William McMillan Adams was born in Paris, France on 5th September 1895, the son of Arthur Henry “Harry” and Gertrude Adams. His family, who originated in Boston, Massachusetts, was connected with The U.S. Rubber Company of 58th Street, New York, N.Y., and his father moved to London as their European General Manager within a few years of William’s birth.
The family resided in a large house name ‘Beaufront’ in Oakleigh Park, Friern Barnet, Middlesex, which was situated just north of London, before moving to Montague Mansions, Marylebone West, London. William was educated at Eton College before being admitted to Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he studied.
William arrived in New York on 26th March 1915, on board the Lusitania, to join his father who had travelled over in November 1914. In facts outlined before the Mixed Claims Commission after the War, it was stated that he was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, at this time. It may well have been that he was finishing college, with the intention of enlisting in the army, and was enjoying a short holiday before he “joined up”.
For his return to England, both father and son booked saloon passenger on the May sailing of the
Lusitania. They were both booked on the same ticket, whose number was 46102. They boarded the liner at the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York harbour on the morning of 1st May 1915, and William Adams was allocated room D45 and his father D37, which was not far away. Both rooms were under the personal supervision of First Class Bedroom Steward Edwin Huther, who came from Liverpool.
Six days out of New York, only twelve miles off the southern Irish coast and only 250 miles away from her Liverpool destination, the
Lusitania was torpedoed by the German submarine U-20, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Walter Schwieger.
William Adams described his experience in a letter, which was later published in book-form by the Women’s Printing Society, Ltd., London. The booklet, entitled,
Experiences of A.H. Adams & W. McM. Adams on the “Lusitania” states: -
My father was in his cabin on D deck; I was in the lounge on A deck. We had just finished lunch, when suddenly the ship shook from stem to stem, and immediately started to list to starboard. The land side was the port side, - or left side. I rushed out into the companionway and looked out to sea on the starboard side in search of the submarine which had torpedoed us. While standing there, a second, and much greater explosion occurred. At first I thought the mast had fallen down. This was followed by the falling on the deck of the water spout that had been made by the impact of the torpedo with the ship.
While I was standing there, my father came up and took me by the arm. He had put on his overcoat and cap. Arm-in-Arm, we went to the port side (the side that was highest from the water) and started to help in the launching of the lifeboats. Owing to the list of the ship, the lifeboats, which had already been swung out the day before, had a tendency to swing inwards across the deck, and before they could be launched, it was necessary to push them over the side of the ship. While working there, the staff Captain told us that the boat was not going to sink, and ordered the lifeboats not to be lowered. He also asked the gentlemen to help in clearing the passengers from the boat deck (A deck). I afterwards found that he gave this order because it was impossible to lower the lifeboats safely at the speed at which the “Lusitania” was still going. As her engines had been disabled, it was impossible to stop the way on the boat.
I saw only two boats launched from this side. The first boat to be launched, for the most part full of women, fell sixty or seventy feet into the water, all the occupants being drowned. This was owing to the fact that the crew could not work the davits and falls properly, so let them slip out of their hands, and sent the lifeboats to destruction.
In the meantime my Father (sic.) and I were helping with many others, to launch one of the lifeboats, - my Father (sic.) all the time was comforting and sustaining all those who were overcome by fright. Finally, after ten minutes unsuccessful work, seeing that a great many had got their lifebelts, I said to my Father (sic.) “We shall have to swim for it. We had better go below and get our lifebelts.” He agreed, and we started down under great difficulties, owing to the list of the ship. On the way he was continually cheering me by saying: “Keep calm, Son (sic.), remember that good is the only real power, no matter what happens now, only good will prevail in the end.”
When we got down to D deck, our cabin deck, we found it was impossible to leave the stairs, as the water was pouring in at all the port holes. We started up again. On the way up I picked up a lifebelt that had been dropped by someone. Then we went into a great many cabins on B deck trying to get a lifebelt for my father (sic.), but with no success.
Finally, we reached the boat deck again, this time on the starboard side, and after filling a lifeboat with women and children, we jumped into it. The lifeboat was successfully lowered until we were about twelve feet from the water, when the man at the bow davit lost his nerve, and let the rope go. Most of the occupants were thrown into the water, but we, being in the stern, managed to stay in. The lifeboat was full of water, but the sailors said it would float if only we could get it away from the “Lusitania”, which was now not far from sinking. My Father (sic.) threw off his overcoat, and worked like a slave trying to help loose the falls from the boat. This, however, was impossible. B deck was then level with the water, and I suggested to my Father (sic.) we should climb up and get into another lifeboat. He, however, looked up, saw the “Lusitania” was very near its end, and was likely to come over on us, and pin us beneath. He shouted to me to jump, which I did. We were both swimming together in the water, a few yards from the ship, when something separated us. That was the last I saw of him.
As I was swimming away from the “Lusitania”, every conceivable thing was falling around my head from all the decks, so much so that I swam with my left hand shielding the back of my head. I feel sure that Father (sic.) must have been hit on the head at this time, and either killed or stunned, as he was a much stronger swimmer than I.
I found myself close to a collapsible boat, empty, and in perfect condition, and I immediately thought that if only I could get in it and row away from the “Lusitania” I might save a great many lives, as I knew that very few lifeboats had been successfully launched. I got half into the boat, and in some manner got stuck there, when looking up I saw that the rear mast of the “Lusitania” was coming straight for me. It grazed the left side of my face, and went right through the boat like paper, leaving me in the water. I then felt myself being drawn towards the “Lusitania” (luckily I was not sufficiently stunned to have lost my senses), so when I felt myself going under, I took a deep breath. While under the water I remembered that some of the survivors of the “Titanic” had gone down with the ship and yet been saved. This cheered me, and I fought hard for life, and finally came up again with my lungs bursting. I found a spar, and hung on to get rested. Then I realized a new danger was threatening me. All the wreckage was being thrown about in a very dangerous manner, and likely to kill anyone it came in contact with. I believe a great many were killed in this mass of wreckage.
When the sea had calmed down, and the mound of water, which marked the spot where the “Lusitania” had been, was gone, I swam from one piece of wreckage to another. After about an hour I was helped on to a collapsible boat which was upside down. It was at this time that we saw smoke coming towards us on the horizon out to sea, but as soon as the funnel was just in sight, it went away again from us. This must have been one of the boats that the German submarine stopped from coming to our rescue.
Later, some people in another collapsible boat, full of water, but right side up and with oars, came and picked us off our upturned boat. When I got into this boat I felt that it would have been safer to have stayed on the former one. However, we managed to bale it out very considerably, and then we rowed around and picked up some thirty or forty people, - most of them in a very bad condition. When our boat was sinking from the number of people in it, we decided to row to a fishing boat that was just coming into sight. Up to this time, I should mention, although we could see the houses plainly on the shore, for two hours there was not a single vessel of any kind to be seen, and this fishing boat was the first we saw. We rowed several miles in this sinking condition to the fishing boat, which was a very dangerous thing to do, as in case we had sunk there would have been no wreckage to save us. The spirit of those who were still conscious was wonderful. They sang “Tipperary”.
When we arrived at the fishing boat we put aboard all our women and children and the men who were in the worst condition, and the rest of us stayed in tow of the fishing boat, as we could do nothing more.
By this time the sea seemed to be filled with rescue ships, and very shortly afterwards we cut our moorings from the fishing boat, and were picked up by one of the patrol boats. This was at six o’clock. I entered the water at twenty-five minutes past two. The first torpedo struck the ship at five minutes past two. I arrived at Queenstown at half-past ten o’clock.
William McMillan Adams suffered a broken arm as a result of his ordeal, which necessitated the wearing of a moulded splint on his right arm, encompassing his wrist and hand, for a period of a year. He also developed a hernia which required surgery.
His father was not so fortunate, however, and perished in the sea. As his body was never recovered and identified afterwards, he has no known grave.
Bedroom Steward Huther, who looked after both their first class rooms also perished although Junior Third Officer Bestic survived and eventually returned to his home on Merseyside.
Within a few days of his ordeal, William Adams travelled to London, staying at 5. Cumberland Terrace, Regent’s Park.
Gertrude and William McMillan Adams lodged a claim for the loss of Arthur Henry “Harry” Adams and his possessions with the Mixed Claims Commission after the War. This Commission was set up pursuant of an agreement between the United States and Germany after the War, whereby survivors and relatives of victims, of German actions against United States citizens, could pursue claims for compensation. Gertrude Adams was awarded $75,842.00 for the loss of her husband and his possessions, and her son awarded $7,500.00. William McMillan Adams was also awarded $2,335.00 under a separate claim for loss and injury suffered by him in the course of the sinking.
After he had fully recovered from his injuries and surgery, McMillan served as an assistant military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in London for the duration of the War. It is believed he visited the front lines in France on several occasions, and was awarded the British Military Cross, although the reason he received the honour is unknown.
After being discharged from the U.S. Army in 1919, he found employment with the U.S. Rubber Company and from 1920 was the company’s representative in Copenhagen, Denmark, from where he managed the company’s affairs in many north European countries. He later became the President of the Sprague World Trade Corporation.
On the 13th October 1923, he married Julia McDonald Davis in New York. Julia was the daughter of John W. Davis, a politician, diplomat, and lawyer, who was the unsuccessful Democrat candidate to run against the incumbent President, Calvin Coolidge, in the 1924 U.S. Presidential Election. He had met Julia while working in the U.S. Embassy in London, her father being the ambassador in the embassy from 1918 to 1921. In 1926, Julia was one of the first two female journalists to be employed by the Associated Press.
William Adams married three times, divorcing his first wife in 1933, and re-marrying her on the 30th March 1974, when he was aged 78 years, the bride being 73! His second wife, Eleanor Perry Adams (née Herman), had died in November 1973.
William McMillan Adams died on the 10th May 1986 in Princeton, New Jersey, aged 90 years. His wife, Julia, died in 1993, aged 93 years.
1901 Census of England & Wales, 1911 Census of England & Wales, 1930 U.S. Federal Census, 1940 U.S. Federal Census, U.S. Passport Applications 1795 – 1925, New York Passenger Lists 1820 - 1957, Mixed Claims Commission Docket No. 530 & 637, Cunard Records, Liverpool Record Office, Deaths at Sea 1871 – 1968, PRO 22/71, PRO BT 100/345, Experiences of A.H. Adams & W. McM. Adams on the “Lusitania”, Graham Maddocks, John P. Adams, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly