Third Officer Herbert Pitman
- US and UK and Inquiries
In a Marconigram sent on 17th April 1912 to his sister, W. Taylor of Castle Cary, Somerset, Pitman simply wrote two words:. "Safe. - Bert." The message brought relief to family back home. The Castle Carey Visitor wrote in an article of April, 1912: "Another Caryite was Mr. H. J. Pitman, brother of Mrs. W. Taylor, and a very anxious time was spent by Mrs. Taylor and her friends, till the news of Mr. Pitman's safety came to hand."
This sparked a series of telegrams on the 17th and 18th with information as to his survival:
Post office telegram dated April 17th 1912. "Midday paper reports H.J. Pitman as saved not official".
Post office telegram dated April 17th 1912. "Glad to see by paper Bert saved".
Post office telegram dated April 17th 1912. "Pitman saved hurrah".
Post office telegram dated April 17th 1912. "Very delighted to let you know that your brother Bert Pitman is among the survivors on the Carpathia" from Wallace Roome.
Post office telegram dated April 17th 1912. "Pleased to report Pitman saved by Carpathia" from Imperial Merchant Service Guild.
Post office telegram dated April 18th 1912. "Frome friends pleased to hear Bert saved".
The Carpathia arrived at Pier 54, New York with all the survivors from the Titanic, on the evening of 18th April 1912. Immediately upon arrival the surviving officers, including Pitman, and the crew, along with Bruce Ismay were served with subpoenas.
According to The New York Times of April 19, 1912, under the heading of "Four Surviving Officers - Committee Tells Them Not to Talk - Seek Refuge on Lapland" - when Senator Smith and Senator Newlands arrived in New York at 9pm on the 18th they went straight to the pier where the Carpathia had just arrived and "served subpoenas right and left... The subpoenas were all returnable at the Waldorf to-day at 10 o'clock... The Titanic's four rescued offivcers were placed aboard the Red Star liner Lapland for the night. They refused to talk, saying they were under instructions to give no information except to the Senate committee." (The New York Times, April 19, 1912)
Wasting no time, the hearings began in New York on April 19, 1912, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York, the day after their arrival. Pitman appeared briefly at the end of day 2, on Saturday, April 20, 1912, where he confirmed his full name ("Herbert John Pitman"), address ('Somerset, England'), age ("thirty-four"), employment ("Mariner") and employment details (""sixteen years… from apprentice to officer"). He then answered the key question for which Senator Smith had summoned him, about the ship's log:
Senator SMITH. I would like to know whether you are sufficiently advised, of your own knowledge, to say whether the ship's log was preserved or taken from the Titanic?
Mr. PITMAN. Not to my knowledge; I did not go into the chart room, so I do not know.
Senator SMITH. Do you know whether Mr. Lightoller, the second officer, Mr. Boxhall, the fourth officer, or Mr. Lowe, the fifth officer, took possession of the ship's log?
Mr. PITMAN. I can not say, sir.
It was no doubt a disappointing response from the final witness of the day. Senator Smith had wanted to ask this question to Second officer Lightoller, but he was not present. Subsequently, the Senate Inquiry was moved to Washington D.C. and took place in the new caucus room of the Russell Senate Office Building. They were the first hearings to be held in that room. Of the total of 82 witnesses, Pitman was finally called up for a more intensive questioning on Day 4 of the hearings - Tuesday April 23rd, 1912. It had been the original intention of the committee to recall Fourth Officer Boxhall to the stand on that day, who had testified the day before, however a note from a medical doctor stated that Boxhall "is physically unable to appear before the Senate investigating committee today." Hence Pitman was called next, at just after 10 am.
There had been a change in format at the Inquiry due to disturbances the previous day when the press particularly picked up on Boxhall's revelation of a nearby ship that did not respond, for example writing: "Not the slightest whisper had gone fourth concerning what Boxhall would testify to, and his every word fell upon the multitude crowded in the marble conference room of the Senate Office Building as lightning flashes from a clear sky." (The Daily New Era - Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 23 Apr 1912) However the "multitude crowded in the marble conference room" became an issue and the following day, Tuesday April 23rd, 1912, the public were excluded from the hearing:
"Owing to the great confusion caused by the rush of the crowds to the hearing and the constant interruptions during the interrogation of witnesses, the Senate committee determined today to exclude the general public. To accomplish this the hearing was transferred to a smaller room in the Senate office building. Only witnesses, those particularly interested in the inquiry and members of the press were admitted to the room. The change caused disappointment to thousands, most of them women who crowded about the corridors leading to the marble caucus room as early as 8:30 o'clock. When officers later informed the crowd that the plans had been changed and the general public would be excluded be-cause of the confusion caused yester-day there were loud protests. Hundreds remained about the building clamoring for admittance. The crowd lined the hallways leading to the new room and the police had difficulty keeping a passageway to the door. (The Daily New Era - Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 23 Apr 1912)
Once again he confirmed his details (although in this instance saying "about 17 years" of employment compared to "sixteen" a few days before). He gave very brief answers to most questions, providing little extemporaneous detail, perhaps on the advice of the White Star legal team. This time Second officer Lightoller was there, sitting to his right (please note photograph above) even interjecting that "2.20 apparent time of ship" equals "5.47 Greenwich mean time". Slightly further to Pitman's right was Bruce Ismay, with a pen to his mouth, seemingly lost in thought.
Pitman "choked" and "breaks down"
One pivotal moment during his questioning was when Senator Smith pressured him into talking about the sounds of people dying in the water. Pitman interrupts the Senator's question with "I would rather you did not speak about that... I can not very well describe it. I would rather you would not speak of it." After eventually answering his question he states: "I would rather that you would have left that out altogether."
However there is more to this moment than apparently meets the eye, as the inquiry transcript does not include a description as to how it was said. According to author Senan Molony in his Encyclopedia Titanica article entitled "Pitman's Own Private Iceberg" the Titanic's Third Officer broke down while giving evidence in America at the point when he was asked about the piteous noises made by those drowning in the water."
That Pitman "broke down" is likely based on newspaper reports of the time. For example the Brighton Argus ran an article on Wednesday 24th April 1912 which described how "Mr. Pitman" heard "cries of distress and ordered the men to row in that direction. Passengers demurred, however, and he yielded to their importunities. The cries continued for an hour. The witness, who appeared distressed, gave no further explanation as to not going to the rescue of the drowning people. He bore out Mr. Boxhall's statement regarding a strange vessel which declined to answer the Titanic signals."
According to a newspaper article of Washington April 23rd, entitled "Third Officer and Look Out of Titanic Tell of Sinking of the Great Ship" Pitman's manner was "almost stolid" (meaning 'calm, dependable, and showing little emotion or animation') but that his "voice choked when he came to the death scene", his "face paled" when describing Murdoch saying good-bye and being never seen again, and there was even a "few minutes" of silence during his testimony as he recovered himself. This is the excerpt:
Third Officer and Look Out of Titanic Tell of Sinking of the Great Ship
Washington, April 23 Third Officer Herbert J. Pittman [sic] was on the stand before the Senate Investigating Committee. He described the sinking of the great ship. He told of the prayers, the cries, the moans — the mighty chorus of woe that rose to heaven as the Titanic disappeared beneath the waters.
The British officer told his story in short, blunt sentences. His manner was almost stolid. But even his voice choked when he came to the death scene, and he begged the committee not to question him further along that line.
…. “First Officer Murdock [sic] told me to go in charge of the boat. He shook hands with me, saying, ‘Goodbye old man, good luck.’” The witness stopped. His face paled under the bronze of the sea. Then he added, in a lower voice:
“I never saw him again.
Pittman [sic] was pressed by members of the committee to give details as to his efforts to rescue people from the water.
“I would rather you would leave that out,” he said, his face white.
“I know you would,” said Senator Smith, “but we must know about this.
“That was all the effort I made to rescue people from the water,” replied Pittman [sic], almost choking.
There was silence, broken only by the moaning of the wind, and the gasp of a woman for a few minutes. Then Pittman [sic] went on. “We saw the Carpathia about half past three. She seemed about five miles away by her lights.
“Day was just breaking. All the cries and moans had stopped long before.”
Source: (1912, April 23). Third Officer and Look Out of Titanic Tell of Sinking of the Great Ship. The Day Book. Link: https://strangeago.com/2017/07/14/third-officer-look-titanic-tell-sinking-great-ship/
The day following his testimony, Pitman also submitted two documents (called a "memorandum") on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 24, 1912. The first was a list of numbers of "Passengers carried and saved" divided by class. The second document was the "Ship's Run Data" .
Additionally, on the 24th of April 1912, Pitman co-signed a letter Second Officer Lightoller had written to Ada Murdoch in Southampton, the widow of First officer Murdoch, and co-signed by the other two surviving officers, Boxhall and Lowe, "to refute the reports that were spread in the newspapers. I was practically the last man, and certainly the last officer, to see Mr. Murdoch... Other reports as to the ending are absolutely false. Mr. Murdoch died like a man, doing his duty."
Return to England
At midday Thursday May the 2nd, 1912, Pitman, along with the three other surviving officers, thirty crew members, and White Star President Bruce Ismay, were able to depart for England, boarding the Adriatic from New York City.
Pitman's sister, a Mrs W. Taylor, received a Western Union Telegram stating: "Due Liverpool 11th. Steamer Adriatic. Write me by return. Queenstown. Other letters send Liverpool. Love Bert". And indeed the Adriatic did arrive in Liverpool, UK, on the 11th of May 1912.
In England, an inquiry was instigated by the British Wreck Commissioner on behalf of the British Board of Trade, overseen by High Court judge Lord Mersey, and held in London from May 2nd to July 3rd 1912. The hearings took place mainly at the London Scottish Drill Hall, at 59 Buckingham Gate, London SW1. There were a total of 42 days of official investigation.
In a personal letter addressed directly to Pitman, the Imperial Merchant Service Guild mentions Pitman's appearance at the British Titanic Inquiry: "As a member and supporter of the Guild, we have already made all arrangements for the watching and protecting of your interests at the Inquiry into the loss of the "Titanic", when I myself, personally accompanied our lawyer, Mr Holmes, on his attendance at the beginning of the Inquiry".
Pitman was called to appear on the 13th day, 22 May 1912 at the Wreck Commissioner’s Court, in Westminster, at which he appeared as witness number 45 and was asked a total of 393 questions. On 22nd he was asked questions 14911 - 15304. He was recalled the following day, on Thursday May 23rd 1912, questions 17018 - 17040, to be asked regarding the number of ice warning messages he saw posted - clarifying if he had seen one or two messages. Although there were possibly two, he confirmed he only read one of them.
Equally conservative, Pitman gave only short answers to the questions posed. There are also some discrepancies between his US and British Inquiry statements - for example in the States he said his lifeboat station was no.5, however in England he said it was lifeboat no.1
After his appearance, his expenses were reimbursed, via a British Titanic Inquiry memo dated 29th June 1912 and addressed to Third Officer Herbert J. Pitman, Somerset, states: "Herewith please find cheque for £16-17s 6d, being the amount due to you for subsistence."
Pitman later received his own copy of the British Board of Trade Inquiry, accompanied by a letter from White Star Line's New York Legal counsel asking him to keep the document secret since he was not supposed to receive a copy. It is now in the collection of Craig Sopin.
At some point during or shortly thereafter, Pitman joined his fellow surviving officers - Lightoller, Boxhall and Lowe, for a studio photography session, of which two prints now remain. At least one print was given to Pitman as a keepsake, as it later appeared among his other belongings on the 2016 edition of the BBC's Antique Roadshow.
Not long after, Pitman received a hand written letter from Margaret Moody, the sister of Sixth officer Moody who was lost in the disaster. The letter is dated July 18th, 1912 and mentions her brother and the disaster in general, "I should be very pleased to do so as you were a very dear friend of my dear Jim's".