On September 8, 1934, the Morro Castle, caught fire off the coast of New Jersey, and the maritime disaster that ensued, might be a better symbol of the war in Afghanistan than the much better known sinking of the Titanic in 1912. On the evening of Friday, September 7, 1934, the "farewell dinner," on the ocean liner Morro Castle, had been marred by the fact that Captain Robert Willmott fell ill and retired to his cabin. He died and the second in command, chief officer William Warms, who had worked a Friday shift that ended at 8 p.m., took command of a ship which was contending with a storm. At 2:56 a.m., on September 8, 1934, his first day in command, Warms heard the fire alarm sound. Warms made some decisions which were questionable at best. He maintained speed and headed into the gale.
While spending a portion of the 2012 Labor Day weekend as a sick day, this writer did some recreational reading with a new column not being on the agenda in the least way. One of the books, The Aspirin Age 1919 1941, yielded up some twenty five pages for an article by William McFee titled: "The Peculiar Fate of the Morro Castle" and suddenly it seemed like a column needed to be written.
One of the first lifeboats, boat 3, which was able to carry 70, took sixteen of the crew and no passengers to safety. On line sources list the number of passengers who died as 86 and the number of crew members who died as 49.
The rescue operation chose to tow the burned ship into New York harbor. The ship broke free and drifted to Asbury Park, where the city manager, Carl Bischoff, tried to use the right of salvage to claim the vessel with the aim of using it as a tourist attraction to help his resort city gain a business edge during the Depression.
When the Bush Administration began to set the stage for their wars, the predominant figure of speech was "the Pottery Barn Rule," meaning that when the war broke out, the American taxpayers would be obliged to pay for the damages.
When President Obama was declared the winner of the 2008 Presidental election, the Bush team quietly reverted to the private party used car rule. When a person offers a vehicle for sale in the classified ads, the conventional attitude is that it is offered in the "as is" condition and if the buyer drives it three blocks and the engine seizes, that's just too darn bad for the buyer.
Similarly Captain Warms took command of a ship that wasn't going to make it through to dawn in working condition and President Obama took command of a similarly unenviable situation.
Cynical Obama suporters, who view the War in Afghanistan in terms of "a millstone around his neck," will immediately grok to the concept that some Republicans might very well have preferred to have a Democratic candidate be George W. Bush's successor because they perceived that the "as is" clause would work against the next occupant in the White House and they didn't want one of their own to get rooked into playing the role of sucker.
Critics of Richard M. Nixon used to ask: "Would you buy a used car from this man?" (Reportedly, U. S. Senator John F. Kennedy did buy a used car from his colleague from California.)
It seems like after the 1934 tragedy everybody tried to escape suspicion by doing their best to make sure the blame was directed at others. The insurance company, the lawyers for the Ward Line, the survivors, and the union representatives did their best to make the official inquiry look like an outtake from one of the Marx brothers' movies.
This columnist does not want this column to seem to make light of a tragedy, but it should be noted that most Americans seem to have a very cavalier attitude about the unfolding tragedies in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Speaking of the Marx brothers, there was some politically motivated attempts made to blame the Communists for the Morro Castle tragedy. On page 331, of the aforementioned book, author William McFee wrote: "For a while, after the Morro Castle fire, every fire in a ship's hold was blamed on "Reds" or sabotage, as though ships had never had any fires in their hold before the Russian Revolution.
Now, the disk jockey will play Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise," Jody Reynolds' "Endless Sleep," and Bruce Springsteen's album "Greetings from Asbury Park." We have to go get some chicken soup and maybe start reading "On Genocide" by Jean-Paul Sartre to see if there's a column to be had there. Have a "you're in command, now" type week.