World War II-era Oral History interview
Veteran: COL(Ret) Thomas S. Torresson, Jr.
Date: October 29, 2004
US Army Air Corps/ USAF 1940 – 1969 Stateside
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Josh Gilbert
Thomas S. Torresson was born in North Bergen, New Jersey in September, 1916. He grew up fairly unaffected by the Great Depression, as his father remained employed in the shipping industry. Torresson spent his childhood around the ships in New York harbor. At the age of seventeen, he developed a bad case of pneumonia. When his doctor suggested a trip to Cuba for some warmer weather to hasten his recuperation, Torresson’s father booked a cruise for him and his mother aboard the Morro Castle, a ship that regularly plied the waters between New York and Havana. It was during that voyage, Torresson remembered, that he “fell in love “with the Morro Castle.”
In 1934 Torresson asked his father if he would be able to get him a job aboard the Morro Castle. Initially his father said that this was not likely, as there was too long a waiting list, but in July there was a job opening for one trip to Havana and back. Torresson was hired as the third assistant purser for that voyage and ended up working on the ship for the remainder of the summer.
(The Morro Castle burning at sea off Sea Girt, NJ.)
Young Torresson enjoyed his work, which he described as “not difficult but [involving] very long hours.” A typical work day began at 9:30 AM and lasted until 12:00 midnight. The Morro Castle made regular trips from New York City to Havana, carrying both passengers and cargo. Each trip included an overnight stop in Havana, where passengers could debark and enjoy Cuban night life. This was especially desirable in the years before Prohibition was repealed in the United States.
The last voyage that summer of 1934 was scheduled to leave Havana for New York on September 7. It was a normal cruise until the captain was discovered dead from an apparent heart attack, after which the first officer took command. The crew carried on with their work until 12:00 AM and then went to bed. During the night Torresson was awakened and told that a fire had started aboard the vessel. At that point he was not nervous, because small fires occurred frequently on ships. Torresson and other crew members went from cabin to cabin alerting the passengers. As the fire spread, however, the crew began to try to move people into lifeboats and off of the ship. This was a difficult task, because the fire had spread to the deck, where the lifeboats were stored.
Once the fire spread and the ship’s controls were damaged, the first officer dropped anchor off Sea Girt, New Jersey, and passengers and crew began jumping into the now storm-roiled water. Torresson was handed a young boy named Bobby, who had been badly burned, and he jumped overboard with him. With Bobby holding onto his back, Torresson began treading water and trying to move towards shore. Unfortunately Bobby’s injuries proved too severe, and the boy died in Torresson’s arms.
Torresson was in the water from 5:30AM until 4:00PM. He recalled that he was not scared or even nervous, but he also did not believe that he would be saved. Torresson was eventually picked up by a rescue boat, the City of Savannah, which then sailed into Manasquan with its cargo of survivors. He said that, without the crew aboard the City of Savannah and other rescue boats, as well as the civilians and National Guardsmen on shore to aid with the rescue and recovery, no one would have been saved.
Torresson did not talk much about the Morro Castle tragedy and his part in it until he began reading all of the negative things that had been written about the incident. Many journalists and authors condemned the crew for not doing their jobs and for abandoning passengers. Torresson disputed those accounts and blamed reporters, who he said were more interested in a good story than the truth. He also noted that many of the surviving passengers were angry and looking for someone to blame for the disaster, which gave fuel to the controversy over the crew’s behavior.
Torresson maintained that the Morro Castle crew did everything possible to save the ship’s passengers, and that any delay in response was due to the fact that most of the crew was asleep at the time of the fire, and that it took time to alert everyone to the danger. He said that fire drills were regularly held on the ship, and they were in compliance with existing shipboard fire regulations. In the wake of the tragedy, maritime fire regulations and precautions were increased, however and was a decision Torresson agreed with. Torresson stated (and this theory has been substantiated) that a flaw in the ship’s design allowed the fire to spread so quickly. The Morro Castle was built with vents throughout in order to channel fresh air through the ship to cool passengers while sailing in tropical seas, in the days before widespread air conditioning. That unique ventilation system created an airflow pattern that fanned the flames and abetted their spread throughout the vessel.
Following the Morro Castle disaster, Torresson enrolled at Notre Dame University, and after graduating enlisted in the US Army Air Corps, where he became a flight instructor during World War II at Stewart Air Field in Newburgh, New York. He remained at Stewart as an instructor for most of his subsequent military career, retiring in 1969 with the rank of Colonel. In August of 2005, Thomas Torresson passed away at the age of 88.