Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic Hero

GODALMING, England — He had just landed his biggest assignment yet, senior telegraph officer on the world’s biggest ship. On the second day of its maiden voyage, he celebrated his 25th birthday.

Four days later, in the first minutes of April 15, 1912, Jack Phillips was at his post in the wireless room of the Titanic, sending out distress signals and cries for help in Morse code.

“CQD CQD,” Phillips tapped out. Calling all ships — distress. “Come at once. We have struck a berg.”

He relayed coordinates, listened for replies, shot back his own. He tried using the new international distress call: SOS. Over the next two hours, he pleaded for other ships to come to the Titanic’s aid, increasingly urgent appeals couched in impersonal dots and dashes.

“Require immediate assistance. We have collision with iceberg.... Sinking head down.... Come soon as possible.... Women and children in boats.

“Cannot last much longer.”

The flurry of missives would offer historians and buffs of the world’s most famous shipwreck a trove of information, lending a sense of immediacy to events long past.

“They’re the only documents from that night in real time. It’s sort of like SMS messages that come out of disasters” nowadays, or texting, said Sean Coughlan, a BBC reporter and coauthor of the 1993 book “Titanic: Signals of Disaster.”

Among the fastest radio operators in the business, Phillips had started out as a telegraph boy a decade earlier at his local post office here in Godalming, where residents will honor him at a special service Sunday, 100 years to the day that the Titanic went down in the North Atlantic.

Church bells will ring out over a refurbished park named after him. Amateur radio operators have set up transmitters in Godalming with a special call sign to commemorate the anniversary and Phillips’ dedication.

The local museum has mounted an exhibition on the life of the man whose quick fingers and steely calm under pressure saved hundreds of lives, as nearby ships steamed to the rescue of those who managed to get off the supposedly unsinkable luxury liner.

Would he be one of them?

He was born John George Phillips on April 11, 1887, the year Queen Victoria celebrated 50 years on the throne. His father managed a draper’s shop in Farncombe, a district of Godalming, where the local headmaster described Jack as “a good all-rounder with a high sense of duty.”

After leaving school to work in the post office, Jack excelled at radio telegraphy and easily passed the civil service exam. At 19, he decided to sign up for more training with the Marconi company and make his name as a shipboard operator.

Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of shortwave radio, had established a lucrative business installing wireless rooms and operators on ships such as the Titanic, which liked to boast state-of-the-art technology. Phillips and his deputy on board, Harold Bride, were employees of the Marconi company, not of the White Star Line itself. (The “M” on their caps distinguished them from other crew members.)

At the time, the wireless was an expensive novelty used more for social purposes, usually for rich passengers to send chatty telegrams, than for safety. Captains could pass along important information to one another if needed, but the bulk of the radio traffic was commercial — and personal.

“Arrive Wednesday, Titanic maiden voyage, meet me, vessel worth seeing, William,” one passenger told a friend in Connecticut, hours before the ship vanished beneath the waves.

Others described the splendid weather. A businessman asked a waiting pal in Los Angeles to rustle up a card game. “No seasickness, all well, notify all interested poker. Business good.”

“Hello, Boy, dining with you tonight in spirit, heart with you always, best love, Girl,” a pining lover declared, out in the middle of the Atlantic.

“They were just sending postcards....‘Oh my God, it’s fabulous, you have to do this next year,’ “ said Susanne Weber, who teamed up with Coughlan to create a mechanically voiced, spoken version of the messages from that night, part of the BBC’s coverage of the centenary. The radio program, “Titanic — In Her Own Words,” airs on the BBC World Service.

“It makes you weep,” she said, knowing what lay in store.

On the day of the disaster, Phillips was exhausted. He and Bride had spent hours fixing a fault in the radio, a successful repair job whose later importance he could hardly have guessed. Tired but cheerful, Phillips told Bride, 22, that he would take the 8-p.m.-to-2-a.m. shift.

He worked quickly to clear the backlog of unsent messages, which contained the kind of brief but heartfelt greetings he himself regularly sent home to his twin sisters, Ethel and Elsie, on the back of picture postcards. He always signed off the same way: “Love, Jack.”

He thought little of the slight shudder the Titanic gave not long before midnight on April 14. Maybe a propeller blade had been thrown off, which wasn’t uncommon. No cause for alarm. Certainly not on this “grand new ship,” as he once described it to a friend.

But more than half an hour later, a worried Capt. E.J. Smith came to the wireless room and ordered Phillips to summon help. Bride soon joined him.

The first distress signals, “CQD,” went out about 12:15 a.m., April 15. Despite the gravity of the messages, some bear the jaunty, very British slang the operators used with one another, such as calling each other “OM” — “old man.”

“They were sort of a bit like the dot-com people, ambitious young men using a new technology,” Coughlan said. “They had their own private language talking to each other. They knew each other; they trained together.”

“We have collision with iceberg. Sinking. Please tell captain to come,” Phillips put out, repeating the call for assistance as often as he could. He slowed down his usual speedy delivery of Morse code to ensure that all operators in the area could understand him.

Replies pinged back, often at different strengths, often on top of one another, creating a din that made Phillips’ job even more difficult as the clamor around him increased.

“Are there any boats around you already?”

“We are rushing to you.”

“Am lighting up all possible boilers as fast as can,” the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, reported encouragingly.

At one point, an operator asked what the weather conditions were like. “Clear and calm,” Phillips answered, then followed up with some grim news: “Engine room getting flooded.”

By 1:45 a.m., pandemonium reigned on deck, help was still hours away, and the Titanic was almost in its final throes. Phillips kept to his post. “Engine room full up to boilers,” he tapped out.

The doomed vessel was losing power, and his signals grew fainter. Other ships tried frantically to get through. Shortly after 2 a.m., nearly out of hope, Smith released Phillips and Bride from duty, telling them: “It’s every man for himself.”

Bride rushed out. But Phillips didn’t budge, desperately attempting to call across the icy waters to whoever might pick up.

“V — v — “ came one transmission, possibly a test signal Phillips was trying to send from the rapidly sinking boat.

Then, at 2:17 a.m.: “CQ—“

Then nothing. The Titanic, and Phillips, had fallen silent.

What happened to Phillips in those final minutes, before the ship sank at 2:20 a.m., remains a mystery. Did the power cut, and did he have time to flee the radio shack and scramble for a way off the almost vertical boat? Did the equipment pull away from the wall and crush him?

No one knows. The 25-year-old’s body was never recovered, making him one of the Titanic’s more than 1,500 victims.

“My own view is that he never left the shack. That’s just my gut instinct; he never tried to escape, never got away,” said Mandy Le Boutillier, a Titanic enthusiast and expert on Phillips who helped put together the exhibition about him at the Godalming Museum.

Soon after the disaster, Phillips turned into one of the heroes of the Titanic story. A portrait based on a photo of him — arms folded, looking spiffy in his uniform, a ghost of a smile on his boyish, handsome face — became an iconic image in Titanic lore.

There are those who take another tack, who say Phillips was partly to blame for the disaster for failing to pass along to the bridge some of the warnings from nearby ships of ice in the area. (Other warnings did get through, which officers either didn’t read or chose to ignore.) The 1958 film “A Night to Remember” portrays him as a gruff and panicky character, played by an actor much older than Phillips.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Godalming’s celebration of its native son tailed off around that time, Le Boutillier said. Before then, April 15 had been known as “Jack Phillips Day.”

But the lovely memorial park and cloister here, one of the biggest monuments anywhere to a single victim of the Titanic, remained. It was first opened in 1914, on the second anniversary of Phillips’ death. In a nearby cemetery, a monument to him sits on the family grave, in the shape, bizarrely enough, of an iceberg.

In recent years, Phillips has reemerged for many as a symbol of courage, commitment to duty and personal sacrifice.

“He did the best he could under the circumstances, and the best he could saved 700 people,” Le Boutillier said. “You can’t take it away from the guy. If you want a hero, this guy is a hero.”

On Sunday, while residents of Godalming honor their famous son, the Bonhams auction house in New York is set to sell off the last-known postcard Phillips sent to his sisters, who, like him, never married and had no descendants.

It was mailed on April 6, 1912, four days before the Titanic left the dock at Southampton, England. The front bears a depiction of the ill-fated steamer. On the back, in his old-fashioned handwriting, Phillips tells of a break he took on the Isle of Wight.

“Having glorious weather, went to Cowes yesterday. Will write later before we sail.

“Love, Jack.”

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