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On this Day

CNN and Sky News would have loved the Flying Enterprise saga... It was the 'Chilean Mine Rescue' of its time

The story of the stricken cargo ship and its hero captain had people flocking to cinemas to catch the latest newsreels. The saga kept the world gripped for 14 days.

IT BEGAN ON A CHRISTMAS DAY – and for the next 14 days the sea saga off the south-west coast of Ireland was to grip the whole western world.

It was the Chilean Mine Rescue of its time – the dying days of 1951 and the first ten of 1952.

Every day, the radio and newspaper reports became longer, more detailed and more excited as everyone — from small boys to grandparents — kept watch to learn what might be the fate of the stricken freighter Flying Enterprise and its heroic skipper, Captain Kurt Carlsen.

The freighter Flying Enterprise wallows in rough seas, Jan. 9, 1952. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The ship that was to inspire such massive media coverage was an ordinary 6,700 ton cargo ship that would by now be long scrapped and forgotten had it not sailed into the worst storm to hit the Atlantic in 35 years. It was sailing from Hamburg in Germany bound for New York with a cargo of pig iron and furniture. On board were 40 crew and 9 passengers.

The Flying Enterprise was 300 miles off the southwest coast of Ireland on Christmas Day when it was hit by huge waves driven by a 100 mph gale. Crew and passengers were tossed violently from side to side. The ship battled on, but on December 27th the pounding of the seas took its toll: the freighter cracked right across the deckhouse and down one side.

One of its holds filled with water and it began to list badly.

PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The Enterprise had been driven by the force 12 winds well north of the traffic lanes. The captain, 37-year-old Danish-born Kurt Carlsen tried to steer it back to where other ships might be able to come to its assistance.

His requests for help were heard, and two U.S. Navy vessels – a destroyer and a transporter rushed to the area. The crew and passengers prepared to jump into the freezing sea: each passenger to be accompanied by a crewman. They were all safely picked up and taken aboard a ship bound for Rotterdam.

That left just one man on board – Captain Kurt Carlsen. He declared that he was staying with his ship – and that was when the world began to pay attention.

historycomestolife / YouTube

Reading about it in the old newspaper files of the time one can see how the story grew and grew. A few days after Christmas there is a one-paragraph mention of the Flying Enterprise – among several other ships that were in peril on the high seas in that awesome winter weather.

Then it began to get individual attention as the headlines began to proclaim: “Lone Captain Stays With His Ship”.

Day by day the story grew as the New Year of 1952 dawned and the Enterprise remained afloat, though listing even more than 60 degrees. By now it was getting six-column front page treatment, with aerial pictures that showed Carlsen on the deck, the ship looking tiny amid the mountainous waves.

There was no television in those days, but the story could have been written for the newsreel companies, who supplied cinemas worldwide with news events. This one was probably better than the main features from Hollywood – and in Captain Kurt Carlsen it had the very personification of cool, calm hero.

There was hardly any accessible food or drink left on board the wallowing Enterprise. Its main engines had stopped and what light there was on board came from batteries. But Captain Carlsen reported by radio to the US transporter Golden Eagle (skippered by one William E. Donahue) that he was contentedly dining on currant buns, some beer and Rhine wine. He confessed to being “a little tired” but that otherwise everything was “fine and dandy”. He quipped that he had no alarm clock and would try not to disturb the US crew unduly. They later got a messenger line to him and sent over coffee, cigarettes and magazines. Before that his only reading matter had been a book “The Seaman and the Law” (probably the driest material on board).

His mother, meanwhile, was now being interviewed, telling reporters that her son, who had emigrated to America in 1938, had always been “a very good boy, but very obstinate”.

New storm

The second chapter of the Flying Enterprise saga started on January 2nd when the tug Turmoil set off from Falmouth in England to try to rendezvous with Carlsen and tow his ship to safety.

No other tug in the vicinity could take on this challenge: the 1,136 ton Turmoil was what we would now call a “state of the art” tug, the fastest and biggest on this side of the world. It had been unavailable until then because it was busy towing a storm-hit tanker into Falmouth.

A new storm began to blow up as the Turmoil set out. Its skipper was Ted Parker – but it was the Turmoil’s first mate, Kenneth Dancy (27) who was to gain his own slice of fame in the next few days.

AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

By 4 January the newspaper headlines were proclaiming “Tug Now Alongside”. By now no elaboration on those three words was necessary. Everyone in Europe and America knew which tug it was and of what it was alongside. There were wars and rebellions and political developments going on elsewhere, but for some reason the eyes of the world were fixed on one small corner of the Atlantic and two small ships bobbing side by side.

The Turmoil made several attempts to get a line on board. Captain Carlsen leaned out precariously, holding the rail with one hand as he tried to grasp the line, but to no avail.

Then Kenneth Dancy made his epic leap.

The Turmoil had edged as close as possible to the other ship and First Mate Dancy (whose favourite hobby was knitting) jumped across the gap between them, bringing with him the tow line. The newspaper headline writers went wild – and the deed was later flashed on millions of cinema screens – where audiences would queue – not to see the main feature, but for the thrilling newsreel.

Now a hawser could be reeled aboard the Flying Enterprise and it could be towed to shore. But where? Falmouth was favoured, but Bantry Bay was closer. And Brest in France was also in range. The tug company and the Enterprise’s owners, opted for Falmouth. The two ships set out, followed by a flotilla of other craft, and shadowed overhead by ’planes. It was now ten days since the Enterprise had put to sea – but its story was not over yet.

For the next three days they inched closer to Cornwall. Each days’s mileage was reported and avidly read. “100 Miles To Go” … “36 Hours From Port” … “57 Miles Off Falmouth” ….

Capt Kurt Carlsen, top, and Kenneth Dancy, a mate of the rescue tug Turmoil, wave to photographers flying overhead, January 8, 1952 AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

It was no longer a case of whether Captain Carlsen would heroically go down with his ship in the old tradition: he and Ken Dancy would probably be rescued if it sank – but by now everyone wanted the Flying Enterprise to survive. And it was listing at nearly 80 degrees.

Falmouth was filling up. Over 300 reporters and cameramen had taken up every available hotel and boarding house room in the seaside town. Irish newspapers joined in, no longer satisfied to simply print the daily agency reports. Kevin O’Kelly of the Irish Press (and later of RTE) was among them, sending back colourful descriptions of a town keeping vigil. The seafront was swathed in flags and bunting, waiting to greet two storybook heroes.

Then on day 13 the towline snapped. The Flying Enterprise was once more adrift.
Could a new line be got to her in time? “Carlsen In Peril”, screamed one headline,
(forgetting about Kenneth Dancy) but the skipper himself commented laconically that it was “nothing very alarming” and said that they would both try to get some rest.

But the Flying Enterprise was doomed.

It began to list further.

Carlsen and Dancy donned their lifejackets and walked out along the sloping funnel and jumped into the angry waves. They were quickly hauled aboard the Turmoil just before the Enterprise slid below the waves. The saga had lasted 14 days. The ship had been 30 miles off land.

British Pathé / YouTube

Kurt Carlsen became a world hero. He was feted in London, and went home to New York to be greeted with a ticker tape parade on 5th Avenue. (He lived in New Jersey with his wife Agnes and two young daughters.)

He passed through Shannon Airport on the way and was presented with a lifebuoy from the city of Limerick by Lord Mayor Stevie Coughlan.

Captain Carlsen told the Irish reporters that Bantry had not been an option as a safe haven, because the weather dictated otherwise. He also joked that he was a little nervous facing into his first ever transatlantic flight. And he might well have had good reason – the plane had to turn back to Shannonbecause of ice on its wings. The New York ticker tape parade had to be postponed for a day – but then it rivalled the welcome given to the returning war hero General Douglas McArthur.

Kurt Carlsen was somewhat taken aback by it all. “I wasn’t able to sleep last night thinking about this”, he said.

Now I realise just how much trouble I’ve stirred up.

Éanna Brophy is a journalist and former Sunday Press columnist. His novel, Crossfires — set in Dublin in the final days of World War 2 — is available to buy on Kindle

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