By Bob Wendlinger
The date, July 25, 1956; the time: about 12:20 a.m. and I had just parked the Daily Mirror radio car and went into the City Room for a goodnight, looking forward to the cool ride thru a hot night to my home in Jersey.
Instead, a few moments later Fred Klein and I were racing to LaGuardia Airport to make the last flight out to Boston. Word had just been received that the Italian liner Andrea Doria and the Swedish liner Stockholm had been in a collision off Cape Cod.
Klein and I arrived at the Hearst Record-American office about 4 a.m., where a task force was being set up to cover the story. Fred and I drew straws on who would fly, and who would get aboard a Coast Guard Cutter to cover the story on the surface. I won the flight, and moments later I was heading towards the airport with Ollie Noonan of the Record-American (later with the Boston Traveler). As dawn streaked the sky we were zooming down the runway in a 4 place Stinson with Ken Goldman at the throttle, destination — about 50 miles off Nantucket, where the Andrea Doria lay dead in the rolling sea.
The flight was uneventful as we crossed over Nantucket and headed out to open sea. But moments later we were being challenged by a pair of Jets on a submarine hunter-killer patrol. Seems that in our excitement, we had neglected to get clearance to enter the Eastern Sea Frontier Defense Command, and we were advised on the radio to fly back to Nantucket, or else! This was done, and we buzzed the tower, identified ourselves, and headed out again, but at the cost of precious gallons of gas — as we found out later.
About 7 a.m., in a slight haze, we spotted the Ile de France rushing towards New York, crowded with survivors. We didn’t waste time making any pix of her, figuring she’d get plenty of coverage from the boys in New York.
We followed her wake as we endeavored to locate the Andrea Doria. Shortly after, we came upon the battered Stockholm, her bow smashed in, also heading towards N.Y. After a few passes at her, at about two holders each (we were using 4×5 Speed Graphic Cameras) the plane headed toward the wreck scene, which we located about 15 minutes later. I was stunned by the sight of this great ship lying mortally wounded in the water. I remembered covering many ship news jobs, mucho cheesecake, and great lunches that we had before heading to the Mirror in time for the bulldog edition. The ship had a bad list to starboard, and her last three lifeboats were pulling away. Water covered the gaping hole in her midsection and her plight was accentuated by her overflowing swimming pools. After several passes we found our fuel running low, so reluctantly, we headed back to Nantucket.
While the plane was being refueled, I put my film holders on a Northeast flight to New York, called the Mirror, and then boarded the plane for the flight back to the scene.
Meanwhile, our competition, Miss Daily News with Gordon Rynders and Ed Clarity aboard, also came back to refuel. We were both poised on the flight line for takeoff, when the tower radioed us that a helicopter was arriving momentarily with an injured 7 year old girl, and other passengers who had been lifted from one of the rescue ships because of immediate need for medical attention.
We ran over to a waiting ambulance and a few minutes later had pictures of this child, and others being unloaded from the chopper We then headed back to the plane and the return trip to the wreck scene.
In the plane we plugged in our headsets and started monitoring the chatter of Coast Guard vessels at the scene, and heard a terse order for all ships to stay away from the doomed ship. Her list had become so pronounced that she would sink momentarily. My heart sank — my competition in a much faster plane was going to get there in time to make the actual sinking — actually they were about 5 minutes ahead of us and missed it too.
Suddenly, over the earphones came a voice filled with emotion shouting “There she goes!” and we missed the picture of the ship keeling over and slipping beneath the waves. When we flew over the scene a few minutes later, all we spotted was a churning sea were she went down, several empty lifeboats and hundreds of orange covered life preservers floating around. They looked like oranges in the water from our height. It was over, and we missed it!!!
Note: It was a gloomy trip back to Boston, but we were gladdened by the story of a young cameraman, Harry A. Trask, whose wife had just given birth to their first child, and who had been over the crash site when she sank. He got the picture and a Pulitzer Prize!!! He managed to rent a light plane and pilot and had gas only for 9 minutes over the scene and still have enough to get safely back to land.