By Scott Grant
Shortly after 11 p.m. on the night of July 25, 1956, Alexander and Elisabeth “Bess” MacKerell were enjoying their last night aboard the “Andrea Doria.” They were with friends in the first-class lounge near a life-sized bronze statue of the famous Italian admiral for whom the ship was named. The horrifying sound of metal ripping into metal interrupted the frivolity. Dessert plates and champagne glasses tumbled to the ground and shattered.
“Andrea Doria” was the pride of the Italian Line and was considered the most beautiful ship afloat. She was named for a 16th century Italian admiral — 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 significant that Pope Pius V announced the result before messengers arrived. He claimed he had a vision of the great victory from God.
Aboard the ship that carried his name, it quickly became apparent that something was horribly amiss. 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,” she was equipped with a heavy steel bow designed to break ice. That heavy bow now tore into 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 amongst the wreckage.
“Andrea Doria” listed hard to starboard rendering most of her lifeboats inoperable. She was sinking. Nearby ships rushed to the rescue. Three long hours went by before they began to abandon ship, women, and children first. Alexander and Bess MacKerell, my grandparents, went to their stateroom to collect their life vests and raincoats.
Crew directed 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 come in handy later and stuffed them into the pockets of her raincoat instead. She would be rescued by a US troop transport, the “Private Willie Thomas.” Bess would be the only woman aboard with shoes. Later she would be quoted in an AP story that ran nationally.
Back on the “Doria,” my grandfather prayed. He prayed for strength for himself and for the rescuers. He was scared. He specifically prayed for strength to descend a rope ladder if he had to. He had never been able to climb the rope in high school.
Meanwhile, hours to the east and headed in the wrong direction, the “Ile de France,” pride of the French Line, heard the distress calls. Legend says that the home office forbade the captain turning around to render aid. Time was still essential in those days. Today we cruise for fun. Back in the old days, it was still a mode of travel.
Aboard the French ship, the captain, Baron Raoul de Beaudean made a fateful decision. Radio transmissions indicated there were not enough lifeboats. Thinking to himself that “There but for the grace of God, go I,” the baron turned his ship around and made full steam back to the stricken vessel.
A thick fog lay across the Atlantic that night. The men still huddled onboard awaiting rescue could see nothing. As the “Ile de France” approached, they could not discern which radar blip to head toward. Then, miraculously, the fog began to lift. De Beauden maneuvered his ship near 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 lifting fog were like a beacon of hope to those still aboard. It was at that moment that my grandfather knew that he would live. He made it down the ladder and from the luxury of the French ship, sent a telegram to my mother at their home in Merchantville, NJ saying they were both safe.
My mother was frantic. News of the sinking spread quickly. The 23-year-old felt an overwhelming need to get to New York City and save her parents. She reached out to the most reliable man she knew seeking help. Leonard Grant was a young minister serving two churches in the already decaying inner city of Camden. He borrowed a 1956 Chevy Belair from his older brother. The car was two-toned, white and copper, and it was the first truly new car Uncle Hobie ever owned. Together, my mother and father raced to New York to rescue Nancy’s parents. A few months later, they became engaged. A few years later, I was born.
Part of the miracle of the “Andrea Doria” was that only 46 people died in the sinking. More than 1,700 lives were saved that night, almost half by the “Ile de France.” The ship settled on the bottom at a depth of 200 feet, in treacherous waters. Twenty-two more people died trying to extract her treasures. She became known as the “Mount Everest of scuba diving.”
In 1964, a successful dive led by Dan Turner managed to retrieve the statue of Andrea Doria from the main lounge. In order to salvage the statue, they had to cut Doria off at the ankles since the base was too heavy to lift. For decades, that statue resided at the Palace Saloon in Fernandina Beach. At first, he was inside. Later he was outside like a lawn ornament in cowboy boots. Recently, another dive team recovered the base, and the statue of Andrea Doria was sent back to Italy where he was reunited with his feet.
Scott A. Grant is a local historian and fiduciary asset manager. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org