A Sinking Ship Full of Foresters

Jan 20, 2021

Cornelius Harrington's identity card.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

Cornelius Harrington, a native of Hurley, grew up in the Northwoods and maintained a lifelong dedication to the land he loved.  Before his career could take off, his forestry skills made him invaluable to the U.S. Army in World War I.  Before getting there, however, Harrington survived a harrowing shipwreck.  

Cornelius Harrington, who was known around the state as Neal, was born in 1891 in the town of Hurley.  He entered college in 1909 and finished in 1913 with a degree in forestry from the University of Michigan.  During summer breaks he could be found working the Trout Lake Pine Nursery.  He went on to have a long and influential career with Wisconsin’s Forest Conservation Service.  But like so many young men of his generation, World War I intervened before he could get started.

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, Harrington volunteered for the army.  Because of his education he was given the rank of First Sergeant and assigned to the 6th Battalion, 20th Engineers Forestry.  The 20th Engineers Forestry was the largest regiment ever to exist in the U.S. Army.  It was specifically formed to harvest European forests and manufacture lumber on site for immediate wartime needs.  Harrington’s battalion was fully organized and ready to depart for Europe in January 1918 on board the S.S. Tuscania.

The Tuscania was a luxury liner from the Anchor Line of ships, which was a subsidiary of the Cunard Line.  It was pressed into service as a troop ship in 1916 and had already made several perilous voyages across the Atlantic when it picked up Harrington and 250 other members of the 20th Engineers.  In total there were over 2000 soldiers and 384 crew aboard.  The Tuscania was part of a larger convoy of twenty troop ships protected by eight destroyers.

On the morning of February 6, the ship rounded Ireland and turned into the North Channel en route for Liverpool.  It was at this point that the German submarine UB-77 spotted the convoy and began to stalk it.  As evening fell, the German U-boat commander ordered two torpedoes fired at the Tuscania.  The first one missed, but the second was a direct hit.  The Tuscania was mortally wounded and would sink in less than four hours.

When the torpedo hit, Harrington and others rushed to the main deck to help as they could.  There was little they could do.  Lifeboats were lowered, but the ship was listing, and inexpert handling of ropes and pulleys meant that entire boatloads of men were pitched into the frigid ocean.  Harrington was in one of those boats.

While Harrington had a life preserver on, many others leaping from the side of the ship did not.  Still close to the ship, Harrington spotted a rope dangling from the side and grabbed it.  Two other soldiers held on alongside him.  Even as the ship was sinking, it still had forward momentum and dragged Harrington through the choppy seas.

Fortunately, Harrington and his two companions spotted an empty lifeboat.  Letting loose of the rope, they swam to it and clambered aboard.  They plucked an additional 13 or 14 other men out of the water before being rescued by an Irish trawler.  Harrington survived, although 210 men drowned that day.  He was discharged in 1919 and went on to have an illustrious career as a conservationist.