Photos capture mixture of terror and hope

Posted: Thursday, November 18, 2004

Lost Photographs of the RNLI" preserves a remarkable set of 37 dramatic photos borrowed from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's London headquarters in the late 1940s by American explorer, writer and filmmaker Amos Burg, who lived in Juneau.

The photographs illustrate the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's history from the 1890s to the end of World War II, a very busy time for the rescue service. The institution's wartime records are scarce, so these photos - recovered by sheer chance from a shack in Juneau - are of great historic value.

The main body of the book treats each photograph as a chapter, giving a narrative description of the rescue depicted. These are random snapshots and give the effect of an album that a publicist from the lifeboat service might have assembled for his own pleasure.

They are not all great photos. Some are blurred; few are posed. They capture the mixture of terror and hope with which a lifeboat crew attempts to reach a sinking ship through enormous waves, or rescuers belay down a 350-foot sheer rock face as a schooner breaks up in the surf below.

Some show the exhaustion in the faces of lifeboat crews after 14-hour shifts in miserable weather under impossible conditions, or in the faces of the stunned survivors of a mined oil tanker as they are safely landed.

A portrait of seven women in black - six widows and the sister of lifeboatmen who perished in 1947 - poignantly demonstrates the struggle of these grieving relatives to assume the "proper" face for the photographer.

That all these photos are black-and-white makes them particularly grim, and also seems to show the spume and force of waves better than "cheerful" full color.

The chapters describe a wide range of events, from a ship aground in 1897 to the overturning of a lifeboat, from the stranding of lighthouse keepers to a hurricane in 1912, a 1940 bomb attack, the toll taken by enemy mines, a vessel crippled in 108 mph winds, a trawler heeled over after running onto rocks, and the women launchers of Cresswell and Hauxley in 1935.

One of these women, Margaret Armstrong, never missed a launch in 50 years. During those five decades, she saw her father and three brothers lost together aboard their fishing boat. Later, her son drowned under similar circumstances.

A map of Britain pinpoints the location of all these events, and the author, Edward Wake-Walker, has included photos he took himself as well as additional historic photos to flesh out the tales. Thus, in the chapter on women launchers, he adds four other photos to the one selected by Burg.

Lifeboats were not motorized until the end of the period represented by these photos. Yet men, straining at oars, about to be drowned or knocked unconscious themselves, still managed to complete some rescue efforts in 35 or 45 minutes. One particular coxswain, Henry Blogg, had a 53-year career in the service. He went out on rescues 387 times, saved 873 lives and won three RNLI Gold and four Silver medals for his efforts.

Wake-Walker worked for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for 28 years, the last 16 as public relations director. He was ideally suited to researching and writing this book because of his deep knowledge of the lifeboat service's 180-year history.

He has traveled through the United Kingdom and Ireland, meeting and writing about many of the best-known lifeboat coxswains. Since his retirement from the institution in 2002, he has lived with his family on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset and teaches part time at Bournemouth University.

Wake-Walker enjoys the telling detail - such as the cans of fish and fruit rescued from one wreck. Naturally, all the labels had washed off the tins, "so no one knew whether it would be Pacific salmon or California peaches on the menu from one day to the next," he wrote.

And he includes wonderful stiff-upper-lip sentiments, such as that of Capt. A. Herman after his ship broke in two. Herman, pestered by a journalist the following day, had no comment except, "All I can say is, I had one ship, now I have two."

"Lost Photographs of the RNLI" is a book to pore over again and again. It is a record of heroic efforts against great odds, of lives offered to save other lives. Not only does one see the institution's crews at work, but also, in some photos, townsfolk dashing heedless into the surf to help the official rescuers.

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