the night of Friday, 29th November 1929, whilst on passage from
Melbourne to Vancouver, the SS Norwich City was wrecked on
Gardner Island, with the loss of 11 lives. Information from available
official documents and printed anecdotal accounts, together with
the work of TIGHAR, can provide a fairly detailed account of events.
Whilst the limits of some sources are recognised, an attempt is
made to distinguish fact from myth, and references are only included
here when supported by others.
The SS Norwich
City departed Melbourne on 17th November 1929, manned by 26
officers and crew and 9 Arab firemen. Bound for Honolulu for refuelling,
before heading on to Vancouver, she was in ballast and riding high,
especially at the bow (Naval Court Evidence). According to Heaton
(1984), she encountered a cyclonic disturbance with heavy seas and
headwind, which continued for 24 hours, after which conditions eased.
By late in the day of 29th November, unusual weather conditions
existed, with unusually strong currents, which appear to have altered
her course, and at approximately 23.00 hours she ran aground the
reef of Gardner Island (Heaton, 1984). Support for this account
is provided by Middlemiss (1991), who describes the variable weather
conditions experienced, and that strong currents set the vessel
off course, resulting in her grounding on the reef. Further evidence
was also given to the Naval Court Inquiry (Apia, 1929) as to the
erratic nature of the currents that existed naturally in the area
surrounding Gardner Island.
Henry C. Lott,
second officer, in his evidence given to the Naval Court, describes
his experiences. “The first thing I knew was at 5 past 11 when there
was a crash and the vessel went up on the reef. I jumped off the
settee in my room, went outside, and returned to put on some clothes.
I went straight to the bridge to wait for orders.” Accounts were
also given to the waiting press by some of the survivors on their
return to the UK, in February 1930. They include the recollections
of D. Rees, an apprentice, who reportedly states: “When the Norwich
City struck the coral reef, at about 11 o’clock at night, I
was asleep having been on a previous watch,” (South Wales Echo)
Another apprentice, D. Harkness reportedly describes “...the sky
blazing with lightning and the ship rocking like a cork in boiling
water” (South Wales Echo, 8th February, 1930). Heavy
seas and winds repeatedly pounded the vessel onto the reef. Having
taken orders from the Master, Daniel Hamer, Lott assisted in
checking the lifeboats and surveying the condition of the vessel,
when he reported that she was taking in water in 2 of her 6
holds (Naval Court Evidence). It was hoped that all could stay
aboard until daylight as there appeared no immediate danger.
However, due to the possibility that she would break in two,
orders were given to stay around the galley, aft the funnel,
in order to be handy for the lifeboats (Naval Court Evidence).
It is estimated
that at about 04.00 hrs the Norwich City burst into flames.
Lott testifies that he noticed smoke coming from the fiddley and
that he saw flames in number 3 hold. Strong winds fanned the flames
and by 04.30 hrs a fire was raging in the engine room and number
5 hold, and Hamer ordered the lifeboats to be lowered (Naval Court
Evidence). Whilst he and the Chief Officer, J. Thomas, were attending
the port boat, the Norwich City was struck by a heavy sea
which ripped the lifeboat from its davit and swept Hamer overboard.
He called out for a rope to be lowered over the side, was heard
briefly then given up for lost. Thomas assumed command and last
minute orders were given, at about 05.15 hrs, take to the lifeboats.
T. Clarke, the wireless offficer, had been engaged in sending SOS
messages which were received by the Apia Radio Station. Extracts
of their log, presented to the Naval Court Inquiry, make it clear
that the Norwich City crew was aware that a rescue effort
was being planned. However, by the time confirmation came that assistance
was on the way, all hands had abandoned ship.
took to the remaining lifeboat, but no sooner was it launched than
it was drawn up into the surf and capsized. It was then that 11
men lost their lives: 5 Europeans and 6 Arab firemen. Lott recalls
being washed on the reef, out again to sea, swimming outside the
reef for sometime before making it back to the reef and being washed
ashore. There are numerous accounts of the presence of sharks in
the water and Harkeness recalls the horrifying scream from an Arab
seaman as he was attacked (South Wales Echo, 8th Feb. 1930).
Thomas is later reported as saying “... every man had had to fight
hard for his life” (South Wales Echo, 8th Feb 1930).
In their attempts to reach safety, the survivors had discarded much
of their clothing and most had suffered cuts about the body from
sharp coral, support of which is provided in the list of injuries
supplied to the Naval Court Inquiry. By daybreak the survivors had
been washed ashore where they met up with Hamer. He too had been
hindered in his attempts to reach safety (Daily Express, Feb
1930). Despite being an extremely capable swimmer, he was hampered
by the strong currents before being washed onto the reef, reaching
the beach as dawn was breaking.
Of the 11
men who lost their lives, the body of the Steward, J. Jones, was
the first to be recovered. He had almost reached the shore when
he collapsed and attempts at resuscitation were unsuccessful (Lott’s
statement). Later that day the body of a fireman was recovered from
beneath the upturned starboard lifeboat, and the later discovery
of the body of the carpenter, J. Leslie, completed the three bodies
recovered, and afforded a burial on the beach. The information in
Lott’s testimony that no other bodies were discovered during their
stay on the island, is supported by all other available sources.
states that both lifeboats were washed ashore. It is also clear
from the available accounts that equipment and provisions were also
recovered. It is unfortunate that no inventory exists, but the available
documentation, and later discoveries by TIGHAR and others, can give
One of the
lifeboats was still to be found when the New Zealand Survey Party
visited the island in 1938, and was photographed. It appears to
be 12 to 15 ft long, relatively intact and out in the open (Earhart
Project Book, 7th Edition, TIGHAR, 1993).
to the Hydrographic Office, 1930) describes the use of their “small
lifeboat axes.” Their purpose was to cut down trees for the construction
of a shelter. Recollections of Hamer (family documents) indicate
that the site of the survivors’ camp was approximately 100 yards
into the woods, away from the exposure of the beach. He also recalls
the use of recovered boat sails, blankets and old canvas in providing
additional comfort. The New Zealand Survey Party in 1938 found and
photographed what they took to be the survivors’ camp. The photo
shows a few boxes and small barrels scattered about an area perhaps
20 ft in diameter and surrounded and covered by fairly dense vegetation
(Earhart Project Book, 7th Edition, TIGHAR, 1993).
were also recovered. Numerous accounts describe rations of “...
a biscuit covered with corned beef and ... a tin of milk and water”
for each meal. The discovery of coconuts later supplemented their
diet. Lott describes finding a pool of fresh water. This was collected
and stored in small tanks recovered from the lifeboats (Hamer’s
recollections), and boiled before use.
had not lost their boots during their reach of safety, were able
to search the island. Fresh water was a necessity and any aids to
survival desirable. As the storm subsided on the 2nd day, the heat
became uncomfortable and sunburn became a particular problem for
those wearing only scanty clothing. All these recollections can
be supported in a list of survivors and their injuries presented
to the Naval Court Inquiry.
discomfort was the presence of what were described as small rats,
together with giant land crabs which were observed “carrying coconuts
in their claws without the least trouble” (Thomas’s statement –
Hydrographic Office, 1930). Thomas also documents the existance
of large birds that were easily caught, and surmised that between
these edible birds, crabs and coconuts, one would be unlikely to
starve on the island. However, there are no accounts of birds forming
part of the diet of the Norwich City survivors. Despite the
estimate that supplies would last approximately 3 weeks, (Thomas’s
Statement – Hydrographic Office), there was hope for rescue much
earlier. On the night of the wreck, the British vessel SS Trongate,
under the command of Capt. John H. Swindell, was in port in Apia.
Following receipt of distress calls from the stricken Norwich
City, the Trongate was dispatched at 10.30 hrs on 30th
November, for Gardner Island. Also sent aboard by Administrator
Allen of Western Samoa, was a 19 ft whaleboat and its crew of
6 Ellice Island natives, in order to render assistance (Statutory
Declaration John Swindell, private family document collection,
was in communication with the Norwegian vessel, MV Lincoln Ellsworth,
under the command of Capt. Tichendorf, which was on passage between
San Francisco and Sydney. It was later acknowledged that both vessels
played an equal part in later proceedings (Naval Court Inquiry).
At 06.50 hrs
on 3rd December, the crew of the Trongate sighted Gardner
Island (Naval Court Evidence). The two rescue vessels met on the
East side of the island, turning around and arriving at the site
of the wreck at approx. 08.00hrs (recollections of Hamer).
had collected on the beach to witness the arrival of the ships,
one from the North and the other from the South; their excitement
marred only by thoughts of those buried on the beach (recollections
of Hamer). At 09.00 hrs the whaleboat and her crew was launched
carrying water and provisions. Numerous accounts describe the immense
skill displayed by the native boat crew in reaching the shore. They
made the beach a short distance south of the wreck but were unable
to get away at that location due to the danger from the surf (Swindell’s
statement to Naval Court Inquiry). Supplies were sent from the Trongate
and gratefully received.
was made to search for a more suitable location to attempt a rescue.
The Trongate and Lincoln Ellsworth cruised the reef
to the South and the Island natives and survivors were observed
crossing the lagoon in the whaleboat (Naval Court Evidence). The
exact location of the rescue site is unclear. Before leaving their
camp the survivors placed “all provisions etc.... in the shelter,
with the sincere hope that no one else would ever have need of them”
(recollections of Hamer).
At 14.30 hrs
a rocket line was fired from the Trongate and a request received
for water and biscuits, but the difficulties experienced by the
whaleboat crew prevented their delivery. By 17.00 hrs the whaleboat
had at last been successful in transporting 3 of the survivors to
the Trongate (Swindell’s statement, Naval Court Evidence).
Heavy surf and the collection of sharks in the area was hampering
rescue efforts and the whaleboat returned to the island with half
its crew in the hope that their boat would be easier to handle (recollections
rescue efforts were successful that day, and the natives decided
to remain ashore. Numerous anecdotal accounts describe their apparent
enjoyment at building a campfire from dead vegetation and preparing
a meal of crabs and seabirds. Later all settled down to spend what
they hoped would be their last night on Gardner.
08.00 hrs the following day, another successful rescue saw 3 more
survivors taken off the island. They reached the Trongate
with a message from Hamer requesting water, matches, chlorodyne,
any old boots and hats, and tobacco (Swindell’s statement, Naval
Court Evidence), further evidence that sunburn and injuries from
the hard coral were a particular problem. There was also concern
among the survivors that some may be forced to spend another night
ashore and that their previous stores had been abandoned.
It was with
great appreciation that liberal stores were later received from
the Trongate (recollections of Hamer). In the event, all
attempts at rescue during the afternoon were successful and the
last survivors boarded the Trongate at 14.15 hrs, full of
admiration and respect for all involved in their rescue. Both vessels
left Gardner Island with all 24 survivors at 15.30 hrs on 4th December
Whilst it is
accepted that there exist some colourful anecdotes in relation to
events, no disagreements in the accounts are evident. It could therefore
be suggested that the stranding of the vessel took the crew by surprise.
It would seem that the existence of bad weather, the use of navigational
charts available at the time, now known to be inaccurate, and the
nature of the environment surrounding Gardner Island, contributed
significantly. In attempting to reach the safety of land all men
experienced a hard and fearful effort. Of the 11 who died, only
3 bodies were recovered and afforded burial, and no others were
nature of the collision, it is clear that the crew had a little
time to equip the starboard lifeboat. It is also evident that both
lifeboats and some of their contents were washed ashore. Sufficient
equipment was recovered to assist in the construction of a shelter,
a campfire, and to enable the storage of water. A supply of food
was recovered and the survivors had identified additional sources
of food provided by their environment. Although uncomfortable, it
appears that they were confident of being able to survive for longer
than was subsequently necessary.
Upon the arrival
of the rescue vessels, in the search for a suitable rescue site,
the original survivors’ camp was abandoned. Equipment and provisions
were collected and stored at that location. At no time did the survivors
return to this site.
In spite of
the presence and assistance of highly skillful local island natives,
leaving the island was treacherous due to the nature of the surf
and the presence of sharks. It could be concluded that survival
in the water, or chances of a body remaining intact for any length
of time in these conditions, is remote.
anecdotes contribute to this account of the wreck of the SS Norwich
City, sufficient documentation exists to support their accuracy.