This Day in History
1956 — Andrea Doria. On the night of July 25th the Italian passenger liner Andrea Doria was steaming toward New York City. The Swedish liner Stockholm had left the New York harbor earlier that same day. Despite a dense fog that night and traveling in heavily used shipping lanes, neither ship took extra safety precautions. The Andrea Doria barely reduced speed in deference to the fog because it wanted to keep to its scheduled New York arrival, and the Stockholm was sailing outside recommended sea lanes for ships heading east, also wanting to save time.
I was twelve years old that summer and remember the incident well. 1956 was a wonderful time to be a twelve-year-old boy in small town Minnesota. There were chores of course, mowing lawns, weeding gardens, etc., but when it came to play we always had something to entertain us. Klaustermeier’s woods with a creek meandering through it, the Crow River south of town, the gravel pit swimming hole, TV was still new and exciting, and baseball, always baseball, organized and pick up. To add to the fun, we also had a lot of bad ideas that summer. Perhaps it was the summer of questionable thinking because on a much grander scale the decisions made by the captains of the two ships led to a collision at sea.
The 697-foot Andrea Doria carried 1,134 passengers and was regarded as one of the most beautiful and elegant ocean liners of that era. The 524-foot Stockholm was smaller, more sleek, had an icebreaker type of bow and carried approximately 550 passengers. The collision and eventual sinking of the Andrea Doria cost fifty-one people their lives, five aboard the Stockholm and the rest from the Andrea Doria.
This was before the days of CNN or live news coverage, but this disaster was somewhat of an exception. Happening only 300 miles from New York, soon there was film footage of the sinking of the Andria Doria being broadcast. At the time we were in the process of trying to invent a new sport, bicycle polo. Rich, Breezy, Merle and myself used croquet mallets and a baseball as we careened crazily around the street in front of Rich’s house. There was some mayhem but it was safer than one of our earlier ideas. That had been to play follow the leader on bicycles. Safe enough under normal conditions but we had thrown in one new wrinkle. The leader could, unannounced, slam on his brakes at any time. This led to some magnificent pileups which we thought were grand fun. Baseball caps, not helmets were also the headgear of choice. Our version of follow the leader resulted in a fair amount of road rash and one concussion.
Sailing in opposite directions, around 10:45p.m. both ships picked up the other on radar. The two ships both adjusted course so they’d pass safely side-by-side. Both however, misread the other’s position, and their corrective action put them on a collision course. It became apparent when, at 11:10 p.m., through the thick fog, the Andrea Doria saw the lights of the Stockholm coming directly at them. Each vessel took evasive action but it was too late. The Andrea Doria turned hard to port and the Stockholm threw its engines into reverse. The bow of the Stockholm sliced thirty feet into the starboard side of the Andrea Doria. Then it floated free, leaving a huge gap in the hull of the Italian liner.
A ship sinking! This trumped even bicycle polo. The film footage was grainy black and white but it held our rapt attention. The Andrea Doria was on its starboard side, half in and out of the water. By this time most everybody was off the ship. Being it happened in a busy shipping lane this wasn’t a Titanic type of disaster. The Stockholm remained on the scene to aid in the rescue and the French liner, Ile de France soon arrived, as did some other ships. The sinking was agonizingly slow, at least to twelve years olds, rather than an awe-inspiring bow or stern in the air spectacle. The ship just kept slowly sinking deeper into the water. Too slow for us, and while we waited another bad idea was concocted. We figured we still had time to get back to watch the ship slip under the waves.
We had taken out the inner mechanisms of an old BB gun rifle so we were left with only the barrel and stock. We stuffed a cork into the end of the barrel and a firecracker into the breech. When we lit the firecracker we launched the cork to tree top level. So, applying what physics we knew, we decided that by jamming a cork tighter into the barrel and using a bigger firecracker we could set a world’s record for launching a cork. Somebody had obtained a cherry bomb, and since nothing much was happening with the ship, we decided we had time to test our theory. Rich held the gun, not against his shoulder but at arm’s length, perhaps the only smart thing done that day, and I lit the cherry bomb and stepped back in gleeful anticipation. The resulting explosion and smoke left us stunned. The cork simply disappeared and the end of the gun barrel splintered and curled outward, like something from a cartoon. Our ears rang, Rich said “huh” a lot in the next couple of weeks, and our eyes were wide with shock. It was only through sheer luck we were not hurt.
At sea there were heroic deeds of rescue that night, and also both tragic stories of death and remarkable stories of survival. After the ships pulled apart a fourteen-year-old girl was found crying on the deck of the Swedish ship. She had been a passenger on the Andrea Doria. Her mother and sister were killed in the collision. Another man survived intact while his wife, in the same cabin, simply disappeared. The Stockholm managed to limp back to New York with its bow missing. Eleven hours after they collided the Andrea Doria slipped beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The collision still remains controversial. At the time both ships blamed the other. A settlement was reached however and no official trial ever took place. The Stockholm, renamed the Astoria, is still in service, now operating as a cruise ship.
After our explosion we went into kid mode and decided on the best way to keep from getting into trouble. We ditched the gun, I don’t remember where, and came up with a reason for the small powder burn on Rich’s hand. Then we went back into Rich’s house where the TV was still on. But the ship was gone. It had sunk during our escapade and we missed it! All that was on the TV was a picture of the empty ocean.
Rich’s mother was there and she looked at us curiously. “What were you doing that was so important that you missed the ship sinking?”
Rich said, “Huh?”