CHARLES TOWN – Headed to his wartime assignment in Europe in 1917, Frank Buckles didn’t know he’d make history someday as the United States’ last World War I survivor.
But the 16-year-old knew history when he saw it.
On board the former British passenger ship Carpathia, he sought out crew members to hear firsthand about one of the most dramatic stories of the day – and one that continues to fascinate millions all over the world: The Titanic disaster, which happened a century ago this week.
At the war’s start, the Carpathia had been pressed into service ferrying troops and in 1918, it would join the Titanic in the bottom of the sea, the victim of a German U-boat, but at the time of Buckles’ voyage, the Carpathia was well known for its rescue efforts of April 15, 1912.
Hurrying through dangerous ice fields in the predawn darkness, the ship had saved more than 700 from the unforgiving Atlantic chill. Had the Carpathia not come along when it did, the Titanic’s death toll would have risen even higher than of 1,514.
“In 1917, the Titanic was still fresh in everyone’s minds,” explains Susannah Buckles Flanagan, who now runs the 330-acre cattle farm her late father bought decades ago outside of Charles Town. “I remember Poppa saying that a number of soldiers, not just him, wanted to hear all the stories from the Carpathia crew.”
After his service as an ambulance driver in WWI, Buckles’ interest in the Titanic would only deepen. For years he made his living as a chief purser on international cargo and passenger ships, including some run by White Star, the company that had built the Titanic.
Then, after being held as a POW in the Philippines during World War II, Buckles sought a quieter life in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle where many of his relations had lived for generations. By the early 1960s, he’d become president of the Jefferson County Historical Society.
Flanagan said that until her father’s passing last year at 110, he continued to look forward to getting the latest copy of the “Commutator,” the official magazine published by the Titanic Historical Society.
Rick Rohn’s interest in the Titanic doesn’t go back quite as far as Buckles’, but it did start early. And it does run deep.
The 50-year-old Martinsburg businessman – who this week has switched his Facebook profile picture to a portrait of the Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, and is offering day-by-day updates on what would have been happening on the Titanic exactly 100 years ago – was in middle school in 1975 when his aunt, a travel agent, offered him the chance to visit England. They took a plane over, but traveled back on board the Queen Elizabeth II.
“I’d heard about the Titanic all my life and then getting on board in Southhampton, where the Titanic started out and just looking at that huge, spectacular boat, it got me thinking about the Titanic in a new way,” said Rohn, who is from Baltimore originally and grew up in Berkeley Springs.
Then in the fall of 1985 when the remains of the Titanic were located, Rohn said his interest grew. “I think a lot of people got hooked then,” he said. “From April of 1912 until September of 1985, a lot of people had a general idea of where the Titanic was, but it was out of sight, out of mind. Putting the camera on it, being able to learn more about what exactly had happened to the ship, now suddenly you were able to find out so much more.”
As word gets out that Rohn is a Titanic devotee, he routinely hears from others who share his passion. Joy Johnston Johnson, the marketing director of The Woods Resort in Hedgesville, says she and Rohn have been swapping their favorite Titanic stories for years, long before this week’s centennial put the epic calamity back in the public’s eye.
A more recent connection for Rohn is Scott Frederick, a Berkeley Springs native who studied at Shepherd University and now lives in Morgantown. This week, Frederick wrote to Rohn on Facebook to tell him that he has the original porch columns from the house of Lucian Smith, the Morgantown man who died on the Titanic.
Rohn, of course, already knew about Smith, a wealthy West Virginia University student whose father had made a fortune alongside steel king Andrew Carnegie.
Smith was on the Titanic with his newlywed wife Mary Eloise, the daughter of Congressman James Hughes of Huntington. The couple, married just Feb. 8 in Huntington and headed home after a honeymoon tour of Egypt and other locales, boarded at the Titanic’s first stop in Cherbourg, France.
After the ship struck the iceberg just before midnight on April 14, Smith helped his wife find a ring she treasured (a gift he’d purchased for her in Paris) and then sent her off on a lifeboat, kissing her and reminding her to put her hands in her pockets for warmth.
“My husband said he would be in another boat as soon as all the women and children had been taken care of,” 18-year-old Mary Eloise Smith would tell a Wheeling newspaper reporter later that month. “I think however, he realized at that time, he was lost.
“We were about a mile away from the Titanic when she went down with an awful whirl, and at the same time a terrifying chorus of despair went up from those who went down with her.”
(Smith’s life as a widow would not be easy. Their son Lucian P. Smith Jr. would be born that November. She later wed another Titanic survivor, but that union ended in divorce, as did a third marriage. She died at 46.)
For Frederick, a Morgantown photographer, his Titanic rescue began simply as a home renovation. He rented space for his photography studio in the home that once belonged to Smith and often used the front porch as a backdrop for portraits.
“About 10 years ago, the house changed hands, and it now houses a restaurant named Cafe Bacchus,” Frederick recalled. “They replaced all the columns and railings on the porch, so I approached the contractor about salvaging the columns. He sort of looked at me funny, but said I could have them.
“A couple years after that, the current restaurant owners began recreating the Titanic menu for an annual commemorative dinner they have, and that’s when I learned of the history of the house.”
When Frederick revisited his collection of salvaged materials, he found that many of the Smith columns were too far gone to save, but he was able to rescue enough to add a grand porch onto his home. “My house is a lot smaller than Smith’s,” he notes.
Prior to his home renovation project, Frederick was no Titanic buff. But now he’s on board.
That’s how it often goes, Rohn explains.
“There’s so much that’s interesting about the Titanic – from all the people on board and their individual stories; what happened after the disaster; the role of fate in who survived and who didn’t. The string of events that led up to the ship hitting the iceberg – the fact that the binoculars for the crow’s nest were left back in Southhampton. Having that one pair of binoculars could have changed history.”
Rohn said he daydreams about seeing the Titanic wreckage in person someday, but even better would be to glimpse the Titanic as it looked as it set out on that maiden trip.
“Maybe it sounds macabre, but I’d love to go back 100 years and actually be on the ship. Certainly, I would want to be one of those who survived, but to see it all unfold? How fascinating would that be?”