The Sinking of SS Arabic: Elder Nebeker’s Experience

by James Perry

SS Arabic
Acel Nebeker
Acel Nebeker

On the morning of 19 August 1915, a young American, Acel Hulme Nebeker, found himself boarding a lifeboat with just minutes before the ship he had been on sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Acel had been a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the British Mission since June 1913 and spent the final eight months of his mission as President of the Liverpool District. After reporting to his Mission President, Acel prepared for the journey home to Logan, Utah, where he would return to his loved ones. With his belongings in tow, Acel boarded the SS Arabic and departed on the evening of 18 August.

The Arabic had been launched in 1903 and was operated by the White Star Line. Manned by an experienced crew and captain, the ship had made hundreds of successful crossings. With a capacity of almost 1,400 passengers, the ship was used to transfer post, supplies, and passengers across the Atlantic. Earlier that year, in March, the Arabic had been pursued by a German U-boat near to the Irish coast, but successfully evaded engagement. This time, however, the Arabic had been caught by SM U-24, which was hiding amongst the wreckage of the SS Dunsley, which it had just sunk. The Arabic was one of four ships sunk by the U-boat that day. Being aware of the danger around them, the Arabic operated a zig-zag motion for protection from attack. However, a torpedo was fired from near the wreckage of the Dunsley, which crashed into the starboard side of the Arabic. Thankfully, the ship only had 424 persons on board at the time of the incident otherwise the death count would have been much higher.

Dressed in his bathrobe, Acel left his room and made his way up to the deck, fastening his life jacket as he went. After running across the deck, he found a lifeboat on the starboard side, but the boat remained unlaunched. The lifeboat was quickly filled with terrified men and women, but it was never released. As the Arabic proceeded on its deathly descent into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, Acel jumped from the lifeboat and began swimming away from the developing vortex. Those who remained seated were not so fortunate. With chaos surrounding him, Acel continued swimming for around twenty-minutes moving from wreckage to wreckage before being picked up by a nearby lifeboat.

In his account, Acel described how the Arabic rose into the sky as one end as the ship slipped into the ocean. During that time, he feared the ship would come crashing down upon him. After the ship sank, wreckage rose to the surface injuring those still in the water. Following his rescue by the lifeboat, Elder Nebeker described the anxiety that he and his fellow-passengers had felt as they looked out, waiting for a rescue vessel. In the water, however, was death, with the bodies of some of the victims floating by, including that of ‘a little child on a life-belt, dead’. The passengers of the lifeboat suddenly found themselves without anyone to lead them. However, an engineer from the Arabic on a nearby lifeboat saw their predicament and leaving the safety of his own lifeboat, swam over to Elder Nebeker to help. Of that sacrifice, Acel stated ‘…he jumped into the sea and swam over to us and took charge, and, there is no doubt, he became our saviour’. Soon after, a nearby minesweeper, the Primrose, rescued the survivors and took them to safety in Queenstown, Ireland.

Map of Ireland Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

News of the Arabic’s sinking arrived at the European Mission headquarters with the evening papers on the same day of the sinking. A few months previously, the RMS Lusitania had been sunk by a German U-boat along the southern coast of Ireland with the loss of 1,198 passengers and crew members. Fears of a similar fate undoubtedly passed through the minds of church leaders as they thought about their recently departed missionary brother. For some time there was limited information and Church officials visited the White Line offices in Liverpool to make inquiries and to leave contact information. That same evening, however, a telegram was received from Elder Nebeker announcing his safe arrival in Queenstown. Of the experience, Church officials stated ‘The anxiety was turned into joy because of the mercy of our heavenly Father in holding His hand over His young servant and rescuing him from the yawning deep.’

The final death toll for the Arabic sits at forty-four, passengers and crew. Eleven lifeboats were launched. However, were it not for the captain and crew, the death toll may have been much higher. Regarding the experience, Acel was widely quoted in the media, both in the United States and Britain:

‘A. Hulme Nebeker of Logan, Utah, when he arrived here had on only a bathrobe, said -that the crew worked splendidly under Captain Finche's direction in the short ten minutes which they had to get the passengers into the boats, and but for the discipline maintained and the excellent work of the rescuing tug officers at least 200 persons would have been lost. The submarine, according to Mr. Nebeker, was seen before it launched the torpedo, but there was not enough time to escape it.’

SS_Arabic Library of Philadelphia
SS Arabic

After returning home (successfully and safely on a second attempt) and with the outbreak of war between the United States of America and Germany in 1917, Acel enlisted in the army and served in the field artillery until demobilisation in 1918. At some point before his mission, Acel’s original assignment to New Zealand was changed to the British Mission where he spent most of his time in the Liverpool Conference while travelling across the country as needed. For example, in October 1914, Acel spent time proselyting in the Keswick area, which was then part of the Newcastle upon Tyne Conference. Later, Acel completed his studies and became a successful lawyer in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he lived, worked, and served, until his death on 29 October 1980.

Despite the traumatic nature of the sinking, Acel appears to have been remarkably composed about the incident. Meanwhile, the loss of the Arabic provoked another diplomatic incident between the United States and Germany. The attack stoked already inflamed tensions and two-years later, war was formally declared. Meanwhile, the church in the British Isles continued to rely on a diminished missionary complement. Those members who did not serve in the armed forces shouldered extra responsibilities as they strove to fulfil their duties both in the home, the workplace and in the church.

This article is part of the section.