A lone woman is an embarrassment to a boatload of men,
a very symbol of bad and leery luck to sailors.
Therefore, it should have come as no great surprise when on a black autumn night in 1942, Elizabeth Fowler found herself in a lifeboat with 33 men and an 8-year-old boy adrift in the middle of the Caribbean. At the time, Mrs. Fowler was in her early thirties and fleeing from a troubled marriage in Africa, aboard a merchant marine ship headed for the USA. The fact that it was the beginning of World War II and more than 300 U.S. merchant ships had already been sunk, deterred Fowler not. She was headed to Connecticut to be with her 4-year-old daughter, and she planned on being there by Halloween. The best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry.
Elizabeth Fowler was born Elizabeth Japp on March 13, 1908, location unknown, but probably near New York City, since her father was a British engineer who "built the rail tunnels under the East River." When Elizabeth was 12, her family moved back to England, where she was schooled until at some point, she went to Paris to study music. While in romantic Paris, Fowler became engaged, but plans were thwarted when her fiance was killed in a plane crash, when she was 21. She almost immediately moved to New York. It was here that she would meet and marry Frank Fowler, a physician who worked in what is now Ghana, but at the time was simply referred to as the Gold Coast. While a marriage went bad and a World War began, the Fowlers sent their daughter, Niccie, to live with friends in Connecticut. When Elizabeth decided the marriage was finished, she too departed for the states in the only mode available, a cargo ship. At the time, most merchant vessels refused service to females, but a determined Fowler finagled her way aboard the West Kebar, a ship loaded with palm oil for New York. She was the only woman aboard.
And so it was on an evening in October of 1942, that Elizabeth Fowler found herself on the deck of the West Kebar, when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Fowler immediately headed for her assigned lifeboat only to discover it hadn't survived the blast. The one she found was already in the water and she had to slide down a rope to reach it. She was now the only woman in a 26-foot lifeboat, sharing space with a young boy and 33 men. Having survived thus far, new fears surfaced soon. Little did she know, but this lifeboat voyage, with hardly any food or water, would last 10 days.
The Captain of the West Kebar was, as should be expected, the last to board the lifeboat and thanks to him, a strict regimen of rations would see them through this ordeal. The meals ranged from blocks of chocolate to a few hard biscuits. On the third day they were treated to a 3 ounze serving of pemmican, a combination of fruit, coconut and kidney fat. The Captain rationed two ounzes of water a day, which would last them about two weeks. But dehydration and hunger took its toll. Upon finding a drinking glass, Fowler remembered;
Visions of its possibilities swam before me. I planned to myself: Perhaps I can decant my ration into it and sip it slowly instead of having to swallow the precious drops in one gulp. Or I can scoop it over the side and rinse out my oil-caked mouth...Perhaps I can store my biscuit crumbs in it.
Fowler remembers "unwanted chivalry
" and "unwanted kisses
" as when one sailor kissed her feet while she upchucked
overboard. Close encounters with sharks and U-boat
s were a daily reminder of predators
at bay and at times she thought, Surely drowning was not so bad.
But death would have to wait another 60 years or so, for Fowler and her companions all survived and were found by a British naval ship off the coast of Barbados. Eventually reunited with her daughter, Fowler worked for years as a Nanny in Connecticut and in 1944 wrote a book of her experiences entitled Standing Room Only, where amongst her many lifeboat memories, she fondly recalled learning to urinate in a bucket. She eventually moved to Montclair, New Jersey where she became a legend at the local Y.M.C.A. Seemingly now attached to the water, Fowler swam 18 laps a day and would do 36 pull-ups on the diving board as she swam into her 90's. Ms. Fowler passed away on May 30, 2003 at the age of 95.