Every calamity needs a hero. A beam of light in the darkness. A ray of hope.
Fifth Officer Harold Lowe was the hero of the Titanic disaster.
He outshone all other contenders. He showed leadership, courage, and quick-thinking. He took decisive action. He saved dozens of lives. And the biggest criticism of him was for some salty language.
Lowe took command of Lifeboat No. 14. He fired his pistol to deter frantic men from jumping into the boat as it was lowered to the ocean. He corraled four other boats and got them to tie to each other. He transferred the passengers in his boat into theirs, filled his boat with oarsmen and returned to the disaster zone to find and rescue survivors in the water. He found an overloaded collapsible lifeboat and took it in tow, then went to the aid of an overturned lifeboat on which survivors were standing precariously. Lowe overcame his own exhaustion to lead lifesaving efforts for hours until the rescue ship Carpathia arrived.
Harold Lowe is also the only witness that anyone can definitely say lied to a public inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic.
He testified truthfully to the American Inquiry. He said he slept through the collision with the iceberg. He couldn't remember being informed by another officer who came to his room. "When we sleep, we die," he said poetically.
He was roused finally by the noise of people milling about outside his quarters and was surprised to find them all wearing life-belts. He dressed and helped about the ship, he said. "The first boat I helped to lower was No. 5, starboard boat."
Lowe told a different story at the British Inquiry. They didn't ask and he didn't tell about sleeping through the crash. And his recollection of jumping into action was starkly at odds with what he told the U.S.Senate.
"The first boat I went to was No. 7." he said in England.
15808. (Mr. Rowlatt.) Why did you go round to No. 7?
- Because the people were there.
15809. What was being done at No. 7?
- Loading it with women and children.
15810. Did you assist there?
- I did.
15811. Did you see that boat lowered?
- I did; I assisted in lowering it.
15812. Then did you go to No. 5?
- I went to No. 5.
The Brits had a transcript of the Senate Inquiry, but they didn't challenge Lowe. There's no great need to undermine a hero.
There was one odd moment, though, during the questioning of a sailor who went off in Lifeboat No. 1, which had been loaded by Lowe and First Officer William Murdoch.
Out of the blue, able seaman Albert Horswell was asked:
12322. Who ordered you to get into the boat?
- The first Officer, Mr. Murdoch.
12323. Do you know Mr. Lowe?
12324. The fifth Officer?
12325. Was he about at the time?
- I did not see him.
Why did they want to establish that a sailor who knew Harold Lowe on sight hadn't seen him at No. 1? Who knows?
But that wasn't the only mystery Lowe left behind.
After lowering Lifeboat No. 1, the emergency boat at the extreme starboard front of the ship, Lowe said, he went to Lifeboat No. 14, a port boat at the diagonal opposite end of the ship. The British Inquiry asked why he went there?
15828. Where did you go then?
- I then went to No. 14.
15829. That is right aft on the other side, is it not?
- That would be the second forward boat of the after section, and the second boat from aft of the after section.
15830. Why did you go to her in particular?
- Because they seemed to be busy there.
It defies all logic.
Lowe had been working under First Officer Murdoch who was in charge of the starboard lifeboats. Boat No. 1 had the lightest load of any lifeboat---only five passengers and seven crew. There's no reason two officers had to stand by as it was lowered; it makes sense that Murdoch would have left that task to the junior officer while he went along aft where four lifeboats were waiting to be loaded.
There was a slight delay in lowering No. 1 as it got stuck on a guy wire. One crewman testified that the wire had to be chopped loose. But one of the five passengers said even that became unnecessary.
Laura Francatelli was travelling with Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon and his wife as their secretary. A personal letter she wrote to a friend which was only published in 2010 states:
"They began to lower away, then the boat became hooked up on something, the officer said Look out below, and threw down a length of steel which jarred the lifeboat loose. The dear brave officer gave orders to row away from the sinking boat at least 200 yards, he afterwards poor dear brave fellow, shot himself."
The problem with the guy wire took almost no time to fix, according to Miss Francatelli. And the officer who did it was Murdoch who many survivors later said shot himself as the Titanic made its final plunge. It makes sense that, problem fixed, Murdoch left to find women for the next lifeboat while Lowe stayed to make sure No. 1 got off safely. He testified he stayed until the boat touched the water.
It would take less time for Lowe to lower No. 1 than for Murdoch to load and lower the next lifeboat in line, No. 9. You would expect Lowe then to go to Murdoch's assistance with Boats 11, 13 and 15.
Instead, he says he crossed to port to No. 14---a section of the Titanic where there were already three other officers loading boats---Chief Officer Henry Wilde, Second Officer Charles Lightoller, and Sixth Officer James Moody.
There's about a ten to fifteen minute difference between the lowering of Nos. 1 and 14. What was Harold Lowe doing in that time period? Where was he?
We know where he wasn't.
Divide the ship's top deck into four quarters. He left the front starboard quarter after lowering No. 1 to go elsewhere. He didn't stay to load, or even clear Collapsible C, the last boat in that quadrant. He didn't go to the front port quarter; where Boats 2 and 4 were waiting to be loaded. He certainly didn't go to the starboard rear quarter where Murdoch was working.
And he didn't arrive in the port rear quarter until much later.
So we can say with confidence he wasn't on the boat deck.
The next deck, then? A Deck.
There was nothing for an officer to do on the front starboard quarter of A Deck. Lifeboats 11, 13 and 15 were lowered from the aft starboard quarter, but nobody saw Lowe helping. No boats left the aft port quarter and Boat No. 4 was lowered from the front port quarter of A Deck only after Lowe had left the ship.
So he wasn't on A Deck.
That leaves B Deck, or lower. But if we can't detect where he was, can we deduce why he was there?
And to find Why, we start with Who. In this case, 'who' would be Capt. Smith.
The Captain was usually found on or near the bridge, close to the distress signals being sent off to ships in distance and the ship everyone could see on the horizon. But, as reported here, he made one last never-before-reported trip to the boiler room in the waning moments of the Titanic's life.
Did he leave take Harold Lowe with him when he went aft?
Did the Captain, with Lowe in tow, stop to talk with First Officer Murdoch as Murdoch shifted his efforts from Nos. 9 and 11 to Nos. 13 and 15, with Officer Moody helping on A Deck? Did he take Lowe with him to the boiler room, or at least into the lower decks?
Why? To carry messages if necessary? For protection from frantic steerage passengers?
Was Lowe stationed at the stairway up to the Boat Deck to keep order in the steerage quarters, to ensure that women and children went up first, to provide the presence of an armed officer to instill a sense of British control?
Its a logical sequence of events.
First class passenger Rene Harris wrote in an account published in Liberty magazine, April 23, 1932: "Standing at a door leading to the deck, two armed officers were directing the passengers to the lifeboats."
Many years later she wrote a detailed memoir for Walter Lord in which her memory of the moment had changed slightly:
"As we reached the foot of the stairs where an armed officer was standing, he said, “Women only.”
Interestingly, while Mrs.Harris got off on Collapsible D, the last boat lowered, this sighting of an armed officer controlling access to the top deck took place much earlier.
"... Harry replied he was going to put me in a lifeboat as I had a broken arm and could not take care of myself, he allowed us to pass. When we reached the boat deck they were about to lower a lifeboat when Harry said, “Just a minute. I want to put my wife in the boat.” I wouldn’t go. I said, “I’m safer here than in that little boat and I won’t leave you. So around the deck we walked, seeing boat after boat lowered from its davits..."
Did she see Officer Lowe and possibly the master-at-arms? All other officers are accounted for during the sinking of the ship, loading lifeboats or sending off rockets.
It will take a lot more dots to connect to confirm Lowe's whereabouts between his presence at Lifeboat No. 1 and his taking command of No. 14.