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English town honors its Titanic hero

A museum in Godalming, England, mounts an exhibit on the centennial of the Titanic sinking to honor senior telegraph officer Jack Phillips, whose calm under pressure saved hundreds of lives.

April 14, 2012|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • A record of a distress signal sent from the Titanic is displayed at New York's Melville Gallery. Across the Atlantic, the museum in Godalming, England, is honoring Jack Phillips, the Titanic telegraph operator who sent out calls for help before the ship went down.
A record of a distress signal sent from the Titanic is displayed at New York's… (John Moore, Getty Images )

GODALMING, England — He had just landed his biggest assignment yet, senior telegraph officer on the world's biggest ship. On the second day of its maiden voyage, he celebrated his 25th birthday.

Four days later, in the first minutes of April 15, 1912, Jack Phillips was at his post in the wireless room of the Titanic, sending out distress signals and cries for help in Morse code.

"CQD CQD," Phillips tapped out. Calling all ships — distress. "Come at once. We have struck a berg."

He relayed coordinates, listened for replies, shot back his own. He tried using the new international distress call: SOS. Over the next two hours, he pleaded for other ships to come to the Titanic's aid, increasingly urgent appeals couched in impersonal dots and dashes.

Titanic: One hundred years later

"Require immediate assistance. We have collision with iceberg.... Sinking head down.... Come soon as possible.... Women and children in boats.

"Cannot last much longer."

The flurry of missives would offer historians and buffs of the world's most famous shipwreck a trove of information, lending a sense of immediacy to events long past.

"They're the only documents from that night in real time. It's sort of like SMS messages that come out of disasters" nowadays, or texting, said Sean Coughlan, a BBC reporter and coauthor of the 1993 book "Titanic: Signals of Disaster."

Among the fastest radio operators in the business, Phillips had started out as a telegraph boy a decade earlier at his local post office here in Godalming, where residents will honor him at a special service Sunday, 100 years to the day that the Titanic went down in the North Atlantic.

Church bells will ring out over a refurbished park named after him. Amateur radio operators have set up transmitters in Godalming with a special call sign to commemorate the anniversary and Phillips' dedication.

The local museum has mounted an exhibition on the life of the man whose quick fingers and steely calm under pressure saved hundreds of lives, as nearby ships steamed to the rescue of those who managed to get off the supposedly unsinkable luxury liner.

Would he be one of them?

*

He was born John George Phillips on April 11, 1887, the year Queen Victoria celebrated 50 years on the throne. His father managed a draper's shop in Farncombe, a district of Godalming, where the local headmaster described Jack as "a good all-rounder with a high sense of duty."

After leaving school to work in the post office, Jack excelled at radio telegraphy and easily passed the civil service exam. At 19, he decided to sign up for more training with the Marconi company and make his name as a shipboard operator.

Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of shortwave radio, had established a lucrative business installing wireless rooms and operators on ships such as the Titanic, which liked to boast state-of-the-art technology. Phillips and his deputy on board, Harold Bride, were employees of the Marconi company, not of the White Star Line itself. (The "M" on their caps distinguished them from other crew members.)

At the time, the wireless was an expensive novelty used more for social purposes, usually for rich passengers to send chatty telegrams, than for safety. Captains could pass along important information to one another if needed, but the bulk of the radio traffic was commercial — and personal.

"Arrive Wednesday, Titanic maiden voyage, meet me, vessel worth seeing, William," one passenger told a friend in Connecticut, hours before the ship vanished beneath the waves.

Others described the splendid weather. A businessman asked a waiting pal in Los Angeles to rustle up a card game. "No seasickness, all well, notify all interested poker. Business good."

"Hello, Boy, dining with you tonight in spirit, heart with you always, best love, Girl," a pining lover declared, out in the middle of the Atlantic.

"They were just sending postcards….'Oh my God, it's fabulous, you have to do this next year,' " said Susanne Weber, who teamed up with Coughlan to create a mechanically voiced, spoken version of the messages from that night, part of the BBC's coverage of the centenary. The radio program, "Titanic — In Her Own Words," airs on the BBC World Service.

"It makes you weep," she said, knowing what lay in store.

*

On the day of the disaster, Phillips was exhausted. He and Bride had spent hours fixing a fault in the radio, a successful repair job whose later importance he could hardly have guessed. Tired but cheerful, Phillips told Bride, 22, that he would take the 8-p.m.-to-2-a.m. shift.

He worked quickly to clear the backlog of unsent messages, which contained the kind of brief but heartfelt greetings he himself regularly sent home to his twin sisters, Ethel and Elsie, on the back of picture postcards. He always signed off the same way: "Love, Jack."

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