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La Jolla couple creating documentary about little-known WWII tragedy — the sinking of the SS Athenia

"Athenia's Last Voyage" is an in-production documentary by La Jollans Tom and Kay Sanger.
“Athenia’s Last Voyage” is an in-production documentary by La Jollans Tom and Kay Sanger that tells the stories of the sinking of the SS Athenia in the first days of World War II and of survivors and descendants of survivors.
(Courtesy)

La Jolla residents Tom and Kay Sanger are on a mission to tell the most incredible World War II story you’ve probably never heard.

After writing “Without Warning,” a book about the sinking of the SS Athenia in the first days of the war, Tom Sanger realized the story was too compelling to not reach a broader audience. So partnering with his wife, Kay, he set out to make a documentary film about the Athenia, its passengers and their significance in history.

The film, for which the Sangers are executive producers, is called “Athenia’s Last Voyage.” A crowdfunding site launching around March 15 will raise money to buy images to illustrate the stories of survivors and pay other production costs.

“This is a story that needs to be told,” Tom said. “The stories are wonderful, and we were really motivated to get this movie made.”

On Sept. 1, 1939, hours after the announcement that Germany had invaded Poland to start World War II, British passenger ship Athenia set sail for Canada. Its 1,418 passengers and crew members (according to the National WWII Museum) thought they had escaped the battle that was to come. Little did they know that 117 of them would be among the first casualties in a war that would go on to claim the lives of about 75 million people globally.

The ship was struck and sunk by a German torpedo the evening of Sept. 3.

“That same torpedo was the very first shot fired in what came to be known as the Battle of the Atlantic,” Tom said. “It was the longest continuous combat action in the Second World War. It lasted from the first day of the war to the day before Germany surrendered [in May 1945]. There was action in the North Atlantic almost every day during that 5½-year period. The people who died on board the Athenia, including [about] 30 Americans, were among the earliest civilian casualties in the war.”

One of the surviving passengers was Tom’s grandmother Rhoda Thomas, who was 54 at the time. When the torpedo hit and evacuations into lifeboats were underway, Thomas gave up her seat on a lifeboat to others.

To eventually get into a lifeboat, Thomas had to climb down a long rope ladder. When she got in, there was not enough room to sit, so she stood for the first hour and a half of the journey. Because Thomas was wearing a coat, another passenger asked her to hold her baby to keep the baby warm.

“Grandma spent the night on this lifeboat and was picked up by a yacht and then transferred to an American freighter and made it to Nova Scotia and then New York,” Tom said. “She wrote a 14-page account with her experiences as an Athenia survivor. I never talked to her about it, but 70 years later, after I had retired, I read what she wrote. It was so vivid, and inspired me to find other stories that were as compelling as hers.”

He found them.

There was the 10-year-old boy who was in a lifeboat with his mother when it capsized. The mother tried to swim out but got tangled in ropes for a while. By the time she got out, the child was nowhere to be found. She got picked up by a lifeboat from a yacht that was rescuing people. Ten or 15 minutes later, she heard her son calling in the night and she jumped back into the water, much to the concern of the people in the lifeboat. She found him and the lifeboat followed her. They were both rescued.

There was the 3-year-old girl who was separated from her family as they boarded lifeboats and were sent to different countries. Four or five rescue vessels came and ended up in different ports.

“Some of the people went to Canada, others were taken to Ireland and Scotland,” Kay said. “One couple thought the boat was going to sink right away so they put their child on a lifeboat that was pretty full and there wasn’t room for them. They got on another lifeboat later on and they went to different ports. It took them more than a week to find out their daughter was alive.”

To tell such stories, the Sangers conducted interviews and researched the National Archives in Maryland, combing through affidavits that had been filed by American passengers.

La Jolla residents Kay and Tom Sanger are executive producers of "Athenia's Last Voyage."
La Jolla residents Kay and Tom Sanger are executive producers of “Athenia’s Last Voyage.”
(Courtesy)

“We have the stories, but while they are talking through the film, we need images to show,” Kay said. “To buy these images and 1939 newsreels, it costs a certain amount per second and we are making a one-hour film.”

She said they applied for film grants, but “competition is fierce,” so they are exploring donations through the film’s website, atheniaslastvoyage.com, and the Indiegogo funding campaign.

“Our goal is to finish this film this year,” Kay said. “These people were children at the time but are now in their late 80s and early 90s. We want to honor them by getting this out as soon as possible.”

In addition to sharing the stories of survivors and descendants of survivors while they are still alive, Tom said there are lessons to be learned from the film.

“Wars are not confined to battlefields anymore, but I don’t think people understand exactly what kind of collateral damage wars wreak on civilian populations,” he said. “These are things we need to be concerned about before we commit to doing something like this ever again … so it’s also a cautionary tale.”

“These people all worked together to survive, they helped each other into lifeboats and encouraged each other while facing a terribly uncertain future,” he added. “I think we can learn something from them in what we can accomplish when we work together and come together to try and overcome adversity.” ◆

Updates

10:00 a.m. March 4, 2021: The crowdfunding campaign for the film, which had been scheduled to launch March 1, has been delayed to about March 15.