Updated: Jun 29
Today, Sunday, June 28, 2020, is the 116th anniversary of this Norge disaster. My great-grandfather Eskild Eskildsen was on that ship and could have easily lost his life. Here’s part 1 of the story, (reposted from a few years ago when I wrote it):
Part 1 | My Heroic Great Grandpa And The Pre-Titanic
Not many people have heard of the SS Norge disaster of 1904. Some 635 people died in the shipwreck—the worst Danish civil disaster of all time.
Ironically, if lessons had been learned regarding safety and survival on the SS Norge, we might never have even heard of the Titanic. My great-grandfather Eskild Alfred Eskildsen, from Denmark, was a passenger on the Norge.
He left for America, leaving his wife and six children behind at the last minute. This was partly due to the fact that his wife Agnes was pregnant with my grandma Cecilia. If she and the other children had gone, they likely would have been lost as only 30 of the 240 children on board survived.
The ship went aground near a tiny islet called Rockall, 280 miles off the coast of Great Britain, on June 28, 1904. When the ship hit the Rockall reef, it sank in only 20 minutes. People quickly knew that the ship was sinking. Many panicked, sobbed, and fell to their knees praying.
But rather than panic, Eskild began to do things that were helpful and selfless, if not heroic.
Here are some lessons we can learn from him that might help us to be heroes when a Titanic sized disaster strikes:
ONE: Put Others First
Instead of trying to board one of the lifeboats, Eskild helped others board them. When all lifeboats were launched, he stayed on the Norge assisting others. He helped several women put on their lifebelts. When there were no more lifebelts, he gave women wooden benches to cling to. While other crew members were saving their own necks, he helped others.
When it became apparent there was nothing left he could do and the ship was nearly under the waves, Eskild dove into the frigid water. Then he swam out past where others could reach lifeboats, especially women with their water-soaked garments. Only then did he seek safety in a lifeboat.
What would you or I do in such a horrible circumstance? It’s hard to say until the moment comes. We would probably live that experience the way we live our lives—either me first or others first.
Heroes put others first—in disaster and in daily life.
TWO: Don’t Give Up
Eskild swam out and reached lifeboat #4 which had only 19 onboard and a capacity of 28. But when he tried to climb aboard, the first officer who had taken charge beat his grasping hands with an oar. Just like the Titanic disaster years later, people feared that allowing others refuge would jeopardize their own survival.
But despite the beating he didn’t let go. When the officer turned his attention to piloting the boat, others helped pull Eskild aboard. His fingers never worked right for the rest of his life.
How many times do we give up just before a breakthrough? How many times have we let go of a dream, a goal, or a vision and allowed it to sink into oblivion when the going got tough?
Heroes don’t give up, not matter how difficult things become.
In 2004, the 100th anniversary of the disaster, a comprehensive book was written titled Titanic’s Predecessor: The S/S Norge Disaster of 1904. There are quite a few references to my great grandpa in the book.
In my next article you can read what happened next. Click HERE for Part 2.
Part 2 | My Heroic Great Grandpa And The Pre-Titanic
In my last post I shared about my great-grandfather Eskild Alfred Eskildsen’s attempt to come to America on the SS Norge in 1904. Tragically, it sank in middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Of the nearly 800 passengers on board, he was one of only 160 who survived.
As the SS Norge sank, he managed to swim out to lifeboat #4 which was only just over half full. Read Part 1 for the heroic story of his survival to that point.
Surviving in the lifeboat is another chapter in his remarkable story. They were far out to sea and had no navigation equipment. The men were organized to row in three shifts of four hours at a time. They headed in what they hoped was a north easterly direction, back towards Europe. The others lay on top of each other trying desperately to get warm. It was bitterly cold. No one was dressed for the frigid conditions. Some had no shoes or head covering.
They only had provisions enough for two biscuits and a little water each day. Prayer was very helpful in giving hope and not losing their sanity. Days wore on in monotonous agony. By the fourth day, they had just two drops of water and one biscuit each. On the sixth and seventh days they had absolutely nothing to eat.
There was one infant on the lifeboat, a one year old. Her continuous crying was heart wrenching. Her father, Ole Eid, became frantic; he tried giving her a few drops of saltwater, but that immediately made her condition worse. So in utter desperation he cut his arm and allowed the baby to suck on his blood.
There was also a teenager on the lifeboat, Rolf Vaagaasar. When he thought he could not bear his thirst any longer, he used his hands to scoop up seawater and drink. But the result was near insanity. His fellow passengers tied him up to keep him from taking his life.
On the seventh day it began raining heavily. The sail was lowered and used to catch a bucket of water. Everyone agreed it was an answer to their prayers.
Here are a couple of lessons I see in this story of survival after the sinking of the Norge:
ONE: Prayer Helps
Communication with God through prayer is a life-sustaining gift from the Almighty.
Of course He is not obligated to grant every request. But even when God determines it is best to do otherwise, prayer gives us a sense of peace in the troubled seas of life.
Recently I read the story of a Christian brain surgeon who courageously began to offer to pray with his patients before their surgeries. He found that when they allowed him to pray, it usually produced remarkable calmness in both the patients and him. I highly recommend his book Gray Matter by David Levy—which you can order in my online bookstore here (under biography)
TWO: I Have Nothing to Complain About
Eddie Rickenbacker had a similar experience of lifeboat survival. In the book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie wrote, “I once asked Eddie Rickenbacker what was the biggest lesson he had learned from drifting about with his companions in life rafts for twenty-one days, hopelessly lost in the Pacific. ‘The biggest lesson I learned from that experience,’ he said, ‘was that if you have all the fresh water you want to drink and all the food you want to eat, you ought never to complain about anything.’”
When I start to throw myself a pity party, I often remember the experiences of Eddie Rickenbacker and Eskild Alfred Eskildsen.
Click HERE if you missed Part 1 of this story.
In Part 3 I share the rest of Eskild’s remarkable survival story. Click HERE to read Part 3.
Part 3 | My Heroic Great Grandpa And The Pre-Titanic
My great grandpa had an authentic Danish name: Eskild Alfred Eskildsen.
In 1904, as he was attempting to immigrate to America, the SS Norge sank in the Atlantic. Only 20% of the 800 aboard survived. Eskild should have drowned, especially since he didn’t force his way into a lifeboat and instead helped others board them and don lifebelts.
Surviving in the lifeboat was no picnic! The 19 souls endured seven days with virtually no food and hydration.
Finally on the eighth day, July 6 1904, their prayers for rescue were answered. Lifeboat #4 was spotted by the schooner Olga Pauline. Weakened so severely from thirst and hunger, they were hardly able to board the rescue boat. Once aboard they scurried to the nearest water supply like wild animals.
They were taken to the Faroe Islands and later Eskild made it back home. It took about a month just to gain enough strength to travel home.
What would you do after such a harrowing experience? Would you never go near a ship again? I wonder if I would have nightmares the rest of my life about dying of starvation, dehydration or drowning.
My great grandpa was undaunted. The next year he boarded another ship headed for America with his wife Agnes and their seven children. The youngest was my grandma Cecilia—only 6 weeks old when they left.
This time the ship made it safely to New York City. Imagine how they felt as they passed the Statue of Liberty and arrived at Ellis Island. Certainly they felt relief and excitement. Yet they also must have felt fear and uncertainty in this strange land where they could not understand or speak the language.
Eventually they made it to Michigan and to Uncle Jens Sorensen who was their immigration sponsor.
There Eskild worked in logging camps and in the iron mines.
Tragically, in 1920 Agnes died. My grandma, then in the sixth grade, had to quit school and take care of the younger children. What did Eskild do? He returned to Denmark and found a new Danish wife Anna, whom he brought back to the USA.
In 1924 they purchased a farm near Alvin, Wisconsin. But after five hard-working years, a fire destroyed all the buildings, machinery and livestock.
They returned to Michigan and rented another farm.
In 1937 Eskild died from acute appendicitis.
His family legacy included 22 children from two wives, one of them my grandma Cecilia. She gave birth to my father Claude Aaron Williams in 1926. He and mom brought me into the world in 1955.
Here are a couple more lessons I see from my heroic great grandpa’s story:
ONE: Put Fears Aside and Move Ahead
According to Dr. R. C. Sproul, Jesus’ number one prohibition is not, “Don’t lie,” or “don’t lust,” or some other commonplace sin. Instead, by far, Jesus’ number one warning is, “Don’t be afraid.”
Why might this be? Perhaps it’s because fear so often cripples us and prevents us from becoming all He wants us to become.
When paralyzed by fear we fail to reach the exciting new world God has for us.
Note to self: Overcome fear; get back in the boat and journey into the exciting future Jesus has in store for me.
TWO: Never Give Up
One of the phrases my dad (who died in 2011) shared with me often was from Winston Churchill; “Never give in–never, never, never, never!”
Thanks dad and great grandpa. What a valuable lesson you helped me apply—like when I wanted to quit playing the trombone in the 5th grade (a story for another blog).