Ship's Captain Remembered in 'Simple Courage'

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Author Frank Delaney was nine years old when the story of the merchant ship The Flying Enterprise and its captain Kurt Carlsen reverberated around the world in 1952. More than a half-century later, Delaney has written a book about it called Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea.

(Soundbite of BBC broadcast)

Unidentified Announcer: ...hundred miles out in the Atlantic drifts a ship whose name has rung around the world, Flying Enterprise. For six days she has been riding the storm-whipped waves. Aboard her, as she drifts along disabled and listing is one man, her master, Captain Kurt Carlsen.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

That was from a BBC broadcast back in 1952. Author Frank Delaney heard this bulletin as a nine-year-old child. He was so intrigued that decades later he went on to write about the saga of the crippled ship the Flying Enterprise. Frank Delaney's book is called Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea. He told me he remembered the news event with extraordinary vividness.

Mr. FRANK DELANEY (Author): I was the youngest of a large family. My father to get some peace and quiet presumably took himself off to the parlor every evening to listen to the news. And then one evening to our astonishment he came and called us all to listen to what was called the wireless, the radio, announcing that there's an incident at sea. And that's the kind of broadcast I heard. I heard the crackle of the static, which I took of course at nine to be the hiss of the waves. I had been raised on Treasure Island and Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson. I had already begun, believe it or not, to read Moby Dick. And then one day into that prepared sea, if you like, sailed to the Flying Enterprise under her captain Kurt Carlsen.

ELLIOTT: Describe for us the Flying Enterprise. This was a cargo vessel.

Mr. DELANEY: She was as long as a football field. She was painted as black as a widow. And she left Hamburg as a tramp steamer. She had tramped from port to port picking up what she could and turning it to financial advantage. She moved out into the river Elbe on the 21st of December in thick fog. In the English Channel the fog blew away and that was ominous because a fog that thick had to be blown away by a strong wind. And in actual fact what then happened was she got caught between two storms, a storm that came up from the always stormy Bay of Biscay and the tail end of a very, very late hurricane that came up from the Carolinas. They both met in the middle of the Atlantic 400 miles south of Ireland. And at that point they also met the Flying Enterprise.

ELLIOTT: So the Flying Enterprise is under way. It's in the middle of its journey across the Atlantic and it gets caught between these two storms.

Mr. DELANEY: And it gets hit two successive days with two huge walls of water. The first one about 60 feet high cracked the ship's plates. The ship's plates are about an inch to an inch and a half thick. It sounded like gunfire. The captain of course knew exactly what had happened. The ship actually split, down almost to the water line. And the following day Carlsen was in the wheelhouse and he saw this one. This was 65 feet high of water and this one put the ship on her side to an angle of between 50 and 60 degrees and there she stayed.

ELLIOTT: Well, what did Captain Carlsen do at this point?

Mr. DELANEY: The passengers were assembled in a high, dry part of the ship. And Carlsen came to see them in the early evening. And he said to them if you can at all, try and get some sleep because tomorrow you're going to have to swim. In other words, he had told them that the rescue would only take place by their jumping in to the freezing and wild Atlantic.

ELLIOTT: I would not think you'd be able to sleep under those conditions.

Mr. DELANEY: No. But a kind of spirit grew up. People were terrified. And the crew sort of kept the morale going and then the following morning at half past eight they led them out across the sloping decks. And finally they lashed the passengers to each other and to themselves, the crew, to get them to the place from which they would jump off.

ELLIOTT: So they're jumping off this listing, crippled ship and on to other boats that have come and circled around?

Mr. DELANEY: They launched life boats from various ships. And one, a U.S. freighter, a military freighter - a naval freighter, rather, called the USS Southland, launches her life boat. And it comes in and manages to throw a line on board to Carlsen. Carlsen sends for the first person he has appointed to jump. And he has chosen a woman called Elsa Moeller(ph), a quiet, very devout German lady whose two children and whose husband are on board the ship. And he sees the boat. Frau Moeller doesn't see the boat. And he says to her, God bless you, jump. And she jumps into the water.

ELLIOTT: Well, does everyone end up getting off?

Mr. DELANEY: Everyone ends up getting off because of the intervention now of yet another man. And I hope that on this program, on NPR, we may be able to find this man, because I have looked for him for years. His name is Robert Leonard Husband. He was the second lieutenant on the troop ship standing by called the General AW Greeley. Robert Husband goes to his captain and says, we have to launch another lifeboat. And the captain says no because there's too much difficulty and the weather is too bad. So they wait for a little while. Nonetheless Robert Husband's in command of his lifeboat, his naval lifeboat, goes in there. And in the series of journeys takes off the remainder of those people.

ELLIOTT: This leaves Captain Carlsen alone on the ship. He's gotten everybody off. I'd like for you to read from this section of your book if you would.

Mr. DELANEY: Of course.

The Greeley lifeboat disappeared into the spray and reached the mother ship in safety, leaving Carlsen behind, alone. To windward of the Enterprise, reported Husband later, I saw the captain standing on the boat deck aft and we all waved to him. Alone now with the dusk closing in fast and the sea still bombarding him, Carlsen wrestled his way back to the radio shack, shining his flashlight. In order to ascertain that all his crew and passengers had indeed been rescued, he had one more task, a round robin of calls to each participating ship. Ship by ship Carlsen added the numbers, 33 plus 15, plus 1, plus 1, until he could tell the rescue ships that he had reached the magic number of 50.

Each passenger and every seaman had been taken from the storm. On board Greeley the radio officer received the signal from Flying Enterprise's radio room and reported the number of people his ship had taken safely on board. As he signed out he asked the man who he thought was his opposite, Sparks, when do you come off? He didn't know he was speaking to Carlsen, who replied, I'm staying. Greeley's man radioed back. What about the captain? When is he leaving the ship? Carlsen replied, I'm the captain and I'm not leaving.

ELLIOTT: Why did Captain Carlsen decide to stay onboard this ship that's listing 65 degrees to port, the engine's are dead, the hull is cracked down the middle? What could motivate him to stay with his ship?

Mr. DELANEY: There were many answers proposed at the time. There really is only one. That's the kind of man he was. He was a sea captain. His ship was on the water. In his mind there was the possibility that if he got a tow rope to her he could get her to port and get some salvage for his employers. They gave him a ship to take out and they told him to bring it back. And that's what he intended to do. I don't think I see him so much as romantic as - as a challenge to us all. He makes us think about how we do our own jobs. He makes me think about how I value my own position in my life and my responsibilities to those who pay me for what I do. He was a man of rigid duty, or tremendous responsibility, a sense of conscientiousness that went far above and beyond the call of what he was ever expected to do in normal circumstances. But these were not normal circumstances.

ELLIOTT: Frank Delaney's book is Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. DELANEY: Thank you very much.

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