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The Travelling Story of Cynthia Hunt Gustafson (immigrant)

The Museum reviews and accepts donated personal or family memories and histories into its collection. As a learning institution, the accounts help us understand how individuals recollect, interpret, or construct meaning from lived experiences. The stories are not modified by Museum staff. The point of view expressed is that of the author and not that of the Museum.

Date of Arrival: 
September 1939
Creative Commons: 
Accession Number: 

Story Text: 

The Story of Three Athenia Survivors

The following narrative is an account of how my mother, my sister and I, survived the torpedoing of the Athenia. I had barely passed my third birthday when the following events took place, therefore having little awareness of how significantly our lives were threatened, or of the extreme stress that my mother was under. This story is a compilation of my mother's recall of the events on that horrific voyage, and of my sister's memories of those fateful days. My memories extend to only one very visual image; the rest of the story is gleaned from the yellowed newspaper clippings that my father saved.

In the summer of 1939, my father Reginald Hunt made arrangements for his wife Margaret, and their two daughters, Cynthia aged five and Vivian aged three, to revisit family and friends in Britain. The visit was an important one for my mother, her father had died early in 1939 and she was anxious to comfort our grandmother, as well as convince her that Canada was indeed a civilized "colony" in which to live and raise a family. However as threats of war with Germany became more pronounced, our mother wired my father (then on a business trip to Halifax) and announced that they would cut their visit short and return to Canada on the Athenia, which was sailing from Liverpool on September 2, 1939.

My mother booked the only available accommodation onboard the Athenia. The appointed cabin was on D deck, below the ship's waterline. A day into the voyage, Mum fed Cynthia and I early, put us to bed, and left us in the care of a steward while we slept. She then dressed for the 7:00 p.m. sitting in the dining room. As she left our quarters, she heard a loud noise. Rushing back into the cabin, she shook us awake and began to walk us to the stairwell. By the time she had reached the stairs, the ship was in darkness. Carrying me, and holding onto Cynthia's hand which she was forced to release while she felt for the stair railing, she made her way to the deck. Cynthia still remembers her fear, as the water on the stairs crept up to her knees. In the following article published by The Halifax Chronicle, Margaret describes her ordeal:

"It never woke the children," Mrs. Hunt declared as she described the terrific crash of the explosion when the torpedo ripped its way through the passenger laden Athenia. "I thought the boilers had burst when I heard the explosion until I heard the water rushing into the ship." Still able to smile although it was apparent the terrific strain had left its mark on the young mother; Mrs. Hunt described how she got her children into the lifeboat and then climbed in after them. "I took the children on deck and I tugged at someone's arm. A man reached out and put one of the children in a boat. Then I tugged at his arm again and he turned around and picked up the other child and put her in the boat. Then I climbed in after them," she said. "Oh, it was nerve wracking. We didn't know when something else was going to happen to us," she added. Mrs. Hunt was attired in the same clothing she was wearing when she fled from the cabin with her children. She didn't even save a coat to protect her from the chill blasts of the Atlantic while on the rescue ship.

It is interesting to note that had our mother been ten minutes earlier in proceeding to the dining room she would have died. An article published in the Chronicle on a report from the U.S. State Department, stated, "It was impossible for the passengers trapped in the dining room to escape and they were drowned below decks."

In subsequent years, Mum never spoke of the night she spent in the lifeboat, although she did remember that it was a calm and balmy September evening. Cynthia recalls that the weather was warm and that the swells on the ocean rocked the boat, she also remembers that her feet were in water and that she thought the boat must not have had a bottom. My only memory is that of sitting on a bench in a boat with very high sides. I also remember that Mum was sea sick, and that I asked her to be sick over the side of the boat!

The family was picked up early September 4, by the Southern Cross, a luxury Yacht owned by Swedish manufacturer and millionaire Wenner-Gren. Cynthia remembers being awed by the luxurious appointments on the Yacht. She remembers the oriental rugs and the grand piano, surely an indicator of the career she would eventually choose in interior design! Since the Southern Cross was returning to Sweden, its exhausted passengers were given the choice of returning to Britain, or continuing west to Canada, ten days away. I feel confident in suggesting that she must have been filled with terror about the possibility of unknown perils ahead, considering that she had arrived on the Athenia's deck in time to see the U Boat, and saw the ship being strafed by gunfire. Mum turned to us and asked our advice, back to Granny, or on to Daddy! There was no contest, Daddy won hands down! The family was then transferred to the City of Flint, an American freighter bound for New York, but subsequently diverted to Halifax to accommodate the Canadian survivors.

Considering the trauma that was experienced by every survivor of the Athenia, life aboard the City of Flint was remembered with nostalgia. The crew went out of their way to accommodate their unexpected visitors. The Halifax Chronicle wrote the following:

'Cynthia and Vivian who escaped from the sinking ship in their pajamas were provided with clothes– sailor clothes- by members of the City of Flint's crew. Little Vivian proudly displayed a pair of canvas shoes which a crew member of the freighter made for her. They were the first pair of many which the hardy sailors turned out for the children survivors. The improvised shoes were fashioned with heavy cord bottoms and strong twine was used to lace them. Cynthia wore a man's coat over her pajamas to protect her little body from the Atlantic winds. Vivian had a sailor's sweater and a pair of sailor's shorts and a man's belt fastened around the waist.'

The Chronicle also wrote about the freighter's Skipper. Captain Joseph Gainard of the City of Flint tells how he stowed two 216 survivors of the Athenia torpedoing. "We made bunks from tarpaulins and arranged them in rows," he said. "We named the rows after streets." Cynthia recalled that she, Mum and I shared a sailor's cabin. She had memories of that sailor arriving each morning to shave!

Captain Gainard apparently, according to another news article from the Chronicle, " had sulphurous words about a news photo plane which flew over the ship as it neared the Nova Scotia Coast. "That damned plane caused a stampede. The people aboard thought they were going to get bombed." '

Cynthia recalls that incident. She remembers that the children were very frightened; the crew diverted their attention by allowing them to play with the ship's mascot, their dog! The kindness and caring of the crew was noted again when they provided a birthday party of sorts for Cynthia, who turned six, on September 13. They provided her with a bread and jam "cake" with toothpicks for candles. In subsequent years she has had flashbacks of life on board the City of Flint. Sour milk triggers long forgotten memories of our days aboard our rescue ship.

Normally the City of Flint carried six passengers; however on this voyage twenty nine had booked passage. Thus additional food had been taken on in Glasgow. These provisions miraculously fed those additional 216 Athenia survivors for the ten days the freighter was at sea.

While his wife and daughters were coping with the trauma of being shipwrecked at sea, our father was dealing with his fears on land. Frantic with worry, he sought every possible means to discover the fate of his family. On September 6, the Chronicle posted the names of the survivors on the City of Flint. No Hunts were listed; however, the names Mrs. Reginald Hochhauser, Cynthia Hochhauser, and Vivian Hochhauser were on the roster. It was not until later in the day that the list was updated, and Hunt replaced Hochhauser. Eight more days then became an interminable wait for an anxious husband and father before he could verify that his family was intact!

Seventy years have passed since the sinking of the Athenia, and while my sister and I have overcome whatever trauma it caused, this was not true for our mother. The anxiety engendered by that incident remained with her forever. She never visited her family in England again, although she lived until she was 94. Always an intense, introverted person, her desire to take personal risks evaporated. The protective instincts every mother feels for her children were intensified and her fears for their safety almost overwhelming. The sinking of the Athenia had a significant impact on the lives of everyone in the Hunt family.