Excerpts from The Viking’s Last Cruise by Clayton King.
This book is written from the first person perspective that of Mr. Clayton King who was the Wireless Operator on the S. S. Viking when she was blown up in 1931.
The book begins with a description of Messrs. Varick Frissell, A. E. Penrod, H. Sargent and their assistants checking over their equipment before leaving St. John’s. It was March 1931 and they had returned to Newfoundland to go back to the ice floes for more footage of the seal hunt. In 1930 they had been here and got some film for their partly completed picture “Northern Knight” later called “White Thunder”
In the Spring of 1930 Mr. Frissell, Sweeney and thirty other Americans sailed for the ice fields aboard the S.S. Ungava with Captain William Winsor. Later that same Spring the S.S. Viking was chartered after she had returned from her first trip to the ice with Captain Bob Bartlett.
At 4pm on March 9, 1931 they left St. John’s. They faced heavy seas and wind for the first couple of days. The galley was damaged with waves and they put in at Poole’s Island to receive a new cooking boiler and galley equipment. They left there on March 14th.
The ship than ran into heavy ice in White Bay and put in for the night. It was while they were stuck in this ice floe that the ship went through a series of explosions as the film, dynamite, shells and kegs of powder all went up in smoke. Men were being thrown from the ship as King explains:
“Another explosion shattered the hull and a body came hurtling from the wreckage, twisting and turning in the air. It landed finally on an ice pan close to the ship. The man’s head was split open to the neck. The body was still for a moment, then with a few convulsive movements it slid off the pan and into the sea.”
King was on an ice floe with Kennedy and Sargent. They drifted a total of twenty-two miles from where the Viking had exploded. They were there for three days before being rescued. The others had managed to get some dories clear of the sinking vessel and made their way across the ice to Horse Islands.
The explosion had happened on a Sunday evening just after a church service was over on Horse Islands. They all wondered if the noise was an earthquake or thunder off shore but they quickly realized that it was a ship on fire. They immediately notified the wireless operator on the Island, Otis Bartlett.
When the land offices opened the following message was flashed to them:
To Minister Marine and Fisheries
At 9:00 o’clock last night heard terrible explosion. Early this morning the burning wreckage of a steamer was sighted about eight miles east of here. Also saw men traveling on ice towards the Island. No particulars as yet.
In response to this the entire sealing fleet was ordered to the scene by the Minister and the tug Foundation Franklin and the S.S. Sagona were immediately prepared taking with them Dr. Blackler and several nurses.
The wires kept going out of Horse Island
Ice in bad condition. Heavy sea. Wind blowing off shore. Men sighted coming over ice toward land. First crowd may reach land – others have little chance. Making slow progress. People have only sufficient for selves. Also no medical assistance here. No chance of getting to mainland.
Please report as soon as possible to direct questions. How many people have landed? What steamer is it? How did explosion occur? Can more men be seen on the ice, if so, how many? What are the weather conditions – wind direction? Can you give me names of those injured or dead?
(Sgd.) H.B.C. LAKE
Acknowledged. Impossible to give particulars as yet. At approx. 9:00 o’clock last night Viking exploded. Men report about twenty or more dead. All survivors not yet landed.
Ice in bad condition. Heavy sea. Wind blowing off-shore. First crowd of men may reach island. Others have little chance. Making very slow progress. Operator Clayton King reported missing.
(Sgd) OTIS BARTLETT
Opr. Horse Island
Captain badly injured. Men report – wireless operator, cook, steward, navigator and doctor missing. Impossible to give particulars. Men very exhausted. Will advise later.
(Sgd.) OPR. HORSE ISLD.
Fifty or more men landed. Others making slow progress toward land. Explosion as yet unaccounted for. Two crowds landed and another sighted. Later – Crowds bringing in disabled men. Ice conditions very rough and uneven. Men cannot account for dead as yet. Very hard to get information from men.
(Sgd.) OPR. HORSE ISLD.
Many men still on ice severely injured. Nearly all men in cabin believe dead. Stern taken right from ship. All ships advised to proceed to Viking area.
(Sgd.) OPR. HORSE ISLD.
118 men landed here. Many suffering from sever injuries. Men leaving here in search of Clayton King and other missing persons.
(Sgd.) OPR HORSE ISLD.
March 17, 1931 at 6:00 pm the S.S. Sagona left port with Dr. Paterson, Dr. Moores and Dr. Martin along with Nurses Paton and Rose Berrigan. They had on board a large supply of food stuffs, medical equipment, clothes and everything that would be required for a medical mission. Captain Jacob Kean in charge of the ship.
Clayton, Kennedy and Sargent were rescued by the S.S. Sagona and after having some more injured parties placed on board they left for St. John’s. It took them eight days to get back to the city. Kennedy ended up passing away just before the ship arrived in port.
The task of unloading the injured passengers then began with the Hon. Sir Richard A. Squires, Prime Minister of Newfoundland; Mr. H. B. C. Lake, Minister of Marine and Fisheries; Hons. Drs. Campbell and Mosdell and several other members of the Government being assembled on the pier. Ambulances awaited, stretch bearers were ready and the police had barricaded the roads where necessary.
Of the twelve men landed, eight were urgent hospital cases, among them being: Captain Abram Kean, Jr.; Alfred Kean, mate; Frederick Best, movie assistant; Jerry Quinlan, Charles Spracklin, A. Fifield, Patrick Whelan and Clayton King. The sick were Alfonso Doyle, Lewis Breen and Richard Adams. The sole survivor of the American party, H. Sargent walked ashore.
From Boston a giant Sikorsky airplane was sent out to the scene of the disaster by Dr. Frissell, father of Varick. But to no avail.
The medical report of Clayton King by Dr. L. E. Keegan at the General Hospital, St. John’s, NFLD.
Clayton King was admitted to Hospital on the 24th March 1931. His injuries were the result of an explosion on board the steamship Viking, when Clayton was thrown on the ice, where he remained for about sixty-five hours.
On admission he was found to be suffering from gas gangrene of both legs, extending to the middle of the thighs. In the left there was a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula. In addition to this he had a severe injury to the left eye, due to the impaction of some foreign body. He also had severe contusions and abrasions of his shoulders. He was in a very critical condition and had to be revived with intravenous injections of glucose and other stimulants, also the administration of anti-gas gangrene serum.
On March 25th he was operated on and assisted by Drs. Moores and Knight, I performed an amputation of both legs, the right being amputated above the knee joint, the left about three inches below the knee joint.
In spite of the severity of the operation and his serious condition, he rallied in the most marvellous way and after a few days his chances of recovery were good.
Some time afterwards, owing to a severe pain in the head, the orbit was examined and a small foreign body found to be embedded there was removed. This injury of the orbit caused a serious impairment of vision, which only slightly improved.
Apparently, the amputation saved his life as the gas gangrene did not extend. The wounds at the time were left open, a guillotine operation having been performed on both limbs. It was I think due to this precaution that he survived the great shock and toxic symptoms.
From the middle of April his recovery was uninterrupted and he was discharged from the hospital on the ninth of July 1931.
L. E. KEEGAN
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