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The Samoa Hurricane of 1889.

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The cheers of USS Trenton Crew

Illustrated London News

As stated in the page detailing Calliope's escape from Apia, as she passed USS Trenton, the crew of the American ship cheered the British ship on her way. This magnificent gesture deserves some more detail.

To understand the circumstances, it is important to remember that USS Trenton was completely disabled at the time. Her rudder had been torn off by a massive wave, and the water shipping via the hawse pipes had threatened the boilers, such that the fires in her furnaces had been put out. She was under no man's control, and subject to the whims of the storm's wind and wave. Only her anchors were holding her off the encircling reef. Her men, who knew that those anchors would eventually fail, faced likely death when they eventually did. In desperation, the men were ordered into the rigging in the hope that they would provide just a little calming effect to the ship, acting as a human storm sail, but even so, the ship was bucking to and fro in the waves, and tipping up and down and side to side, and it must surely have been a miserable time indeed for all on board.

From all the accounts I have managed to read, Calliope passed much closer to Trenton than even the artist for the Illustrated London News dared to depict on the front page.

Rear-Admiral Kimberly's thoughts as Calliope approached the helpless Trenton are worth recording:

"...one might...on looking astern into the thick curtain of misty haze, have seen the large black hull of a ship looming forth in the dim distance. It was slowly, very slowly advancing right for us. Now up high in the crest of some sea, and then down so low that only her tops could be seen. It was Calliope taking her chances of being sunk by collisions at her anchors, or running the gauntlet of the reefs for the open sea...

"...To me, it was one of the grandest and most exciting sights I ever beheld. There was just room between Trenton and the reef for Calliope to pass. To collide with Trenton or to strike the reef, meant destruction. In the first instance to both ships, in the second, to herself, and as the great plunging, rolling ship staggered through the boiling surf abreast-us, a man on our lower yard arm could have clasped hands with one of hers. A swerve, a yaw of the helpless Trenton at this moment would have been annihilation, but good fortune attended Calliope on that day for she gained the open sea.

"It was when her yards lapped ours amidst the war of the elements, that all our long and deep anxiety was turned into admiration for the daring and plucky deed that was passing before our eyes, that then our pent up feelings burst forth into cheers. I will candidly confess, that my extreme anxiety at this supreme moment, made me feel as rigid and as cold as a harp string. As her stern slowly passed our bow, I was so extremely anxious for her safety and success, that I felt by a concentration of mere will, I was helping her seaward.

"It was one of the grandest sights a seaman or anyone else ever saw. The lives of 250 souls depended on the hazardous venture. All was staked on this grand endeavor, and they won. It was a victory of mind over matter."

Source: Samoa Hurricane, LA Kimberly, Rear Admiral USN (retired), c. 1897, reprinted by the Naval Historical Foundation, 1965.

The London Telegraph would later tell its readers:

"We do not know in all Naval records any sound which makes a finer music upon the ear than the cheer of Trenton's men. It was distressed manhood greeting triumph and manhood. The doomed saluting the saved. It was pluckier and more human than any cry ever raised upon the deck of a victorious line of battle-ship. It never can be forgotten, and never must be forgotten by Englishmen speaking of Americans."

There is no doubt that the cheers of the USS Trenton crew were well received by those on HMS Calliope who were able to hear them. Most of those on deck heard them above the howl of the gale, my great-grandfather William Isaac Thorndale among them. Many would recount it in later letters, accounts, and memoirs. When he visited Rear-Admiral Kimberly shortly after Calliope's return to Apia after the storm had abated, Captain Kane warmly thanked the Admiral and his crew for the sentiment that sent the British ship on her way. Kimberly replied with a letter:

"MY DEAR CAPTAIN, -- Your kind note received. You went out splendidly, and we all felt from our hearts for you, and our cheers came with sincerity and admiration for the able manner in which you handled your ship. It was a gallant thing, and you did it so well it could not have been done better. We could not have been gladder than if it had been one of our ships, for in a time like that I can say truly with our old Admiral Josiah Tattnall, 'That blood is thicker than water'.

"I thank you many times for your kind offer, but nothing can be done for us under the circumstances. We are trying to get a schooner off tomorrow to meet the steamer for Tutuila and Auckland, to send despatches for our Government and friends at home.

"We have three anchors out in the harbour, and if they would be of any use to you, you are welcome to take them for your use if you can find the buoys. In regard to the boats we will let you have four, all we have left excepting our launch, so if you will man them they are at your service. I advise you to get away as soon as possible, as this harbour now is only a trap.

"With congratulations for your happy escape.

Believe me,
Sincerely your friend,
(Signed) J. A. KIMBERLY
Rear-Admiral, U.S.N."

Source: Rear-Admiral LA Kimberly letter to Captain Kane, undated but likely 19th March, 1889.

Captain Kane would later write:

"Throughout the whole gale nothing affected the crew of Calliope and myself, so much as when passing the American Flag Ship Trenton which was lying helpless, with nothing to guard her from complete destruction, the American Admiral and his men gave us three such ringing cheers that they called forth tears from many of our eyes. They pierced deep into my heart, and I will ever remember that mighty outburst of fellow feeling which I felt came from the bottom of the hearts of the noble and gallant Admiral and her noble sailors. If the Americans stand as nobly to their guns, as they bravely faced that tremendous hurricane, the United States need fear nothing."
Source: Samoa Hurricane, LA Kimberly, Rear Admiral USN (retired), c. 1897, reprinted by the Naval Historical Foundation, 1965.

As I said, my great-grandfather was one of the few to hear the cheers, and recorded the fact in his memoirs which he penned some 50 years later. He never forgot them, and ever after felt a bond with the sailors of that foreign vessel. I suppose that today, few people will know of that noble gesture, and probably, the men who made it have been forgotten except for just a handful of descendants who know their family history. Perhaps this web-page will remind a few visitors of something truly memorable that happened all those years ago.