By Scott Grant
Shortly after 11 p.m. on the night of July 25, 1956, Alexander and Elisabeth “Bess” MacKerell spent their last night aboard the “Andrea Doria”. They were with friends in the first class lounge near a life-size bronze statue of the famous Italian admiral after whom the ship is named. The horrifying sound of metal tearing metal interrupted the frivolity. Dessert plates and champagne glasses fell on the floor and shattered.
“Andrea Doria” was the pride of the Italian line and was considered the most beautiful ship afloat. She was nominated for a 16e Italian Admiral of the Century — Andrea Doria commanded a wing of the Christian fleet at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. It was there that the united Christian fleet defeated the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. The battle was so important that Pope Pius V announced the result before the messengers arrived. He claimed to have seen a vision of God’s great victory.
Aboard the ship that bears his name, it soon became apparent that something was seriously wrong. In the fog off Nantucket, the ship had collided with the “Stockholm”, the pride of the Swedish Line. Although the ‘Stockholm’ was only about half the size of the ‘Doria’, it was fitted with a heavy steel bow designed to break ice. This heavy bow has now torn the side of the Italian ship, leaving a giant hole and ripping a young girl from her berth. She would later be found alive and well among the rubble.
“Andrea Doria” listed to starboard, rendering most of her lifeboats unusable. She was flowing. Nearby ships rushed to the rescue. Three long hours passed before they began to abandon ship, the women and children first. Alexander and Bess MacKerell, my grandparents, went to their cabin to retrieve their life jackets and raincoats.
The crew led my grandmother into a lifeboat. The women were instructed to leave their shoes in a large pile before descending. My grandmother was proud that she decided her shoes might be useful later and stuffed them into the pockets of her raincoat instead. She would be rescued by an American troop transport, the “Private Willie Thomas”. Bess would be the only woman on board with shoes. She would later be quoted in a nationally circulated AP story.
Back on the “Doria”, my grandfather prayed. He prayed for strength for himself and for the rescuers. He was scared. He specifically prayed for the strength to climb down a rope ladder if necessary. He had never been able to climb rope in high school.
Meanwhile, hours to the east and heading in the wrong direction, Ile de France, pride of the French Line, heard the distress calls. The legend says that the Ministry of the Interior forbade the captain to turn around to help. Time was still essential at that time. Today, we sail for pleasure. In the past, it was still a means of transport.
On board the French ship, the captain, Baron Raoul de Beaudean made a fateful decision. Radio transmissions indicated that there were not enough lifeboats. Thinking to himself that “There but for the grace of God I’m going”, the Baron turned around and steamed back to the stricken ship.
A thick fog blanketed the Atlantic that night. The men still huddled on board waiting to be rescued could see nothing. Approaching Ile de France, they could not discern which radar spot to head towards. Then, miraculously, the fog began to lift. De Beauden maneuvered his ship close to the “Andrea Doria” and turned on the bright advertising lights that were normally reserved for port. Giant letters spelling “ILE DE FRANCE” lit up the night.
Those lights piercing through the rising fog were like a beacon of hope for those still on board. That’s when my grandfather knew he would live. He descended the ladder and from the luxury of the French ship, telegramed my mother to their home in Merchantville, NJ saying they were both safe.
My mother was crazy. News of the sinking spread quickly. The 23-year-old felt an urge to get to New York and save her parents. She reached out to the most reliable man she knew for help. Leonard Grant was a young minister ministering to two churches in the already decaying town center of Camden. He borrowed a 1956 Chevy Belair from his older brother. The car was two-tone, white and copper, and it was the first truly new car Uncle Hobie had ever owned. Together, my mom and dad ran to New York to save Nancy’s parents. A few months later, they got engaged. A few years later, I was born.
Part of the miracle of “Andrea Doria” was that only 46 people died in the sinking. More than 1,700 lives were saved that night, nearly half of them by Ile de France. The vessel settled on the bottom at a depth of 200 feet, in treacherous waters. Twenty-two other people died trying to extract its treasures. It has become known as “the Mount Everest of scuba diving”.
In 1964, a successful dive led by Dan Turner managed to recover the statue of Andrea Doria in the main salon. In order to save the statue, they had to cut Doria at the ankles because the base was too heavy to lift. For decades, this statue resided at the Palace Saloon in Fernandina Beach. At first he was indoors. Later he was out as a lawn ornament in cowboy boots. Recently another dive team recovered the base and the statue of Andrea Doria was returned to Italy where it found its feet.
Scott A. Grant is a local historian and trust asset manager. He welcomes your feedback at [email protected]