THE SINKING OF THE ANDREA DORIA JULY 26TH, 1956
Recollections of Ernie Melby aboard the USNS Thomas
First word of the collision, and subsequent rescue
My ship, the USNS William H. Thomas, was on the way to New York from Bremerhaven, Germany. It was July 25th and we were due to dock in New York the following morning to disembark soldiers and Military dependents returning to the U.S.
It was after 11PM when we finally got to bed and settled in for a good nights sleep. Arrival days were usually busy and we needed some rest. Shortly after the lights were turned off, the door of our 4-man quarters swung open and someone turned the lights back on. It was the Chief Bosons Mate telling us to get up, get dressed and be up on the aft Starboard deck in ten minutes. Almost in unison everyone asked "What for?" The Chief said a ship might be sinking and we were going to the rescue. I asked, "What kind of ship?" and he responded that it was thought to be a passenger liner. With this information, he was told to get lost, sober up, and generally get the hell out of there and let us sleep. He insisted it was legitimate. I asked why they didnt use the PA system to inform us. His reply was, "The old man doesnt want 500 passengers and soldiers up on deck getting in our way." Some more name calling followed along with threats to get even if this was some kind of practical joke. After all, large ocean liners do not sink, so we thought.
We all realized at about the same time that the ship was beginning to move at maximum speed, and we knew this was not necessary in order to arrive in New York on time. The vibrations of the ship told us that something was urgent and the Chief boson probably wasnt pulling a joke.
When we mustered on deck, we were told there had been a collision between two ships. One was the Andrea Doria and the other was unknown at the time. It was hazy when we first got on deck, but that soon cleared and visibility was at least fair. We were told to line up along each side of the ship and be on the lookout for any debris that possibly could contain a person. Any sightings were to be reported. Several of us spotted a life jacket but no one was in it, and it is unlikely it came from the Andrea Doria. .
I am not sure how long it took to reach the collision site, but I believe it was at least an hour. When the stricken ship appeared, the lights were still on, but even at night one could see there was a definite list. Our motorized lifeboats were launched immediately and headed out to begin the rescue operation.
After some time, the lifeboats returned with survivors. Many were hysterical, others knelt down on our deck and prayed. Many kissed the deck in their joy of having been rescued. At times we had to get a little authoritative in asking survivors to move on as others had to get aboard. The top of the gangway tended to become congested if too many survivors stopped there. Survivors were directed into the dining room and hallways where, I think, they were given dry blankets and coffee, and maybe something to eat.
One survivor, a woman, is one of my unforgettable memories. She was very beautiful and wearing a stunning pure white evening gown. At first glance it looked like she was perfectly dressed for a lavish party, and the gown looked perfectly clean. Then the bottom of her gown caught my eye. It was stained with fuel and wet up to her knees. In spite of having been through a major collision and rescue operation, she was composed and elegant.
Arrival of the Ile De France
The USNS Thomas was the first major ship at the scene, but our ability to rescue large numbers of people was hampered by only two motorized lifeboats. In spite of great efforts by our boat crews, if was obvious that further assistance was essential.
Probably about an hour after we arrived on the scene, I spotted a huge dark shadow approaching, almost entirely unlit. A lone white light was visible on the mast, and a red running light glowed faintly on the port side. It quickly came between our ship and the Andrea Doria and we could feel the vibrations as the huge ship backed down "full astern" and came to a stop.
After this large ship stopped, all was silent for a few seconds. Then, every light on that ship must have been turned on. Huge lighted letters spelled out "Ile De France" and even the sea around it was lit up. Then, in perfect unison, all her lifeboats descended, unhooked from lowering cables, and began to move en-masse to the Andrea Doria. This was a sight I will never forget. It was as if the Super Star had arrived on stage. This was truly a theatrical production on a grand scale in what was a life and death drama.
The Hydraulic Jack
Nearly everyone had been evacuated from the Andrea Doria, but there was at least one person trapped in the wreckage who was still alive. I remember hearing that this was the wife of a doctor, but have no first hand knowledge if this was true. Our boat crew had been inside the collision area trying to free the woman who was pinned under a huge steel beam. They had no luck with the tools they had available, so they returned to the Thomas to get a large hydraulic jack to try to remove or raise the beam. One of my friends on the boat crew asked me for a favor as they were leaving with the jack. He said "Melby, how about trying to come up with something for a good stiff drink if we make it back". I promised, and began to search for any alcoholic beverage which might have been smuggled aboard. Alcohol was not allowed on a Navy ship even though it was not an uncommon thing to have it hidden somewhere.
It must have been at least an hour later when our boat crew returned. They looked exhausted from the nights activity and also very sad. My friend informed me that the woman had died and the doctor, who may have been her husband, had pronounced her dead. He suggested they get out of the Andrea Doria before it capsized and took their lives too. Whether the doctor was the womans husband or not I dont know for sure. Real facts are often hard to come by during a disaster.
True to my promise, I found some liquor and the owners of this contraband willingly offered some for the boat crew. I cant remember what liquors I acquired, but it certainly was a mixture. Someone asked what we should call this "witches brew" and a suggestion was made that we call it the "Hydraulic Jack". The name stuck and at least for a few months, it could be bought at waterfront bars in Brooklyn.
Some Final Thoughts
The sinking of a great and beautiful ship like the Andrea Doria is an experience that no one being involved can ever forget. The tragedy was so monumental that it seemed unreal. I did not see the final plunge, as we were on our way back to New York. I watched from a high point on our ship and using binoculars I may have seen the final roll but I am not sure. It was only a speck on the horizon by that time. To all survivors who were taken aboard the Thomas, I salute your courage and hope we treated you right on that fateful night.
About the author: Ernest (Ernie) Melby was in the US Navy aboard the USNS William H. Thomas, TAP 185 during 1956. He was in what was called the Military Department consisting of a small contingent of military personnel. The ship, operated under MSTS (standing for Military Sea Transportation Service) was operated by a civilian crew. Melby, whose rating was Electrician's Mate 1st Class, (EM1) worked in Special Services which included troop and passenger entertainment, and operation and repair of equipment for this purpose. He left the Navy and returned to his Home State of Minnesota in 1957.
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