People's Stories

Everyone on the Lusitania's last voyage, including passengers and crew.

About Clinton "Will" Percival

Clinton Percival Bernard was born in Jamaica, Queens, New York City, in the United States of America on the 10th April 1888, the only child of Percival Joseph and Fanny Hewlett Bernard (née Ryder).  His father was a successful merchant, dealing mainly in millinery.  In 1893, when he was just aged 5 years, his mother died.  His father remarried in 1900, the name of his second wife being Mabel.

Clinton attended Jamaica High School, before attending at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, where he earned a Ph. B. in Mining Engineering in 1909.  While at Yale, he was a member of the rowing team, and was also enrolled in the Sheffield Scientific School.

Having obtained his mining engineering qualifications, Clinton found work in Arizona.  Then, in the spring of 1915, an opportunity arose for him to travel, firstly to Greenland, and then to the Belgian Congo in Africa, to conduct geological surveys and other work and it was envisaged that he would be abroad for about 3 years.

For the first part of the journey, he had to travel to England, and consequently booked saloon passage on the Lusitania through agents S. H. Ball, of 71, Broadway, New York, to sail on the morning of 1st May 1915.  With ticket number 46155, he boarded the vessel on that morning and was escorted to room E56, which was the personal responsibility of First Class Bedroom Steward David Critchley, who came from Bootle in Lancashire, just down the River Mersey from Liverpool.

The sailing was delayed until the early afternoon, because the liner had to embark some crew, passengers and cargo from the Anchor Liner Cameronia which had been taken, at the end of April, by the British Admiralty, for war work.  Six days out of New York, on the afternoon of 7th May, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine twelve miles off the coast of southern Ireland and only hours away from her Liverpool home port.  Clinton Bernard was in his cabin, which was on the port side of the liner, when the torpedo struck and on hearing and feeling the explosion, he immediately left his cabin and went on deck.

Clinton Bernard survived the sinking and his experiences were later described by Captain Frederick D. Ellis in a book he wrote not long after the sinking, called The Tragedy of the Lusitania.  In it, Bernard stated: -

“Although it was a tremendous shock to everybody, there was not as much excitement as one would expect in such a catastrophe.  It occurred so suddenly we had not much time to realize what was happening.  When I saw the ship was sinking, I jumped overboard, just as I was.  I had no lifebelt, but I picked up a bit of flotsam.  Finally, I got to an upturned boat and clung to that.  Later, with some others who had swam to this boat, we managed to right it.  Then we climbed in and started to rescue as many people as we could reach.

The German submarine made no attempt to save anybody.  We saw it for a moment just before it was submerged.  The first torpedo struck us between the first and second funnels.  The Lusitania shook, and settled down a bit.  Two other torpedoes quickly followed and soon finished the ship. Four or five of our lifeboats went down with her, and the tremendous suction as the liner was engulfed, dragged many people down also.  The noise of the explosion was not very great.   The first torpedo burst with a big thud, and we knew that we were doomed.  We had floated about two hours in a small boat before the first rescue steamer arrived.  Previous to this time some small shore boats and fishing smacks came along and helped us in.”

H. M. Simpson was with Bernard and helped him to right the overturned boat, into which they climbed.  He said that everything possible was done by himself and companions to save the drowning passengers, who were all about them, dotting the sea, like seagulls.

“I saw an object in the distance, and, thinking it was a vessel hoisted a pair of trousers on an oar.  But the vessel or whatever it was passed on.  Finally a big trawler came and took us on board.  Before I went overboard I handed lifebelts around in the saloon, but many of the people did not want to put them on, but ran on deck just as they were.”

H. M. Simpson was second cabin passenger The Reverend Henry Wood Simpson who came from Roseland, British Columbia, Canada. He also wrote an account of his experiences of the sinking and also mentioned hoisting a pair of trousers on an oar in a vain attempt to attract the attention of a passing vessel.  Two other survivors, crew member Trimmer Edward Downey and second cabin passenger Robert Kay also mention the same incident, so must have been on the same upturned lifeboat!  The big trawler (that) came and took us on board was H.M.S. Indian Empire, a former fishing trawler, taken up from trade for war use as a patrol boat, which was responsible for rescuing many survivors from the sea.

All three also survived the sinking, but Bedroom Steward David Critchley perished as a result of the torpedoing and never saw his Bootle home again.

Clinton Bernard was obviously mistaken about the number of torpedoes fired and the fact that the U-20 surfaced after the Lusitania was struck as the log of the submarine is clear that this did not happen!

According to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a New York City newspaper, Clinton Bernard made a statement to the Board of Trade Enquiry into the loss of the Lusitania, however; he is not recorded as having given evidence at the enquiry, which was conducted by Lord Mersey, and it is unlikely that any statement he might have made was considered in evidence in his absence.  According to the newspaper, he forwarded a copy of his statement to his cousin, Charles A. Ryder, who brought it to the attention of the newspaper for publication.  The account he gives in his statement varies greatly with what is attributed to him in The Tragedy of the Lusitania.  His statement was published in an article in the 15th August 1915 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and in it Bernard stated: -

... He thinks the torpedo struck the vessel on the starboard side just by the first funnel.  There were two explosions, but he could not say that there were two torpedoes.

This differs greatly from his account in The Tragedy of the Lusitania, where he claimed that three torpedoes had struck the Lusitania.

Describing what he experienced on going on deck, and the condition of the lifeboats, he stated: -

“When I got on deck immediately after the first explosion,” Mr. Bernard said, “I attempted to assist in lowering one of the lifeboats on the port side.  Just then an officer came up and ordered us away from the boat, commanding everyone to stand back.  I then went below in an endeavor to get life-belts for women, but the electric lights being out on “D” deck, which was the lowest I could get to, it was impossible to see in the cabins.  The water was rushing in through the open ports on the starboard side, the port holes on this deck, as well as on “E” deck, on which my stateroom was located, were open, the glass was not broken.

Returning to “A” deck, I went to the starboard side, where officers were ordering people away from the boats, and the cry was, ‘Women to the cabins, everyone off the decks, stand back from the lifeboats.’  I heard Captain Turner himself give an order to the effect that lifeboats should not be lowered and that there was no danger, although I do not remember the exact wording of the order.  I heard other officers repeat this.”

As to the condition of lifeboats swung out on davits over the side of the ship, Mr. Bernard says, “Those on the starboard and port sides directly opposite the ‘Grand Entrance’ had been refitted with tackle and were in good condition; on a great many of the others the cables were old and the tackle blocks were in bad condition, as was proved by the blocks sticking, the cables becoming lodged in the blocks and holding up the lifeboats.  Most of the lifeboats on the deck were still fastened by the moorings, or bars which held them and supported the lifeboat cradles, although the cradles had been taken away when the lifeboats had been swung out.  The liferaft beside the ‘Grand Entrance’ was clear, but it was impossible for a number of us to raise one end free as she had been painted fast and was practically glued to the deck.  As to the equipment of the lifeboats I can say nothing, but the rafts were supplied only with a keg of water which had been in the keg so long that it was unfit for use.  A keg which we broke in to bale out the liferaft was one-third full of brown, stinking fluid.

“There was no panic among the passengers, though it was clearly evident that the crews supposed to man and launch the lifeboats were utterly inefficient, indeed at many of the boats there was no crew and no one in command.  I saw one so-called drill during the trip, which consisted of a boatswain blowing his whistle and a crew of six or seven men, many of whom had evidently never been to sea before, lined up on deck.  At a command from the boatswain the men jumped into a lifeboat, tied on their life preservers and sat down, at another command they took off their life preservers, stepped to the deck and were dismissed.  The drill had been entirely satisfactory to the boatswain.  It is impossible to see what benefit was derived from it.  No general crew drill, manning all the boats or calling all to their respective stations was held.  Certainly no practice was given to these men who were in no way seamen, and patently unacquainted with their work – in clearing tackle nor becoming familiar with the mechanical knowledge necessary to remove the chains by which the boats were slung from the davits, nor was there practice or exhibition in lowering the lifeboats.

At the time the torpedo stuck us we were not making over sixteen or seventeen knots.  We were slipping through the water with no vibration from the engines.  The entire horizon was clear, no mist being visible.  Our way was rapidly lost and the first boat cut away on the starboard side did not drift further than one-eight mile at most from the position in which the Lusitania sank.  This boat had no one in it.  Some of the boats were cut away by the passengers or crew with jackknives.  One such boat on the starboard side loaded with people was caught under “A” deck.  I attempted to push it off, but it seemed hopeless, and I went off the deck into the sea, and, having no life belt, I kicked off my clothes in the water and swam away to avoid being dragged under by the suction.

If the lifeboats had been lowered at once, or, at least, within a very few moments after the torpedo struck, there would have been no danger of their being swamped by way of the ship, and many lives would have been saved, as these boats would have been manned by men who could swim, and by rowing around, would have rescued many in the water.  As it was wreckage saved many.  More wreckage or more boats in a serviceable condition would undoubtedly have decreased the loss of life.  Most of the life rafts went down with the ship, being moored to the deck.  I counted only six of these rafts afloat, two rigged and manned, four overturned.  Had the full complement of life rafts been free and floated, even though overturned, they would have supported many until help arrived.

“I was in the water about fifteen minutes.  I got on board an overturned raft.  I believe there was a steward on it.  Then we pulled on several others.  Among them was a man named Adams, a first-class passenger.  Afterward a collapsible raft with a few in it came over to us.  We transferred to it and baled her out.  A man named Coleburn (sic.) was on it.  We picked up a junior second engineer named Duncan.

There were three men named Adams traveling as saloon class passengers, and only one – William McMillan Adams survived, so it is likely that this is the man referred to by Clinton Bernard.  ‘Coleburn’ was either Senior Second Engineer Andrew Cockburn, or second class passenger Guy Cockburn, both of whom survived, and Junior Second Engineer Alexander Duncan also survived.

“We were on the raft until about 6.30.  We were taken off on the steam boat Indian Empire, which returned to the scene of the accident.  I helped to man the same raft, and we picked up about ten people and transferred them to the Brock, which took us to Queenstown.  Among others we picked up Mr. Jeffreys.”

‘Mr. Jeffreys’ was Charles T. Jeffrey, an American gentleman who was a saloon class passenger, and who did indeed survive.

Having been landed at Queenstown after his ordeal, Clinton Bernard made it to England, and stayed for a time with Mr. M.K. Shaler, 4. Bishopsgate, London E.C.  While staying here, he submitted a detailed claim for compensation to the Cunard Steamship Company.  In his letter, he stated that he had deposited $250 in United States gold coin in the ship’s safe, and also claimed for the loss of his personal belongings and engineering equipment.

Having recovered from his ordeal, Clinton Bernard continued on his intended journey to Greenland, via Denmark, and then to the Belgian Congo.

Returning to New York in August 1918, Clinton enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Camp Zachery Taylor, Louisville, Kentucky, to attend Field Artillery Central Officers Training School.  He only underwent training for about 6 weeks, during which time the war ended, and he was honourably discharged on the 29th November 1918.

On the 20th February 1920, Clinton married Mary Pauline Dillman in Queens, New York City.  There were no children as a result of the marriage, and Clinton and Pauline travelled extensively for many years throughout South America, Africa, and Europe as a result of Clinton’s work, before they retired back to Jamaica, Queens, New York City.

Clinton Bernard died in Jamaica, Queens, New York City, on the 30th January 1967, aged 78 years.  His wife, Pauline, died on the 19th February 1889, aged 95 years.

1900 U.S. Federal Census, 1915 New York State Census, 1920 U.S. Federal Census, 1930 U.S. Federal Census, 1940 U.S. Federal Census, New York Marriage Index 1866 – 1937, U.S. Passport Applications 1795 – 1925, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, Cunard Records, PRO BT 22/71, Tragedy of the Lusitania, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, UniLiv D92/2/247, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Stuart Williamson, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.

Copyright © Peter Kelly

Clinton "Will" Percival Bernard



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