Meet Rosaleen Bonnard from Roll Back the Clouds by Terri Vanguard

Our guest today is Rosaleen Bonnard, a survivor of the tragic sinking of the Lusitania last May. She was traveling with her husband, Geoff, who was badly injured in the disaster. Tell us, Mrs. Bonnard, how is he doing?

He is so much better, thank you. Every day we walk, sometimes for as long as an hour. We’re frequently interrupted though. Since Geoff collaborated with our neighbor Peter Bloch, a reporter for the Sentinel, he’s well recognized and folks seem to think that having touched the war, he’s now an expert on the fighting in Europe and they’re always asking for his insights.

How did you meet your husband?

We were classmates at school and he invited me to attend an ice cream social at church. When I told my mother he’d asked, she quizzed me about him. I told her it was just ice cream, and she said, “Yes, and your father and I met at a church ice cream social.” After that night, I knew I would marry him.

The Cunard Line upgraded you from second class to first, is that right? [Rosaleen nods.] What was that like for you?

At first, I was thrilled. We had a beautiful stateroom with a window. Oh, excuse me, a porthole. That was special. And we had access to the Saloon Writing Room and Library and the Saloon Lounge and Music Room. They were exquisite. The two-tiered first-class dining room was a gorgeous setting to eat in, but I must admit, I would have been more at ease in second class. I didn’t feel comfortable with the first-class passengers. Even the food was unfamiliar. I had two new dresses for the journey, all so pretty, but I definitely didn’t have the elegant wardrobe possessed by the other first-class ladies.

Did you go shopping specifically for your voyage?

Oh, yes. My oldest and youngest sisters went shopping with me at Gimbels. I found two beautiful gowns. My grandmother gave me $10, and that made it possible to buy both fancy dresses. Plus a traveling outfit, a couple of new skirts and blouses, shoes, hats. Had I known we’d be in first class, goodness, I don’t know what I would have done. The ladies in first class wear a different gown to dinner every night. I couldn’t have afforded so many gowns. And now my lovely new wardrobe is on the bottom of the ocean.

Did you note much panic after the ship was torpedoed?

At first, everyone was stunned. After hearing all week about the likelihood of being attacked, when it actually happened, it was hard to believe. The sudden listing to starboard was alarming. It made walking difficult, especially on the stairs. When the power failed and people were trapped in the fancy grillwork elevator, they started screaming. We knew they’d drown. The scene at the lifeboats was so chaotic, watching some spill out their passengers or drop down on other lifeboats. It was scary. The ship sank in eighteen minutes, less time than it takes to bake a cake. So many people were still aboard when it sank. I suspect they thought they’d have more time, or that help would come from Ireland. We could see Ireland; it was that close.

What was it like in the lifeboat?

Numbing. We sat on hard wooden benches. The emergency rations were inadequate and too old. We dearly wanted more water, fresh water. We pulled in as many survivors from the sea as possible, and they were so cold. This happened in May, you know. Here daffodils and tulips are blooming; the days are warming. But in Milwaukee, of course, it’s cooler by the lake. There, we were out on the ocean. It was cold. Many people, if they hadn’t drowned, died from hypothermia. We saw them lose their grip on whatever they clung to and slip under the water. And all this time, I didn’t know what had happened to Geoff.

You didn’t make it to England, but Ireland. With an Irish mother, wasn’t that a treat?

Definitely. Mum’s family lived not far from Queenstown. I traveled by train to meet them. My grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. I couldn’t keep all the names straight. I thought about Mum the whole time, how she would love to be there. Two cousins took me to see the Cliffs of Moher. And then, Granda decided he and Nana would come visit after the war. I couldn’t wait to tell Mum.

As 1916 dawns, what are you looking forward to?

The war continues in what seems like a stalemate. We hope it doesn’t pull in the United States. Geoff and I both have brothers who would be affected. In our own home, we’re busy decorating a nursery.

Congratulations! And thank you for joining us today.


Terri Wangard grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, during the Lombardi Glory Years. Her first Girl Scout badge was the Writer. These days she is writing historical fiction, and won the 2013 historical First Impressions, as well as being a 2012 Genesis finalist. Holder of a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in library science, she lives in Wisconsin. For twenty years, she globe-trotted during annual vacations to four continents. Her day job is with Classic Boating Magazine, a family business since 1984.

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