I learned to love research when I was in grad school at Berkeley, a couple of centuries ago. There's something deeply satisfying about digging around in manuscripts, old books, and diaries--finding forgotten or lost or never-before-discovered gems of information. This week, almost by magic, a wonderful document landed on my desk, just in time to serve as a valuable resource for The General's Women, the current biographical/historical novel I'm working on. Featured in the magazine is the torpedoing of the troopship Strathallan on Dec. 22, 1942. Kay Summersby, Eisenhower's Irish driver and one of the characters in my novel, was on that ship, on her way to join Ike, who had arrived in Algiers with TORCH, the first Allied campaign of World War II.
The Allies didn't publicize the sinking of their troopships (such admissions could lead to low morale at home) so most of the documentation of the Strathallan's sinking (like the stories on the wonderful website, www.thestrathallan.com) is compiled long after the fact. Hence, descriptions are usually rather general and details are fuzzy. However, by an interesting coincidence, a LIFE magazine photographer named Margaret Bourke-White was on that ship with Kay. When I learned that, I did some more digging and learned that Bourke-White's photos of the event were featured in the Feb 22, 1943 issue of LIFE. I ordered a copy (bless the Internet!), which arrived last week. When I opened it, I was delighted to discover not only six fascinating photos but a lengthy and sharply detailed report of the sinking, the hours on the lifeboat, and the rescue--all written just days after the event, when the details were fresh in Bourke-White's mind. Here's a sample:
In the lifeboat [No. 12, before it was lowered] I was astonished to find myself in water up to my hips. The torpedo splash had flooded the lifeboats on the port side aft. I hugged my cameras to my chest to keep them dry but as we made our quivering descent, columns of water began pouring down on us from lifeboat No. 11, which was swinging over our heads. Its crew was pulling out plugs to empty the hull before lowering away... Just then the attention of all of us was caught by a heavy, dangling chain which swung cruelly back and forth while we ducked and twisted our heads out of the way. We were in the water at last...Just as we had created a small margin between ourselves and the big ship, down came lifeboat No. 11 with its load of British [nursing] sisters. Its crew had been unable to replace the plugs properly and it filled to the gunwales. A couple of dozen sisters were washed over the side. Some of them were carried immediately back into their flooded boat on the next wave. Others started swimming toward rafts which were tossed from the upper deck...
The description of the sinking in Kay Summersby's two memoirs is interesting reading, but it's not nearly as compelling as Bourke-White's, which is a researcher's treasure. Even more intriguing, Bourke-White's LIFE photo-feature had an important repercussion back home: Mamie learned from this magazine feature that her husband's "pretty Irish driver," the "beauteous" and "comely" Kay (Bourke-White's published descriptions) would be a member of his headquarters staff in North Africa. Ike had neglected to tell her about this--an omission that is bound to tug at a novelist's eager imagination.
Bourke-White wasn't just a gifted photo-journalist--she was a talented writer, as well. In another post, I'll tell you more about her work, and more about the sinking of the Strathallan. Stay tuned.
Reading note: The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.--Dorothea Lang