Joan Hecht. RIP.

Discussion in 'Memorials & Cemeteries' started by CXX, Sep 6, 2009.

  1. CXX

    CXX New Member

    Joan Hecht - Telegraph

    Joan Hecht, who has died aged 80, made newspaper headlines in 1939 when she survived the sinking of a torpedoed passenger ship on the day Britain declared war on Germany; she was one of the last survivors of the disaster, in which 118 lives were lost.

    Then a 10-year old schoolgirl, Joan Hecht was returning home to the United States aboard the British liner SS Athenia when the Cunarder was sunk without warning by a German U-boat after its captain mistook the vessel for an armed merchant cruiser rather than an unarmed passenger ship.

    The German authorities immediately suppressed the facts surrounding the attack, and a more accurate account emerged only after the Nuremberg war trials.

    Joan had been visiting Scotland with her nurse-governess, Jean McVittie. After Hitler's forces invaded Poland on September 1 1939, the pair booked passage on the liner, leaving some two weeks earlier than they had planned.

    Just after 7.30pm on the evening of Sunday September 3, the German submarine fired on Athenia, which was 250 miles north-west of Ireland and crowded with child evacuees and other passengers fleeing Britain, including 311 American citizens.

    The Cunarder was bound for Montreal from Liverpool, and by sinking her, the Germans drew first blood in the Second World War. Joan's mother collapsed when she heard a radio news flash about Athenia's sinking as she was playing bridge.

    Recalling the moment the torpedo struck, Joan said: "I was in my stateroom when I heard the explosion; I knew the damn Huns – but Daddy mustn't know I said that – had gotten us," she told a reporter on September 27, when she finally reached America.

    She described finding a lifebelt and mustering at her boat station clutching her Italian doll, Pedro, before clambering down a rope ladder towards a lifeboat and losing her footing when the ladder broke.

    After being successfully lowered down the side of the listing vessel, Joan eventually scrambled into a lifeboat intended for 50 people, but which actually carried 75 – mainly women and children. Two men and three women rowed.

    The rudder broke, and they drifted for 11 hours: fortunately both she and Jean McVittie had been warmly dressed. Others cast adrift after the attack were said to have been scantily-clad and in poor shape.

    At dawn the British destroyer Escort picked them out of the Atlantic and took them back to Scotland.

    Joan's only injuries were a sprained ankle, scraped knees and scratched legs.

    Nearly three weeks later, she and her nurse boarded the steamship Orizaba, crossed the Atlantic safely and landed at New York. "Thousands stood on the shore in wild salute to her coming," according to an agency report. Joan was met at the landing pier by her father, Julian Hecht. A press photographer snapped her kissing him as she arrived, and the picture was widely published.

    Of the 1,100 passengers and crew aboard Athenia, 118 perished, many in a lifeboat that was destroyed accidentally by the propeller of a rescue vessel.

    Joan Hecht later said she narrowly missed being assigned to that doomed lifeboat.

    The commander of the German submarine U-30, Oberlieutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, was not court-martialled for his error, but Hitler immediately ordered that under no circumstances were passenger ships to be attacked.

    Joan Eleanor Hecht was born on November 19 1928 in Baltimore, Maryland, the great-granddaughter of Samuel Hecht Jr, founder of the Hecht department store. In 1945 she graduated from Garland Junior College with a degree in Home Economics.

    When she arrived back in Scotland following the sinking, Joan was able calmly to describe details to newspaper reporters. She recalled chatting to another young girl in her cabin when the torpedo struck and the lights went out.

    Pedro the doll was the only possession she was able to save when Athenia was hit. Everything else, including presents for her parents, went down with the ship. During her hours adrift in the Atlantic, she did exactly as she was told by her governess and remained calm throughout her ordeal.

    "Joan appears to have shown remarkable presence of mind for a child of her age," remarked the correspondent from The Baltimore Sun.

    Never the less, the sinking of Athenia left a traumatic impression on her, and for many years she avoided talking about it. Eventually Joan Hecht overcame her fear of water, and later in life enjoyed many cruising holidays.

    For many years Joan Hecht lived at Heidelberg, Germany, where her husband, a lawyer, worked for the US Navy, and in 1963 they moved to Westport, Connecticut, where she was a volunteer at an old people's centre.

    She continued to employ the woman who had travelled with her in Athenia, Jean McVittie, to look after her own son and daughter. After moving to Florida in 1985, Joan Hecht continued her volunteer work at a hospice.

    Joan Hecht, who died on August 26, married, in 1952, Commander M Philip Lorber, a US Navy judge advocate, who survives her with their two children.

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