Ernst Ulrik Persson was one of the greatest men Erika Will of Mesa and her sister Michelle Langowski never knew.
Persson, their great-grandfather, died of heart failure at the age of 65 in 1951.
But if it wasn’t for his will to survive as a young man — while floating for six hours in the icy waters of the Atlantic, as terror and chaos surrounded him 100 years ago this month — the sisters and the rest of their family know they would not be here today.
A century ago, Persson, his sister, Elna Strom, and her 3-year-old daughter, Telma Matilda, were third-class passengers on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, boarding the ship in South Hampton, England on April 10, 1912 — four days before the “unsinkable oceanliner” collided with an iceberg shortly before midnight in the north Atlantic south of Newfoundland.
The Titanic sank during the early morning hours of the next day, April 15, resulting in the deaths of 1,503 of its 2,208 passengers and setting off what was then the worst maritime tragedy in history.
Persson was a 25-year-old married man with two sons at the time, leaving his homeland of Sweden to emigrate to the United States. He was reportedly a chauffeur for the Swedish royal family, and among the 705 survivors from the tragedy. He boarded the ship with not much more than $50 in his pocket and a bottle of special cognac in his hand that was believed to be given to him from the King of Sweden himself, according to stories passed down in his family through the years. The bottle and money perished, but on that horrific evening, much more was lost: Elna and her daughter vanished in the icy waters when the ship began to sink, the force of the waves separating them from Ernst and pulling them away forever. There were conflicting reports of how Persson was saved, but by his own account, he said he was pulled into one of the lifeboats by Madeleine Force Astor, also known as Lady Jacob Astor, the wife of millionaire developer John Jacob Astor — the richest passenger on the ship who did not survive.
Three generations removed from her great-grandfather, who died slightly more than 60 years ago, Will marvels at the chapter of history her family was a part of, horrific as it was. As an adult, Will said she understands its significance more so than she did as a child.
“It’s kind of remarkable to think of it,” said Will, 40, who moved to Mesa last month from Prescott with her husband. “We write this as a significant piece of history, but I wish I would’ve had the opportunity to meet him and talk to him about it from a humanitarian standpoint. It’s kind of sad as it was something he often kept to himself. I think it was something that should’ve been shared. It was an extraordinary life experience.”
The Titanic’s survivors were rescued by the Carpathia, which brought many of them to New York to pick up the pieces of their dreams. Persson later sent for his wife, Anna, and two children in Sweden, and worked as a brick layer in Indiana Harbor, Ind. and later in Hammond, Ind. Family members also said he worked as a janitor and chauffeur. Persson and his wife had two more children while living in that state.
“My grandfather told many stories of the history of his life, his jobs and what he did, but I found it strange that he never told very many stories about his father, our great-grandfather,” Will added. Surviving the sinking of the Titanic is miraculous, really. He definitely had a will to live.”
Since the death of 97-year-old Millvina Dean on May 31, 2009, there are no longer any living survivors of the Titanic tragedy. Dean was just nine weeks old at the time of the Titanic’s sinking. She was lowered to safety in a mail sack.
Some of Persson’s stories of survival were chronicled in a letter he mailed to his wife to inform them of the tragedy and in some of the nation’s once-leading newspapers such as the Chicago Daily News. The letter and stories now are digitally preserved on various web sites for the world to see including www.encyclopedia-titanica.org.
In part, the letter read:
“When Elna and I came up all lifeboats were crowded at that time no rescue was found. We stood together all the time, so we agreed to accompany each other into the deep. But as the boat sunk and the water started pouring over the deck there was a terrible sight and scuffle and that separated us. Then I heard Elna saying ‘Tell Wilhelm and my parents and sisters if you get rescued.’ Then I didn’t see her any longer because then we were all washed overboard.
“When I came into the water I sunk several meters below the surface so as I came up again, I had a roof of wreckage over my head. I managed to come up in it and got hanging for a good while, but when the last part of the boat started to sink, so I had to leave the wreckage and try to swim away, otherwise I once again would have been dragged down into the deep. As I swam, I saw how people in the water tried to rescue themselves in an overloaded boat but as they hanged on the gunwale and all drowned and the boat turned the keel upwards, then I saw how some people climbed up on it, then I swam away towards it and was taken up. On this boat was only Italians and it was crowded, that it floated nearly one meter below the water. There I had to lie for six hours with the water up to my shoulders. Then we were taken up in a lifeboat that rowed us to the big boat that had come to rescue us.”
Persson later suffered from survivor’s guilt, according to his family members. He also claimed in his later years that it was his time spent clinging to the side of a lifeboat and floating in the icy waters that caused his arthritis and his hands to cramp up whenever the weather would change, said Langowski, who lives in Minnesota.
Although Will said she does not have any pictures or books of the Titanic, only a copy of the letter her great-grandfather wrote to his wife in Sweden in 1912, she has seen the 1997 James Cameron film, “Titanic” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett. The movie was re-released Friday in 3D as part of the 100th anniversary of the ship’s maiden voyage and untimely end.
“I thought it was done well, but I only saw it once,” Will said. “I think the movie did a good job of depicting how horrifying the event would have been.”
Instead of focusing on the tragedy itself, Will was more philosophical about Persson leaving Sweden and boarding the Titanic for America when the nation was experiencing an influx of immigrants.
“He probably was just happy being on it,” Will said. “It represented coming to America for opportunities.”
For Langowski, her great-grandfather’s survival was something she is proud of.
“I think it’s one of the neatest things ever,” Langowski said. “We remember where we came from and we’re stronger people because of it. We’re grateful he survived. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here.”
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