A Salute To Titanic's Mailmen

Among the 1,500 people who died on the doomed Titanic were five mail clerks, men who gave their lives trying to drag huge mail sacks up to the deck of the sinking liner in the vain hope of transferring them to another ship.

The National Postal Museum opened an exhibit Friday recalling their sacrifice.

Entering the exhibit, a visitor hears a strange sound like radio static. A pattern quickly emerges — static and quiet, static and quiet, static and quiet.

The sound of the great ship's dying cry for help is heard again.

"It's not the click-click-click you associate with Morse code. That's a telegraph," explained museum director James Bruns. "We've recreated the actual Marconi radio signal that would have been heard by other vessels that night."

As that signal raced through the air, alternating the new distress call S0S with the older CQD, a band of men working on a slower but more lasting means of communication struggled to save the mail from rising water.

The exhibit opens with portraits of the five and a discussion of the vessel's sinking and rediscovery.

Nothing on display at the National Postal Museum was raised from the ocean bottom, Bruns stressed, pointing out that the Smithsonian Institution considers the wreck a memorial to those who died that should not be disturbed.

Yet visitors can see the cracked pocket watch that belonged to one of the clerks, John Starr March, recovered from his body found floating in the sea. The watch stopped at 1:27 a.m. the morning of April 15, 1912.

More artifacts came from the body of clerk Oscar Scott Woody — his miniature watch, four postal "facing slips" used to mark bundles of mail, travel orders instructing him to sail on the Titanic, his pocket knife, his mail chain and keys.

The exhibit also touches those who survived, with a giant red-and-white striped mail sack of the type used at the time for general mail shipments.

A video shot by a submersible visiting the wreck includes scenes of the flooded mail room and some of more than 3,000 sacks of mail still there.

There have been discussions of trying to recover the mail, Bruns said, but it raises complex legal questions.

During the trip the mail clerks were in the process of transferring the mail from British to U.S. custody. The question arises as to whether the U.S. Postal Service or the Royal Mail would take possession, he said. In addition, few who sent mail, or were to receive it, would be alive now, so the decision becomes complicated about whom it would be delivered to.

On the other hand, he said, when an item is mailed there is a promise of delivery.

Besides Woody and March, the mail contingent on Titanic included William Logan Gwinn, all Americans, and British mail clerks James Bertram Williamson and Richard Jago Smith.

The exhibit "Posted Aboard R.M.S. Titanic" will be on display until June.

By Randolph E. Schmid
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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