Editor’s note: Nellie Becker and her three children, Ruth, Marion and Richard, were returning home to Benton Harbor, Michigan, leaving the Rev. Allen O. Becker, a Lutheran missionary, behind in India to seek medical treatment for young Richard. The parting was especially difficult because Rev. Becker had been suffering from a “poisonous rash” over much of his body for the past month, caused by his temporarily “pitching in” at the mission’s print shop as a typesetter. Nellie wrote the following account soon after their rescue. Eight months after the disaster, the family was reunited with Rev. Becker. Her story is followed by a postscript from the editor of Lutheran Woman’s Work, where Nellie’s story was published.
Mrs. Shaffer has asked me to write the story of our experience in the great "Titanic” disaster, and I gladly do so for I know that not only our friends here and in India are anxious to hear about it but also the whole Church.
We sailed from Madras [India] March 7th, and had a most pleasant voyage to London. We came all the way by sea, and landed in London on April 5th, Good Friday. We had five days in England, and Wednesday morning, April 10th, we went down to Southampton and sailed at noon on the Titanic.
We were charmed with this lovely, large boat. It was more beautiful in the second class than I had ever seen first class. The halls were large and they had cushioned divans and large chairs in abundance. We never climbed stairs, for an elevator took us up and down. The library was a picture, and the dining-room, with its carved oak frieze and tables of snowy linen and glittering silver, was a dream. In fact, we were going so smoothly that we forgot that we were on a boat, but felt as if we were in some large, magnificent hotel. The weather, too, was ideal, warm and sunny.
We called at Cherbourg that same day, and at Queenstown Thursday evening, then we were off for America. We were glad that our next stop would be New York. Cooks [travel agency], in London, had told me that we were due in New York on Wednesday, the 17th, but as soon as we went aboard, people were talking about landing Tuesday, and about Captain Smith wanting to make this maiden trip a record one. We were all glad and were thoroughly enjoying the speed – we were making 560 miles a day. The sea was like glass and the sun warm, and we sat on the lovely decks every day until Sunday.
That morning we had services for both Protestants and Catholics. I did not attend on account of my children, but everybody spoke of the splendid sermon and beautiful prayers. That afternoon we could not sit on deck, for, though clear, it had grown bitterly cold, and we all flocked to the covered deck with its big plate glass windows all around. We remarked to each other that we were in the iceberg region, and, of course, it would be cold—but we hadn’t a thought of fear. Right after dinner I put the children to bed and then read until after ten o’clock.
It seemed that I had only just gotten to sleep when I was awakened by an unusual noise above my cabin. It sounded like someone pounding with a heavy hammer. The engines, too, had stopped. That frightened me. Then I heard people running through the halls and subdued calling to each other. I was trembling with fright and went to my door and asked a steward what the trouble was. He replied, “Oh! Nothing,” in a very unconcerned way, which satisfied me for the time. But other noises began, and people shouted to each other in the corridors, and I could stand it no longer. I slipped on my dressing gown and slippers and went out to find what it all meant. I met my cabin steward just outside my door with a life belt in his hand, and before I could say anything he said, “Tie on your life belt and come quickly.” “But,” I said, “I have three children; have I time to dress them?” He was tying the life belt on me then, and he said, “Madam, you have time for nothing; come at once.” I flew into the cabin, grabbed the children out of bed, told Ruth to put Marion’s stockings and shoes on her while I put Richard’s on him, and, after we had put our own on, we put on our coats, grabbed two of the steamer’s blankets (which we lost before we got into the lifeboats) and hurried to the upper deck.
Arriving there, we found everyone calm and cool and waiting to be told what to do. Some said, “The Olympic is alongside of us and they are just going to transfer us.” Skyrockets were being sent up and the band was playing while we waited. Soon officers came and told us we must climb up the iron ladder to the forecastle [sic]. One steward carried Marion, another Richard, and Ruth and I followed. When we got to the lifeboat they were just lowering it. They put Marion and Richard in and then shouted. “That’s all for this boat." But I screamed, “Those are my children. Oh! please, let me go with them,” and the kind officer, who stood near, picked me up and almost threw me in as it was being lowered. Then I was frantic about Ruth, for she had been left behind. I did not fear for her safety, but I thought how dreadful it was to be separated and how frightened she would be without me. We had great difficulty in getting down into the water. Everything was new and untried, and one pulley would stick and then the other, and we were afraid of being thrown into the sea before we got down.
Such screaming and praying and cursing as there was before we finally got into the water! The officer in our boat commanded the four oarsmen to pull away from the Titanic as fast as possible, fearing suction. Then only did we realize the serious condition of the Titanic. The prow was sunk then to the first deck, and we sat there watching one row of ports and then another disappear, until finally, after about an hour, with one tremendous roar, which sounded and resounded over the sea, she seemed to break in the middle and sink.
Then the heart-rending screams which arose from the lifeboats nearer her were awful beyond words. I think I shall hear it and see that dreadful sight until my dying day. Even then we in our lifeboat did not know that anyone had gone down on the boat. Someone ventured to ask the officer if he thought any poor sailor might have perished, and he said, “No, they have all had plenty of time to get off.” Then we said, “Why do the people in the lifeboats scream and cry like that?” “Oh!” he said, “it’s those foreigners, screaming to see such a magnificent boat go down.” We said nothing, but we had our own thoughts.
Then the question was, what were we to do next? The lifeboats are supposed to have biscuits, fresh water, lights and a compass. They had none of them. While the night was clear, it was dark, and we could not see one of the other boats. We shouted every little while. Sometimes we were answered, sometimes not. There was nothing to do but drift until morning, then all come together. We did not know whether our calls and signals for help had been received by another ship, so we did not know when we would be picked up. Our only hope was the Olympic, due the next day at 2 p. m. We mothers wondered what we were going to do when morning came and the children woke up and cried for food! We dared not think of it! We strained our eyes for sight of a ship, but everything we thought might be one turned out to be an iceberg. No one but those in those lifeboats out in the middle of the Atlantic that bitter, cold night, will ever know our joy when we first caught sight of the Carpathia. We saw first her green light, then, as she came nearer, her port lights, then the rockets, telling us she had come to save us. We wept for joy! How soon that joy was to be turned into the bitterest sorrow! It was then just getting daylight. All about us rose the huge icebergs, and scattered over the sea, as far as our eyes could reach, were the lifeboats. We started at once for the Carpathia, but we were far away, and the sea was getting rougher and we were one of the last boats to be picked up. Arriving at the Carpathia, some of that crew came into our boat, and putting the children into sacks, they were pulled up. The women were put into swings— tied in—for we were so numb from cold that we could not move or help ourselves. Immediately we were wrapped in blankets, and four sailors carried me into the saloon. There I saw the ship's doctor, with Richard on his lap, giving him hot brandy. Marion was drinking hot milk. Ruth was there, too, having been picked up about an hour before we were. Oh! then the awful scenes we witnessed. We heard how there were not enough lifeboats, and nearly all the men and many women and children had gone down with the Titanic; how two lifeboats had capsized; how two collapsible boats were so stuck with new paint that they could not be pulled apart and couldn’t be used; how struggling people in the water prayed to be saved and there was no room in the lifeboats to take them in; how people were seen floating on rafts and imploring to be rescued. Oh! the horror of it all. Women were fainting, moaning, crying, wringing their hands and tearing their hair! We, who had lost no one—and how pitifully few there were—sat helpless, dumb and with breaking hearts, before such awful sorrow. They sent some of the crew of the Carpathia back to the scene of the disaster when all the lifeboats had come in, but, oh! how few they brought back, and most of them died during the day from having been in the water so long. When we sailed at noon they sent six lifeboats adrift, hoping they might rescue some poor souls.
Then our sad journey back to New York began. Oh! those poor, dear women. They thought it wasn’t possible to go on without their husbands, fathers and friends, but there was nothing else to do. Oh! those four sad, miserable days, with nothing to do, nothing to think about, nothing to talk about, but this great sorrow. The question was not, “Have you lost anyone?" but “How many have you lost?" The Carpathia was full, so we had no cabins. We were all just in our nightclothes with our coats over them, and there we sat on the floor around the walls of the saloon in the daytime, and spread blankets down and slept on the floor at night. The little babies slept on the dining tables. We didn't have those clothes or our shoes and stockings off from Sunday night until Thursday night – neither did we have our hair combed. Such little matters did not bother us then.
We landed in New York in the rain Thursday evening at nine o’clock. Dr. Wolf, Dr. Young and his daughter, Miss Cora Young, and Miss Grace Uhl met us, and we were taken at once to the hotel, where the next day these same kind people and Mrs. Herbert Bell and Sister Louise, of Dr. Young’s church, got us clothing and started us off on our journey to Michigan.
Looking back over it all, it seems nothing short of a miracle that we were all saved. Surely the Lord walked by our side the whole way, and saved us or we never should have been saved. How I am praising Him for His loving kindness, and thanking Him with every breath that my dear husband was not with us. I left him ill in India, and Dr. Kugler said to me before I left, “I think Mr. Becker should go home with you, but we will try the mountains first." How often I have thought of that I am convinced that the Lord directed her decision. It all seems like a horrible nightmare to me yet—something that cannot be true. But it has driven me closer to my Saviour and made me feel that nothing is too much to do for Him who has been so wonderfully good to me.
The Rescue Of The Beckers
Above all the tumult and the sorrow, the pain and the anguish, the loss and the death and the loving sympathy in the sinking of the ''Titanic," there is one word that stands out in letters of gold to those of our own household of faith, and that word is GRATITUDE—gratitude that our missionary. Mrs. Allen O. Becker, and her three little children were saved.
The story has been told so many times there is no need to repeat it here, but gratitude unexpressed soon vanishes and is lost. When Jacob went up to Bethel he built altars of thankfulness unto God, who answered him in the day of his distress and was with him all the way.
As a Church, it behoves us to show our gratitude in some tangible way for the miraculous deliverance of this missionary and her precious children. Ten thousand dollars for the churches so much needed in our India field would be but a small expression from a grateful Church, and it is hoped that the Board of Foreign Missions may inaugurate some movement toward this end in which we all may have part.
First published in Lutheran Woman’s Work July 1912, reprinted in Voyage, the journal of the Titanic International Society #105 (2018) Courtesy of Michael Poirer. To find out more about joining the TIS visit www.titanicinternationalsociety.org.