Tuesday, July 03, 2007

31. The Wreck of the Dumaru by Lowell Thomas (actually Fritz Harmon)

Wreck of the Dumaru pictureI found this book at the local thrift store. The sub-title is "A Story of Cannibalism in an Open Boat" and it has real pictures of a cool old freighter as well as the old salts who were on her. It's an old book, yellowed pages, dust jacket long since gone, part of the "Lowell Thomas Adventure Library". I learned later that Lowell Thomas was a promoter, radio announcer and general publicity guy who was very well known in the 20s, 30s and 40s. He is credited for making famous the story of Lawrence of Arabia. I put this in context because it was weird to me that he is credited as the author of this story, considering that he only wrote the first chapter and the rest was written by Fred Harmon, the guy who actually lived the story. It's funny, because the first chapter is really floridly written and almost discouraged me from continuing. Fortunately, the rest of the book is really clear and direct. As Thomas (slightly patronizingly) says "an extraordinary simplicity and graphic power, with that strength and reality which a man unschooled to writing and to literary artifice can achieve when the impressions of some fearful crisis have graven themselves on his brain."

The story is about a poorly and quickly built merchant ship, during the First World War. Most of the men on it were forced to be there, there only alternative to going to the trenches or in some cases jail. Once on, they found out that it was carrying a load of dynamite. It got caught in a lightning storm just off of Guam and blew up. The bulk of the story is one of the three life boats (actually two life boats and a raft), which was carrying almost twice its capacity (because the first life raft deserted) and had only a tin of biscuits and two gallons of water. They got caught at the first day of the tradewinds, which pushed them away from shore and ended up floating in the sea for 24 days. It got rough. Some went mad, over half just died and in the end there definitely was some cannibalism.

It turned out to be a great read. The author is clearly a straightforward guy but an observer and he spends the first chapter detailing the boat and then all the crazy misfits and castoffs that manned her. When we finally get to the lifeboat, you already know a lot of the characters well and you dread how they are going to behave under the pressure of surival. The narrative goes through it all in an engrossing, enjoyable but dreadful detail. When they do finally resort to eating one of the bodies, you are truly horrified, but also relieved because it actually ends up prolonging their lives and giving them enough energy to push on. But it is really disturbing. They strip the meat (what was left of it) from one of the guys thighs just after he dies, as he is lying there with his legs straight out in front of him. And they cook it in a tiny metal biscuit tin. It freaks you out!

I don't know if this book is around in any form other than a lucky find. But I am glad I found it. A great slice of sea life and an amazing story of survival and human behaviour.

[In searching for the cover of the book I have, I noticed that this story was published in 4 parts in Argosy magazine.]

18 comments:

Jarrett said...

definitely reading this one.

have you read the Crane short story, "The Open Boat" - no cannibalism, but a gripping little story worth reading.

Ol Jar said...

how about you mail this sheeyit to me?

Or deliver it and come sailing, mate?

Or shall I come up and git it?

Maughn said...

My Great-Uncle, Kasper Weigant, a young 19 yr old coal passer, mentioned just a few times in the book, was one of the survivors of the Dumaru. I have copies of letters that he sent his parents just before and just after the shipwreck, when he returned from the Phillipines. My grandmother, his sister, told me that he seldom talked of the event. Later, when he had children of his own, he bought each of them a copy of the book, telling them to read it. That was all he told them about it. Apparently, he was somewhat tramatized by the"cannibalization" that took place.

EDKNYC said...

Actually, this book was written by a ghost writer. My grandfather (Fred Harmon) went to the home of Lowell Thomas in upstate New York where he met the ghost writer and told him the story.

Lowell Thomas was in Cleveland on a book tour, and my grandfatrher introduced himself to Thomas at a book store and told him of his story.

edilov said...

I was wondering if there is any chance that I could purchase a copy of "The Sinking of the Dumaru". My father, who was stationed on Guam at the time, had a friend who was on the Dumaru but not one of the survivors. He thought that the book was banned. My email is edilov@aol.com. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

EDKNYC

I guess were related?

My Grandfather Frank J Harmon was a cousin of Fred J Harmon, AKA Fritz.

Bill

louis hough said...

I published a book in 2009 about the Hough-type wooden freighters in WW1 which also covers the entire wooden ship building program. I sketch the Dumaru incident in 3-1/2 pages, a section called "Lightning Strikes Twice," which is what occurred and set off fire that blew the ship apart when the munitions exploded. I have a copy of Thomas's book and other material on Harmon's unsuccessful attempt at restitution for his loss of personal gear and hardship in the lifeboat. Try used book dealers to locate a copy. I am the grandson of Edward S. Hough the ship designer—forty of his steamers were built at West Coast shipyards in 1917-1918. I can be reached by e-mail: hough@mcn.org if more info. is desired. I do not sell the book myself but can provide info. on the San Francisco, CA, publisher. I'm happy that interest persists in the old wooden ships—and for the record, not all were poorly built. It was the indifferent draft-dodgers who sailed in them who neglected the machinery (not Harmon but others) or neglected the wooden structure—leaking was a major problem. I can go on and on.
Cheers, Louis Hough

Anonymous said...

My grandfather, Melvin W. Metcalf, was one of the survivors of the Dumaru.

Anonymous said...

My grandfather, Theron W Bean, was a survivor. He is the radio operator, Sparks. I am looking for a copy of the book. Please email me if you have a copy at socialworker2you@yahoo.com.

Anonymous said...

I am finding relatives in here. My great uncle was Fritz Harmon. We have some copies of the book in the family. EDKNYC and Bill? Are we connected?

OlmanFeelyus said...

So cool to see how this book brings up such interest and so many connections! Very cool.

@Edilov, I don't think I still have the copy, but I'll take a look.

B.R. Haden said...

I have started going to garage sales and estate sales to find history books for my classroom. I came across this book last weekend and bought it. Had no idea how interesting it would be. So many stories to be re-told to
new generations!

B.R. Haden said...

Just bought the book at an estate sale. It is very interesting!

OlmanFeelyus said...

I applaud such an approach to finding material for the classroom! It's not just the content of the books, but the form as well, that would be educational for them.

It's amazing how many posts from such varied people this book has generated. It's great to know that it the story of the Dumaru is far from lost to history.

EDKNYC said...

I was at the Harmon family reunion in Ohio this summer. I saw Terry Harmon and Bob Vance and The Wreck of the Dumaru is always a topic of conversation. My grandfather autographed my copy when I was a kid, and wrote that they didn't eat the people who died, but merely made a broth to drink!

OlmanFeelyus said...

Man, it's amazing how this book keeps on generating comments. It seems unheard of today and yet it clearly still resonates strongly with a certain demographic. Very cool to keep on getting these little tidbits of info on this story.

Oh man, Ed, that is grim!

Anonymous said...

My Dad sailed on the Great Lakes in 1944 before enlisting in the Navy in 1945. I have the Dumaru book with a signed, personalized salutation from Fritz Harmon. I would guess that they were perhaps shipmates?

Anonymous said...

My Great Grandfather was on Captian of this ship. I have never seen a copy, but I know the story is incredibly in depth but barely skims the magnitude of what actually went down.