Drama of ship sinking still vivid for survivors after 75 years

The pages of The Kansas City Star in the fall of 1942 told the harrowing tale of the “seven daring Danielsons” that had occurred a year and a half earlier.
The pages of The Kansas City Star in the fall of 1942 told the harrowing tale of the “seven daring Danielsons” that had occurred a year and a half earlier. News archive

The shells exploded just before dawn as members of a Kansas family slept in their berths on the high seas, four days out of Cape Town.

A woman and her six children, aged 1 through 10, were steaming to Africa to join her missionary husband and their father when a German raiding ship attacked. It was 1941 and Germany was at war. The German captain thought the blacked-out vessel could be a British troop carrier or supply ship.

Instead it was packed with civilian passengers, including 142 Americans whose country was not yet at war. Astonishingly, everyone survived the sinking of the Zamzam, although the next few weeks would be an ordeal.

Eleven survivors — including those six siblings — will gather this weekend in central Kansas for what will probably be the final Zamzam reunion.

“This is the last one,” confirmed Lois Carlson of Lindsborg, Kan. “We said that six years ago when we were in Pennsylvania. But because this is the 75th anniversary there was a lot of interest. So, we’re saying this is our last hurrah. The fact of the matter is it’s just too hard for people to get together.”

Not for 102-year-old Alice Schellenberg. The oldest surviving adult on the Zamzam is planning to make the trip from Pennsylvania to Lindsborg. The public is invited to the Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church at 402 N. First St. at 9 a.m. Saturday to hear scholars and to meet the survivors, said Carlson, who still lives in Lindsborg, as does one of her sisters.

Lois Christine (now Carlson) was barely a toddler as her mother, Lillian Danielson, clutched her tightly while they bobbed for more than 30 minutes in the cold waters of the South Atlantic that morning. What does she remember?

“Diddly squat,” Carlson recently told The Star. “It’s like it’s my own memory, but it really isn’t. It was a wasted experience on me.”

But her older sister, Eleanor Anderson, turned 9 years old during the ordeal.

“I feel like I can see the ship or see somebody splashing in the water,” Anderson told the The Star recently. “But it may be that I’ve been told the story so often I imagine I’m seeing it. I do feel that at 9 one can remember quite a bit.”

There has been plenty of corroboration over the years of what happened to the Zamzam, which was named for a well in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It also helps that a photographer from Life magazine had boarded the ship during a stop in Recife, Brazil.

A family’s story

Elmer Danielson was a Lutheran minister who was serving as a missionary in Tanganyika Territory in East Africa. He and Lillian, also a missionary, had met on a ship from New York to Africa. Four of their six children were born in Africa, but the family place was in Lindsborg, home of Bethany College. The family planned to return to Africa together in spring 1940 but the war in Europe caused the United States government to forbid oceanic travel by women and children, Carlson said. Elmer Danielson went alone.

In 1941 came news that a former British ship, now registered in neutral Egypt, was taking on passengers for Cape Town and points up the east coast of Africa. Most of the passengers, including 33 children, were missionaries. They sang hymns on deck as the ship left New York harbor toward Trinidad.

It was there that the passengers learned that the ship, still under the authority of the British Admiralty, was to keep blackout conditions at night as a precaution against German raiders. Having been assured the ship was neutral, some passengers objected. That would make them suspect. But they had no recourse.

The voyage passed mostly without incident until a storm caused an alarmed Lillian Danielson to order her children into their life jackets. She discovered there were not enough of them and they were in bad repair. Danielson secured another life jacket from the purser and spent the morning sewing the life jackets up and refitting them for her small children.

She would be glad she did that when, on the morning of April 17, German shells began striking without warning.

“The whole room would shake,” Laurence Danielson later recalled. “The sink came down. The mirrors came down. We were sure it wiped out the cabin next to us.”

Laurence Danielson, who was 10 years old at the time, recalled the experience for a 1991 documentary for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He described hearing shells overhead and waiting for one to hit his family’s cabin.

Everyone was ordered into lifeboats, but the one the Danielsons got into had been damaged by shrapnel and was taking on water fast. Soon it overturned, tossing everyone into the water. In the chaos, Lillian Danielson calmly organized her life-jacketed children and they all waited until the German raider — with a Nazi flag and machine gun-toting sailors — arrived to rescue them.

“I felt so bad that I’d brought six children out to have this adventure in the ocean and perhaps lose their lives,” Lillian Danielson told an interviewer on the occasion of the 50th anniversary. “I said to the children, ‘Now be brave in Jesus. Jesus loves you more than Mother and Daddy do. Keep praying and keep your mouths closed.’ That was so they wouldn’t get that (salt) water in there.”

Lillian Danielson sang “Rock of Ages” while holding 2-year-old Wilfred’s hand. Laurence held onto 4-year-old Luella Faith while 8-year-old Eleanor Grace and 7-year-old Evelyn Ruth clung to each other.

David E. Scherman, the Life photographer who was headed to cover the war in North Africa, recalled the scene clearly in the 1991 documentary.

“The story of Lillian and how she shepherded her six children behind her with their life jackets, so that they went through the water like a mother duck and her six ducklings, has become really one of the most heroic and famous stories of the whole episode,” Scherman said.

Survivors say a rainbow appeared that morning.

Weeks of uncertainty

The Zamzam passengers would spend more than a month in custody on board another German ship, eating insect-infested food.

“My recollection of the whole incident is one more of adventure than fear or sadness,” said Victor Johnson, who was 9 at the time and who recalled the experience for the 1991 documentary. “I recall a couple of instances of being apprehensive, but it was much more of an adventure for me.”

The men were housed in the ship’s hold while the women and children were kept separate.

“We got to know each other quite well, confined to a very small space in the front portion of the ship,” Anderson told The Star. “We had to make up our own games ... and it’s a wonder we all got along so well.”

It was a delicate diplomatic situation. Because no one immediately died in the sinking (one man later died from a shrapnel injury), the Germans reportedly did not feel the need to announce what had happened.

Elmer Danielson, at his post in Tanganyika Territory, expected to get a cable from his wife when the family made port in Cape Town on April 20. It didn’t come. For a month he had no information about them. Then a fellow missionary took him aside with news about the Zamzam.

“He said it came on the radio and it is taken for granted it has been sunk by enemy action and everybody is lost,” Elmer Danielson recalled in the 1991 documentary.

In his grief, Elmer Danielson concluded his wife and children would want him to carry on with missionary work. Then on May 20, he and some others were listening to the BBC, despite concern about running down their batteries.

“The very last item broadcast said it has been confirmed by the Vichy government that 140 of the 142 Americans on the Zamzam are safe and have been landed at St. Luz in occupied France. Goodnight.

“You talk about God’s intervention,” Elmer Danielson said in the interview. “In the whole story, he intervened more than once. And he intervened for my sake right then.”

Adding to the drama, the German ship had had to run a British blockade to get to port in occupied France. There, the Americans were released but the British and Canadian passengers were held as prisoners of war.

The Danielsons steamed safely out of Portugal back to New York, where they boarded a train back to Lindsborg.

“We looked out the window and we couldn’t believe how wonderful America looked,” Anderson recently told The Star. “The houses. The cars. America seemed more wonderful than it had before.”

The story of “the seven daring Danielsons,” as the family was dubbed, was featured on the front of the society section of The Kansas City Star on Oct. 4, 1942. Elmer Danielson did not return home until 1944.

Lillian and Elmer Danielson both died in the 1990s. Their children, who now range in age from 77 to 86, are gathering this weekend from around the country at Lindsborg. They will be joined by five other Zamzam survivors and scores of family members. All the old stories will be told again.

The last reunion, Carlson said, will be a chance for people to “meet some characters that aren’t going to be around much longer.”

Matt Campbell: 816-234-4902, @MattCampbellKC

The reunion

The public is invited to a reunion of survivors of the ship Zamzam. The reunion begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, 402 N. First St., Lindsborg, Kan. A panel with the survivors starts at 2 p.m.