Andrea Doria and Other Recent Liner Disasters by William H. Miller
This year, 2016, is the 60th year of the Andrea Doria sinking. That number prompted this book, Andrea Doria & Other Recent Liner Disasters, another look back. In addition, I have selected some other passenger ship disasters, but not all. Many liners finish their days at the scrap yard, reduced to rubble, but some have had tragic, very sad endings. This is a record, beginning in 1942, of some of those passenger ship disasters.
The sinking of the Andrea Doria remains one of the most famous maritime disasters of the 20th century. Myself, I well remember the television newscasts and newspaper headlines on the morning of 26th July. The Doria had been rammed the night before by another liner, Sweden's Stockholm. It all seemed too sad, tragic, almost incomprehensible. Even I was in disbelief. How could the Andrea Doria sink? Perhaps, it was all a mistake. Still a schoolboy but already a devoted follower and observer of the great liners, I was puzzled. I asked a special favor of my father: Would he take me by car a day later, the 27th, from Hoboken to the cliffs of nearby Weehawken to make absolutely sure that the Andrea Doria had not arrived. She was due at Pier 84, at the foot of West 44th Street in midtown Manhattan and just across from Weehawken, on the morning of the 26th. Soon after we arrived, I looked across, even in the fading light of a summer's evening, and the berth at Pier 84 was indeed empty. The Andrea Doria had not arrived as scheduled. Yes, she had sunk – the news reports were correct. Some thirteen New York City blocks north, the smallish, all-white Stockholm was in port. She had returned after having made an 11:30 am departure two days before, on Wednesday, the 25th. She was again at Swedish American Line's terminal, Pier 97 at the foot of West 57th Street. She had not been due back in New York harbor for another month, until late August. The Stockholm was never one of the big, more imposing Atlantic liners – she was actually more of a passenger-cargo ship. But she seemed especially small on that July evening. Like a bad child, she almost seemed to be hiding, in disgrace, fearing punishment. To most, she was already the villain, the less important, little ship that sank the very important flagship of the entire Italian merchant marine and one of the post-Second World War's era finest new ocean liners.
Newspapers and television followed-up for at least a week with further reports, recollections from survivors, tales from heroic rescue ships like the legendary Ile de France and the freighter Cape Ann. Rather quickly, Life magazine even rushed out an issue about salvaging the Andrea Doria. Could she be dragged to shore by a huge chains? Could she be systematically pumped-out and slowly float to the surface? Or in deeper imagination, could she be filled with the likes of thousands of ping pong balls and be refloated? In fact, the Italians wanted nothing of salvage. In deepening silence, the Company – both in New York and at its Genoa headquarters – slipped into total retreat on the subject of the Andrea Doria. Almost immediately, it was announced instead that a bigger, more luxurious replacement would be built – dubbed the "super Andrea Doria" by one newspaper – and would be in service in less than four years. The Italians focused on the positive, the future, the continuing of its famed trans-Atlantic liner service.
The Stockholm went into its own kind of hiding. After landing her passengers, survivors and most of crew, she was towed stern-first by Moran tugs from Pier 97, south along the Hudson and over to the bottom end of the Brooklyn waterfront, to the Bethlehem Steel shipyard at 56th Street. Placed immediately into dry dock, the Stockholm would need serious surgery: four months of repairs and the replacement of her raked, ice-strengthened bow. Tucked in an inner floating dock, the Stockholm was not easily seen (or photographed) from, say, a passing ship or Staten Island ferry.
In the summer of 1988, I arrived in Genoa and had a short stay before heading off on two Mediterranean cruises, both on Italian liners, by the way – the Achille Lauro and the Ausonia. While in a Genoa hotel, I came across a newspaper. A headline read "Death Ship Arrives". A small, all-white passenger ship had arrived and was to be converted and made over as a contemporary cruise ship. Then over forty years old, it was the former Stockholm. The "villain" in 1956 was now an Italian ship.
In April 2001, I traveled to the Caribbean, to Montego Bay on Jamaica, to board a rather special cruise. It included three days in otherwise remote Cuba: two days in Havana and a day at a beach resort called the Isle of Youth. The ship was the specially chartered Valtur Prima, the former Stockholm. She had been, however, so completely rebuilt that there was very little trace of her earlier Scandinavian heritage. I searched all through the passenger areas. While using the ship's tenders, however, we would pass the knife-like bow. Upon looking closely, the slightly raised but very faint lettering was visible – it spelled Stockholm.
Five years later, in 2006, I was a board member of the Ocean Liner Museum, an on-going project then based at Lower Manhattan's South Street Seaport Museum. Along with a permanent exhibit, we offered periodic lectures and programs. We decided to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the sinking of the Andrea Doria. There was a half-day exhibit of memorabilia, artifacts and photos of the Italian liner as well as a series of talks. John Moyer talked of his various salvage efforts, others spoke about the Italian Line and its ships, and still others recalled personal memories of the tragedy. One lady traveled from New Jersey and spoke, often with high emotion. She was a teenager in 1956 and was sent by her family to begin a new life by living with relatives in America. Her parents brought her to Naples and where she boarded the Andrea Doria. She shared a four-berth room in tourist class and was looked after by the three older ladies sharing the same room. On the night of 25th July, she was suddenly awakened and told to hurry – the three ladies would take her to the lifeboats up on Boat Deck. She described the great commotion, the sense of the unknown but fear as well and the crowds of frantic passengers on stairwells and in corridors. She was guided to a lifeboat, but then was deeply embarrassed. She was wearing only pajamas and slippers, but in front of a Catholic priest, who was joining the same lifeboat. That, she told us, was more upsetting than the drama unfolding with the ship itself. The ship already had a great list as she was herded into a lifeboat and then, in the dark of night, went off to a rescue ship, the liner Ile de France. Seeing the ship sink the following morning was "horrifying". Later met by relatives at New York's Pier 88, she never forgot the Andrea Doria, that night and the sinking. Nightmares haunted her for years. To that morning in 2006, she was never again able to board another ship, not even a harbor ferryboat.
William H. Miller's new book Andrea Doria and Other Recent Liner Disasters is available for purchase now.