When the RMS Titanic sank into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic at 2:20 a.m. on the morning of April 15th, 1912, dozens of tales of survival and tragedy were born. Some are well known, such as the cowardice of Bruce Ismay, who escaped the sinking ship he helped design and returned home in disgrace, to Ida and Isidor Straus, who refused to part with each other and chose to stay on board and face their last moments together. However, as that terrible night unfolded, there were others on Titanic who saved lives and offered comfort to those who were about to face the icy waters, and yet, these unsung heroes remain largely unrecognized in Titanic’s legacy.
1. Titanic Wireless Operator John “Jack” Phillips
When the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and began to founder, it was up the to the ship’s two junior wireless operators, Harold Bride and John “Jack” Phillips, to send out the distress message. Bride and Phillips had installed the wireless equipment on board Titanic just a few days earlier, and the Surrey-born Phillips was only 25 years old when he found himself aboard the sinking ship, as well as the only link to the outside world.
As water rushed into Titanic and its fate became clear, it was Phillip’s heroism that ensured the eventual rescue of over 700 survivors who escaped into lifeboats before Titanic sank. Harold Bride, who was in the wireless room during the sinking and managed to survive, later spoke of Phillip’s bravery. He recounted that even after Captain Smith told the wireless operators to abandon their posts, Phillips continued to operate the wireless equipment, even as water rushed into the room. Bride tied a life belt around his friend and then fled the scene, where he eventually swam to a lifeboat. Phillips died in the sinking in his efforts to reach help and sadly, his body was never recovered.
2. Scottish Baptist Pastor John Harper
John Harper was born in Scotland and became an evangelist and preacher at the age of eighteen. He preached wherever he could and dedicated his entire life to spreading the gospel of Jesus and the word of God. In 1912, he was asked to return to Chicago, where he had spent part of 1911 preaching at the Moody Memorial Church. He boarded the RMS Titanic with his young daughter, preaching to passengers whenever he could.
When Titanic began to sink, instead of boarding a lifeboat, Harper ensured that his six-year-old daughter was safely tucked into one of the boats before he returned to the slanting decks of the ship, trying to help others to safety and escape. When no more lifeboats could be found, the preacher began to comfort those who had no chance of escape and spoke about the promise of a glorious afterlife. Harper himself died in the water after jumping off the ship and tried to comfort a fellow passenger in the water even as he perished. He told the man, “Believe in the lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” The preacher succumbed a moment later, but the man he converted was rescued by a lifeboat, and he always believed it was Harper who saved his life.
3. The Countess of Rothes, Noël Leslie
Noël Leslie, the Countess of Rothes, was 33 years of age when she set sail on the RMS Titanic with her maid and some family members. Some disembarked at Cherbourg, including her parents, but the countess was sailing to America and continued on without them. Her husband, the 17th Earl of Rothes, was not on board with her, but what this quietly courageous woman learned from him would make her one of Titanic’s most unsung heroes.
When the countess was ordered to the lifeboats, instead of succumbing to her fear, she took the lifeboat’s tiller and taught the others on board to row, something she had learned from her yacht-owning spouse. As the night progressed, she slowly took charge of the women on board, comforting them in between encouraging them to row and sing “Pull Toward the Shore” to keep their spirits up. If not for the bravery of the countess, as well as her efforts to care for her fellow survivors aboard the RMS Carpathia, where she gathered food and medicine and translated for as many passengers as she could, many would have given up hope. Today, Noël Leslie, the Countess of Rothes, is remembered with pride and affection by her descendants, who continue to tell her story.
The sinking of the RMS Titanic gave rise to dozens of myths, stories, and even ghost tales. However, the bravery of a humble wireless operator, a servant of God, and a wealthy socialite on that fateful night should always be remembered, honored, and celebrated.