Yo ho ho, a sailor’s life for me

Zeppelins, U-boats, the Titanic, Dunkirk, the Klondike Gold Rush, the Great Smog, castaways, cowboys, and hobos all had one thing in common: Charles Lightoller.

Unknown author / Public domain

Charles Herbert Lightoller lived an extraordinary life; it somehow intersected with many of the signature events of the early 20th century. I recommend reading his full biography if you can, but here are the highlights:

1889: Lightoller was a sailor on the Holt Hill, which was shipwrecked on Île Saint-Paul in the southern Indian Ocean after a serious storm. The castaways were rescued eight days later.

1898: Abandoning the sea, Lightoller joined the Klondike Gold Rush in California. He did not get rich, so he went to Canada to became a cowboy (as you do). That was equally unsuccessful, so he rode the rails across Canada as a hobo.

1912: Lightoller had worked his way up to the prestigious rank of second officer, fourth in command of a ship behind the captain, chief officer, and first officer. Except he happened to be second officer on the Titanic. He was not on watch when the iceberg hit, but supervised loading people into the lifeboats on the port side – “women and children first.” He went down with the ship, actually dove into the freezing water as it sunk and was soon sucked under. Somehow he got to the surface, climbed onto an overturned lifeboat with 30 others, and was picked up by the RMS Carpathia. Lightoller was, apparently, the last of the survivors to be rescued.

1914: Lightoller joined the Royal Navy as first officer of the HMS Oceanic; within two weeks it was shipwrecked on a reef because of a navigation error. Lightoller was the last one off the ship.

1915: Now in command of a torpedo boat, Lightoller ambushed and hit a zeppelin flying over the Thames Estuary (it retreated, damaged). He was appointed captain of a better torpedo boat destroyer.

1918: Lightoller’s torpedo boat destroyer was sunk in a collision in the North Sea. He was made captain of a better better destroyer, and used it to ram a U-boat off the coast of Yorkshire. The submarine crew tried to surrender but it sounds like Lightoller ordered his crew to shoot them… a war crime that would go unpunished.

1940: Now retired, Lightoller took a yacht called Sundowner to Dunkirk to evacuate allied soldiers from continental Europe. He managed to avoid enemy plane fire and get back to England with 127 people, five times as many as the yacht was supposed to carry.

1952: Lightoller dies in the famous Great Smog of London.

[Thanks to Gareth E. for suggesting this topic.]

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