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  • Writer's picturePaul Amirault

SOS STORIES, Part Two: The First American to Send an SOS

In February of 1910, the New York Times published a front-page article entitled “S.O.S. – The Ambulance Call of the Sea.” The piece chronicled several incidents that showed how the newly developed technology of wireless had become a game-changer for mariners. This was the closing line:

“A decade spans the development of applied wireless, and even now, when It has not reached a perfected state, it has not only become a commercial factor, but it has robbed the sea of half its terror. Accidents which, in the not so long ago, were of the gravest sort and meant not only sleepless nights for the officers and passengers, but days of heart-breaking toil to the men, have become but exciting incidents of an ocean voyage.”

This colorful summation certainly describes the first two recorded instances where an SOS distress call was used by Americans—both of which occurred in 1909, just a few months after the British steamer RMS Slavonia wrecked off the Azores.

The S.O.S. of the S.S. Arapahoe

On August 11, the Clyde Line steamer SS Arapahoe (pictured, courtesy of the Library of Congress) was traveling south from New York to Charleston, SC, with 150 passengers, when its propeller shaft broke near Cape Hatteras, NC.

It was a perilous situation. The area was known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic because two powerful ocean forces met there—the Arctic’s Labrador Current, and the much warmer Gulf Stream. (According to Wikipedia, this treacherous plot of sea has caused more than 5,000 shipwrecks since record keeping began in the 1500s.)

And since the Arapahoe was basically adrift and at the mercy of the waves, it could easily be capsized in the rough water—or else driven onto the nearby Diamond Shoals and sunk. To avoid this fate, the captain quickly anchored the ship, and turned to the steamer’s wireless officer for help.

The officer, a young man named Theodore Haubner, was aware that the SOS signal had recently been adopted by the Berlin Conference as the International Maritime Signal for distress, so he sent it out at once.

The Rescue

Within minutes, the news had traveled up and down the eastern seaboard. And the responses came quickly. One of the Arapahoe’s sister ships, the S. S. Iroquois, heard the call and steamed to the site. It arrived twelve hours later, and, after hooking a line to the stricken steamer, ended up towing it safely to Charleston harbor for repairs.

Over the next several months, the Arapahoe’s propeller shaft was replaced. The job was finished in December of that year, and the ship returned to the sea once again. Theodore Haubner was still at the wireless.

Then, something outrageous happened.

The S.O.S. of the S.S. Iroquois

While the Arapahoe was enroute to New York, Hauptner intercepted another SOS call. It came from his previous rescue ship, the S.S. Iroquois, who was now stranded in the very same area where the Arapahoe had come to grief. And not only that, the Iroquois had nearly the same problem: a broken rudder.

But the key difference between the two incidents was that weather was now an even greater factor. It was December 29th, and the ship was stuck in a powerful winter gale.

Haubner responded right away and offered the Iroquois assistance. However, his ship wasn’t close enough to effectively rescue the steamer. The job eventually fell to the crew of another ship, the S.S. San Marcos, who were able to successfully navigate the fierce winter storm—and tow the Iroquois back to Charleston.

But for Haubner, it appears that the young wireless officer had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Not only was he the first US wireless officer to issue an SOS call on behalf of a stricken ship, he was also the first wireless operator to both send and receive one. And for that, he went down in the record books twice.

Ted Haubner retires

A few years after these incidents, Haubner left the sea and the wireless industry altogether. He became a businessman.

His family eventually donated his memorabilia to the Henry Ford Museum—where they remain to this day. These items include the wireless apparatus Haubner had used to send the first U.S. SOS call, and also the headphones he’d been wearing when he received the second one. (The collection also has a photo of Haubner that was taken aboard the Arapahoe.)

And while the first two recorded uses of the SOS signal in U.S. history were arguably “close calls,” the third instance where the distress signal was utilized by an American ship was another matter entirely. It was completely terrifying. The ship wouldn’t be towed to safety…it would end up plunging to the ocean floor—and very nearly taking the entire crew with it.

And this story also involves a lucky wireless officer.

And a psychic premonition, too.

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Paul Amirault is a Hollywood TV producer and writer who was obsessed with the Titanic disaster for much of his life—until he discovered the reason (past-life memories). His book about the experience, The Man Who Sent the SOS: A Memoir of Reincarnation and the Titanic, is available now.

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