity. And look how great that turned out!
Enough and, as apt as it is, the Titanic analogy was a convenient way to segue into the subject of this week's column.
Robert Lee Hudson was making the best of a bad situation. The 35-year-old New Orleans native had been badly injured while performing his duties as a seaman aboard a freighter ironically (for him) named Ocean Victory. The damage to his back and a severe gash in his right hand necessitated Hudson's return to the United States for further medical treatment. He embarked on a passenger liner bound for New York in Gibraltar on July 17, 1956.
Hudson spent a good deal of his time in the ship's infirmary still experiencing a great deal of pain. He had very little opportunity to familiarize himself with the layout of the vessel itself, although it was certainly far more luxurious than the ships that he was accustomed to working on.
By the 25th, however, he felt well enough to spend the foggy night in his cabin in the middle of the liner's port side on A Deck. He retired early and took the pain medication that would, hopefully, assure him a good night's sleep. Little did Robert Hudson know how well those pills would work.
A few hours after Hudson had gone to sleep, crewmen aboard the Swedish motorship, Stockholm, off the eastern coast of the United States in a area commonly called the Times Square of the Atlantic, were startled to hear strains of "Arrivederci Roma." It seemed like an odd choice of songs to be played aboard a Swedish ship.
The music was actually coming from the Belvedere Lounge on the Andrea Doria, where passengers, including film actress Ruth Roman, were dancing away their last night on the Italian liner's so far uneventful 51st westbound Atlantic crossing. The Doria was due to dock in New York early the next morning.
At 11:10, the Stockholm rammed into the starboard side of the Andrea Doria. Reinforced for navigation in icy Scandinavian waters, the bow of the Swedish ship cut like a hot butter knife into the Italian liner, penetrating 40 feet into the forward hull and killing everyone unfortunate enough to be in its path.
Nearly 30 feet of the Stockhom's bow was demolished and a massive piece of the wreckage would shortly fall to the bottom of the Atlantic. The vessel somehow remained afloat.
The Doria was the pride of the Italian Line and a symbol of Italy's resurgence into transatlantic passenger service after World War II. She was a beautiful liner, with a sleek, jet black hull and a single, swept back funnel that was painted in the national colors of red, white, and green. There was a serious design flaw, however. She was top-heavy and the problem was exacerbated as the fuel tanks that provided ballast were depleted.
Almost immediately after the collision, the Doria assumed a 20-degree starboard list. The ship, with 1,706 people on board, could roll over at any moment.
In the hours to come, the most massive peacetime rescue at sea would unfold. Because of the close proximity of other ships, including the venerable French liner Ile de France, all of the surviving passengers and crew, except for some of her officers, had been evacuated when Robert Hudson awoke at 5:15.
Hudson couldn't understand why it was so difficult to sit upright in his bunk until he realized that he was not in his bunk at all. He was sprawled on the cabin wall. The door to his stateroom was open and an eerie blue-green light illuminated a corridor. Oily water sloshed on the floor.
Barefoot and clad only in his boxer shorts, Hudson made his way along the corridor by placing one foot on what used to be the floor and the other on the wall. No one heard his cries for help. Although he had spent a good deal of his adult life on ships, he was not familiar with the maze-like interior of the Andrea Doria. Hudson knew the liner didn't have much more time to remain afloat. He instinctively — and painfully — made his way towards the stern.
Emerging finally out on the Upper Deck, he could see the small flotilla of rescue ships in the distance and a few of the Doria's lifeboats bobbed in the choppy water. Still, no one heard his pleas for help before a large wave swept him off the deck and into the Atlantic, leaving his boxer shorts hanging by a thread.
Hudson was finally able to haul himself out of the water by grabbing onto netting from the swimming pool that had been draped over the side of the Doria. Passengers used it to descend to the lifeboats.
The 10 crewmen sent from the tanker Robert E. Hopkins had been told not to get too close to the sinking ship in case their small boat be drawn into the suction when the Doria went under. They could see a man hanging from the stern but were momentarily unsure as to what to do until Hudson let loose with a string of choice expletives aimed at them.
"Hey, that guy's an American," one of them said. The seamen furiously rowed the 300 yards separating them and pulled Hudson into the lifeboat. All he wanted when he got aboard the tanker was a stiff drink.
So, the next time you start to let things get you down, imagine yourself painfully hanging naked off the stern of a 700-foot sinking ocean liner and you are bound to feel better.Alden Graves writes a regular column for the Banner.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.