SEARSPORT, Maine — History is best told through people, Charlene Farris believes. And the story of one of Searsport’s legendary sea captains, one she knew when she was a child, relates a part of history in dramatic, heroic terms.
Named official historian at town meeting in 2010, Farris has a way of making those people come to life in simple, vivid terms. That skill may have come from 35 years teaching fifth grade at Searsport Elementary School, a job from which she retired last year.
Her passion for local history is well-known but her approach has changed. Instead of trying to tell Searsport’s story in chronological form, Farris now immerses herself in the town’s interesting characters and relates their stories, usually at her annual talks before the Searsport Historical Society.
One of the more compelling stories is that of Edwin Earle Greenlaw, which includes bravery, leadership and a ring that may have saved lives.
Farris knew Greenlaw as the father of neighbor children with whom she played as a child, growing up on Steamboat Avenue. She remembers the captain speaking to her sixth-grade class.
“I can’t remember a thing he said, but I remember he was handsome,” dressed in his captain’s uniform, Farris recalled.
So last summer, as she was considering the subject of her next historical biography, she was reminded of him.
“I walked down Steamboat Avenue right by Capt. Greenlaw’s house,” she recalled, and her task was clear.
Born in Rockport in 1901, Greenlaw learned the ways of the sea sailing Friendship sloops. As a man, he began working on coal and oil ships, and during a stop in Searsport, a local man, Harrison “Bunny” Jackson invited Greenlaw home to meet the family.
Jackson’s sister, Hazel, was a beauty, Farris said. A victim of polio, she couldn’t walk, yet refused to use crutches, relying on canes and sheer determination. Greenlaw and she married and began living near where Mosman Park is today.
Greenlaw didn’t like staying ashore, though, and began working for the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company.
When World War II began, the U.S. government took control of merchant ships. Late in 1943, Greenlaw was captain of the S.S. Alaskan, a 5,369-ton vessel hauling a cargo of 800 tons of chrome ore from South Africa to Dutch Guiana in South America. The ship did not have a military escort, but did have deck guns.
At 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 28, during a pouring rainstorm, a look-out saw the wakes of two torpedoes approaching the ship. One missed, but the other struck the middle of the ship, destroying the engine and two lifeboats, the work of a German submarine.
“The deck buckled, it listed to port, but didn’t sink,” Farris said. The German U-boat surfaced and its officers ordered the men to abandon the ship. More than 50 crew members, officers and armed guards jumped into lifeboats.
The sub then shelled the ship until it sank at 8:10 a.m.
One of the lifeboats swamped, drowning four men. Another, with 29 men, eventually landed in Angola, in Africa. Thirteen more men climbed aboard a raft, and later were picked up by a Spanish vessel and taken to the Canary Islands.
As captain, Greenlaw was the last to leave the vessel, taking time to destroy documents he deemed security threats. After Greenlaw boarded a raft with eight other survivors, the U-boat captain brought the sub alongside and ordered Greenlaw to board the sub. The sub captain questioned Greenlaw, who gave only basic information. He was then returned to the raft.
Later, Greenlaw would tell his sons he noticed the U-boat captain wore a ring signifying his membership in the Masons, a fraternal organization. Greenlaw wore a similar ring. That link saved his life, Greenlaw believed.
The German captain told Greenlaw he was sorry the sub sank his ship, “but this is war. Why don’t you tell America to get out of the war?”
Four hundred miles from land in a leaking raft, Greenlaw summoned his leadership and maritime skills, Farris said. He ordered the men to keep a lookout for one of the unoccupied lifeboats. Three days later, they found it and raised and bailed it out. The men fashioned a sail and mast, using their only tool, Greenlaw’s pocket knife.
The lifeboat had emergency supplies including 53 tins of pemmican, which Farris said “were molded cakes of fat, flavored with meat and berries.” There also were 106 bottles of malted milk tablets, 65 chocolate bars and 15 gallons of water.
Greenlaw ordered the armed guard commander to ration the food and water.
After being becalmed in the equatorial waters, the trade winds picked up, rains came replenishing drinking water, and the men were able to catch fish and snare birds to eat — raw.
Thirty-nine days after being torpedoed, the men sighted land and went ashore on French Guiana on Jan. 5, 1944. The locals thought they were prisoners escaped from Devil’s Island, but the men were able to convince them otherwise.
Farris said Greenlaw kept the men focused, disciplined and hopeful, which helped them survive. His twin sons, Edwin — known as Bing who lives in Thorndike — and Eugene — known as Biff who lives in Stockton Springs — remember their father as a kind man who loved to laugh. That demeanor probably helped him keep spirits up during those 39 days of deprivation.
Greenlaw worked another 18 years for the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company. Sadly, he decided in 1962 to take one more voyage as captain before retiring, picking up oil in Iran. While there, he contracted hepatitis and lingered in a hospital for weeks before dying in early 1963. He is buried in the town’s Gordon Cemetery.
Residents should be proud of Greenlaw, Farris said: “He was handsome, charming, professional and kind. In short, Hollywood’s version of the perfect sea captain.”