R. N. Williams II
Mr. Williams, a survivor of boat A’s strange odyssey, was a world-famous tennis player and a member of Philadelphian “high society”, when he boarded the Titanic with his father.
He met historian Walter Lord of the first time on April 27, 1962, and gave an account that, after the first actual Titanic expeditions began in 1985, would offer clues to the rate and direction of currents on the night of April 15, 1912 (clues that would shed at least faint rays of light on the never ending controversy of the Californian).
In his 1962 account, Williams described a man who threw his wallet overboard, after the first lifeboats were launched but before the water reached C deck. Though Williams did not identify the wallet-thrower, his tale appears to cross over to Walter Lord’s recollection that Major Arthur Peuchen became so distressed, at a point mid-way through the sinking, that he began tossing personal belongings overboard, before eventually climbing down a rope into a descending lifeboat. The major was a believer in the then widely embraced myth that objects and even ships might never actually reach the deepest ocean; but rater, gloated forever in a nether zone, where all decay was indefinitely forestalled. The wallet thrower’s desire -“might as well save at least his wallet” – is telling, in more ways that the wallet-thrower could have guessed.
The Titanic, and Major Peuchen’s wallet, did indeed fall 2.5 miles to the bottom. In 1987, the wallet was found within the Titanic’s half-mile diameter debris field – indicating that the Titanic, though twisting in the current, did not drift more than a half-mile between the tossing of the wallet and the liner’s final plunge. As for the Titanic, so far the mystery ship, whose lights the Williams account mentions, just ahead of the wallet toss.
The Williams account begins on the evening of the sinking. It was recorded in handwritten notes by Walter Lord, fifty years later, in Philadelphia:
Early part of evening spent in smoking room after delicious dinner topped off with bunch of wild grapes. Conversation turns to ice – – there are reports some lies ahead. Mr. Williams (father) recalls time he was on the Arizona in 1880’s and they collided with a berg. General feeling: no need to worry this time.
Asleep in cabin on C Deck when awakened by a jar. Didn’t think it was much, but knew it was something. Blowing off steam. Got up, pulled on some clothes, and went on deck. Walked around. Saw sailor coming along with a bucket of ice – – the only ice he saw that night.
Went into A Deck foyer, stood around, then heard call to get lifebelts. Went back to cabin with father and got out belt. At father’s suggestion, put it on under his fur coat. Out in corridor again, helps release man locked in stateroom by breaking in door. Steward warns he must report him for damaging company property.
Up to Boat Deck. Casually helps load one of first boats. Not much going on and awfully cold. He and father retire to smoking room where most of the Philadelphia group had been after dinner. The natural place to go. Finds others still there. They recall the Arizona again. They sit around quietly, then father gives him a flask, saying that if he’s got to go out, this might be a sound precaution. Tries to have steward fill it, but steward declines – “The bar closes at midnight.”
Back out on deck again. Rockets going up now. Spark from wireless flashing blue in the night. Beautiful phosphorous – – never seen any to match it. They see lights in the distance, feel all will be okay. Boats going off, but just stands around watching. Nearby, John Jacob Astor standing on something, helping pass ladies into one of the forward starboard boats. Still doesn’t think ship will sink, although down at the head and listing a little to port. Band playing. Everything awfully quiet and orderly. Somehow not many people around.
Standing by the Boat Deck rail now. Notices man in a lifebelt wearing a high silk hat. Seems perfectly natural. Another man comes up and asks father how long he thinks the ship will last. Father says a long while. Man says he thinks she’s gone and might as well save at least his wallet. Throws it overboard. This seems perfectly natural too. Looks down stairway, sees water rising on some deck below, swirling around hall. Casually mentions it must soon reach their cabins on C Deck. Again, all seems perfectly natural.
Terribly cold just standing around. Restlessly starts roaming again. Nothing to do, just wait. Drops into smoking room once more. Then back on deck. On port side now. Decides it might be warmer in the gym, so he and father start across the deck. But bad list to port side now, and he and father have difficult making it uphill to starboard side. Finally reach gym and find instructor Mc.Cawley idly practicing on the rowing machine. He and father get on “bicycles” and pedal around to get warmer. List makes it too difficult for father, so they restlessly wander back on deck.
Must be 2:10 now. Band playing lively music. They are standing on starboard side forward. Not many people in sight. Occasional passengers, Captain Smith on bridge with seaman. Sailor goes off on some errand. Curious noise. Looks up to see water sweeping onto bridge. Turns with father and starts aft. As they turn, hear shot from direction of bridge but didn’t look back.
Water catches up with them and sweeps them up the deck toward the stern. Ship seems to be rushing forward and down, making the wave that engulfs them. Father swept aft and away. Carried overboard himself. Hears a last word from father.
Strikes out swimming. Thinks he goes a mile – actually 50 – 100 feet. Turns around a watches in astonishment as Titanic towers over him. Despite the horror and the peril, can’t help feeling it’s a majestic sight. The Titanic rises, settles back, then starts rising again . . . this time all the way. Stern rises right out of the water, till rudder and three propellers are clearly visible, right above. Seems to twist around in a semi-circle, then plunges straight down.
Starts swimming. Kicks off shoes, but can’t get out of coat. Hears shouts, cries, but swims around almost alone. Spies dark spot ahead. Swims over too it. It’s Boat A with sides down. Many fighting and scrambling to get in. He finally succeeds along with about 14 others. They slowly paddle out of the area.
They pray, try a song (it doesn’t go over). They yell in unison for help. All the time water sloshing around in boat. Canvas torn and they can’t get the sides up. Asks a man to lend him his hat to bail. Man says no. Another man asks to put arm around William’s neck to support himself. Sure. He does, and Williams feels grip tighten and relax, tighten and relax, then relax all the way. Man slides out of boat and drifts away.
Weird thoughts take over. Did that flashing wireless spark get any help? How long can they last this way? How deep is the ocean here? Are there any other sunken ships lying in this spot with the Titanic. My, those grapes tasted good at supper.
Suddenly notices a man wearing a derby in front of him. Taps man on shoulder. Does he realize his derby is dented? Man doesn’t seem to understand. Tries German, French, even Italian. Man shows no interest. He has this desperate feeling that he must make the man understand that his derby is dented, but he never succeeds in getting any reaction.
With dawn, they see a boat near them. It comes over and picks them up. They row to the Carpathia and he scrambles up ladder. Legs seem alright, but later turns out they were nearly frozen and he narrowly escaped losing them. On Carpathia, he warms himself between an oven and the galley wall, then goes out on deck to watch last boats coming up, hoping to see father. He never comes.
Some observations: The meeting with gym instructor T. W. Mc Cawley is yet another strange encounter, inside the ship, late in the sinking; and Williams has included a vivid description of the pre-plunge list to port. Hugh Woolner, like Richard Williams, reported gunshots forward and starboard, about the time water struck the bridge. Williams’ description of the subsequent wave, sweeping him toward the second smokestack, independently matches accounts of fellow wave survivors Jack Thayer and Archibald Gracie, and is followed by one of the most detailed, close up descriptions we have of the stern breaking away, settling back, and rising again like a skyscraper on the sea. He also noted that the stern, silhouetted against the stars, appeared to rotate before him. Possibly, this was an illusion produced by William’s rotation about the stern, in sweeping currents of the Titanic’s creation.
Williams recalled for Lord, in the letter that follows, that he could not remember the song with which the Titanic’s bandsmen had ended – for, like Marconi Operator Harold Bride, he was washed overboard about that time. Helen Candee, who claimed that she heard the song “Autumn,” followed by the beginning of “Nearer, My God to Thee,” was nearby in a lifeboat, and in a far safer position allowing for calm observation. Walter Lord further noted that Richard Williams was present when Captain Smith ordered the first lifeboats lowered down to the Promenade Deck, and when Hugh Woolner reminded Smith that, unlike Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, the Titanic’s Promenade windows were glassed in, solidly. Before ordering the boats raised again, (which caused frustration to passengers ordered down to the Promenade deck, as memorialized in Edith Russell account), Smith remarked to Woolner, “My God, you’re right!”- which speaks to the depth of Captain Smith’s shock, during the first hour after impact.
Williams, whose father continued to insist that, like the Arizona, the Titanic could not sink, commenced with one of Walter Lord’s favorite exchanges. After Richard Williams noticed that the letters of the ship’s name were about to slip underwater with the bow. “I’m not much on symbolism,” he told the elder Williams, “But when the Captain forgets which ship he is on, it cannot bode well for the future.”
On May 4, 1964, Richard Williams wrote to Walter Lord, about deck plans, and about the sounds of music:
THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF PENNSYLVANIA
1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia 7, PA.
May 4, 1964
Dear Mr. Lord:
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the first class cabin plans on the TITANIC. I pored over them with great diligence, trying to find our stateroom but I’ll be darned if I can recognize it. I never made any notations on the layout of the room and my idea of it is not at all like the plans show. I know I was on “C” deck and I remember full well it was a very bright, cheerful room because the sun shown into the cabin through the porthole.
You are correct in assuming that I do not remember any dancing. Of course, I was with my father and, therefore, probably not in the frame of mind for looking for entertainment of this variety. On the other hand, had I seen some attractive girls, I might have forgotten about my father, at least for a little while in the evenings. At any rate, I do not remember any dancing.
I very definitely remember the orchestra the night we went down. Due to the fact that the weather was cold, we kept wandering around and in and out so that we went through the companionway quite often, where they were first playing. Later on, they played just outside of the door, probably on “B” deck, [A Deck] although that I am not sure of. Unfortunately, I do not have the faculty of remember the names of tunes, but, in the notes that I jotted down on the “Carpathia” I commented to the effect that they played lively tunes. I, at least, definitely did not hear “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Again, with thanks for the pleasure and interest that you have given me, I am
(signed) Dick Williams
R.N. Williams 2d.