July 12, 2006
The 1979 photo shows a breezy, sunny day at the beach in Hampton Bays. Bohdan Nagorski is in animated conversation with the father of Tom Nagorski who, a quarter of a century later, would write Miracles on the Water, about an ordeal at sea in September 1940 involving his great uncle Bohdan and over 400 other passengers and crew, including 90 children, on board a ship bound for Canada.
Far out in the icy North Atlantic, 600 miles from land, in waters considered relatively safe, the British liner S.S. City of Benares was fatally torpedoed. That almost 40 years after this shattering event Bohdan Nagorski would be sitting so close to the ocean, chatting away, seems a "miracle," only one, however, of many chronicled in this harrowing but heartening — and beautifully written — narrative about "The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack." It's hard to believe that Tom Nagorski, a six-time Emmy Award winning senior broadcast producer for ABC's "World News Tonight," has only now written his first book.
The power of Miracles on the Water to shock and sadden without once yielding to sentimentality, bias or stereotype impresses, especially given the author's familial ties. Indeed, as this review appears, one of the children, now 81, who survived with a friend, by clinging to the freezing hull of an upside down lifeboat, has just been visiting with Tom and with Bohdan Nagorski's two daughters, Barbara and Chris. The girls and their mother had been waiting for Bohdan in Montreal, when they heard about the U-Boat attack, as did the entire world.
"It was the worst maritime disaster of the war to date," writes Nagorski. "Entire families were wiped out."
A little over 100 of the passengers were rescued from the gale-tossed seas 18 hours later, some of whom would die from exposure and injury. Despite drill and discipline, the lowering of the lifeboats had not gone well. Lifeboat 12, holding Bohdan Nagoriski, 38 other men, including Indian crew, one woman, and six boys, had its own problems: It had been overlooked by the rescue ship. For eight agonizing days and nights Lifeboat 12's inhabitants drifted, thirsty, hungry, half alive. Zygmunt Nagorski had been sent a telegram in London that his brother Bohdan, a Polish shipping executive, fleeing the Nazis, was presumed dead. A memorial service and obituary followed.
The Benares, an 11,000-ton luxury liner named for a city in India, had set sail on Friday, September 13 from Liverpool. The children were part of a controversial government plan, a response to the deadly luftwaffe night terrors. Churchill was adamantly opposed to such evacuation efforts, seeing them as unpatriotic, a "betrayal" of morale, but Paris had just been taken and he suddenly had other matters on his mind.
Nagorski has done a splendid job researching and recreating events, sometimes minute-by-minute, of what happened from the day the Benares left port until the Lifeboat 12 survivors were found (a fascinating where-are-they-now epilogue completes the story). Nagorski is a master storyteller, managing to make a tragedy whose ending is known, gripping and memorable. Characters emerge, different personalities, who rise to the fearful occasion in distinctive ways. These include the "indomitable" gunner Harry Peard, whose crude and baiting behavior Bohdan Nagorski finally appreciated as more method than madness, and the remarkable spinster piano teacher, "Auntie" Mary Cornish who, to the surprise of all, including herself, sacrificed her own comfort for the emotional and physical well being of "her" boys.
Nagorski also notes racism in attitudes toward the Indian crew and the prevalence of class, and his brief, nuanced portrait of U-48's commander, Heinrich Bleichrodt, who would win Germany's most prized medal for sinking more enemy vessels than any other submarine during World War II, rounds out a tale that is instructive as it is moving.
Though, as a boy, Nagorski had heard about the Benares, it was years later when he spoke at length about it with Bohdan's daughters that he felt prompted to write about it, encouraged by his good friend Peter Jennings who called the story "almost unbelievable."
Was the British convoy accompanying the Benares adequate and sufficient? Did the U-boat captain know there were children aboard? Why were they not in life vests that night? How and why did those who made it survive? Where was God? Not even the priest on board Lifeboat 12 could say.
Filled with lively fact-based interior monologues and evidence of crosschecked interview and media accounts as well as substantial reading in British and German maritime history, Miracles on the Water compels attention and admiration.
Nagorski, who has a house in East Quogue, will be reading from his book at the Quogue Library, 90 Quogue Street on Sunday, July 23 at 5 p.m. Call 653-4224 to reserve a place.
Miracles on the Water : The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack, by Tom Nagorski. Hyperion, 345 pp., index, source list, photos. $24.95.