In 1928, 17-year-old Billy Gawronski decided it wasn’t enough to dream about going to Antarctica, so he set out to secretly join an outgoing ship. In an excerpt from Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s forthcoming book about Gawronski’s adventures, The Stowaway, we find Billy at a crucial moment in his plan.
As he took his first strokes through the murky, reeking Hudson River, Billy feared the whipping winds. He kept count—one, two, three, four, five; six, seven, eight, nine, ten—feeling a growing ease in the choppy water, even if he wasn’t going as fast as he thought. “Keep going,” he told himself; it was less than a mile to the ship. So long ago, on outdoor swims with the Polish Falcons, he had mastered the right way to breathe. Later, a streetwise immigrant’s kid, he’d jumped off the East River pier at a roped-off swimming area called Central Lanes, where even as a nine-year-old, he faced a harsher current than here. Billy was a veteran of hundreds of river swims.
As he told it later, the only thing on his mind was his one shot to get before Commander Richard E. Byrd and appeal to his mercy. Byrd liked stowaways. All the seventeen-year-old could do was aim for the flagship and hope for the best.
As he approached the City of New York, there was enough light to spot a hawser (a thick tow rope) hanging down to the brackish water. Despite numb fatigue, Billy found the strength to pull himself up and then keep his footing on the slippery deck that smelled of salt and masculine adventure. Covered in river scum, hair hanging down his forehead like oily kelp, he found his way to the hold, clambering on hands and knees, inching crabwise over rough-hewn wooden boards, and picking his way past intriguing crates of explorer supplies to find the out-of-view spot he’d settled on during his reconnaissance mission nine days before.
Billy removed his squelchy wet graduation suit, rolled the jacket and pants out of view, and stripped to his underwear. (One contradictory account claimed that he hid nude.) Secreted in the pitch-black of the smaller of the two forecastles he’d selected when the ship was open to visitors, Billy retold himself there had to be a job on the ship for a determined kid like him with water-clogged ears. Did he think of his mother, so fiercely protective of her only child; a woman who would never have thought him capable of betraying her this way? How long could he hold out without food or water? When should he emerge? There was no official rulebook for stowaways.
He had read about the hoopla planned for the send-off in the morning: the brass bands and relatives and bigwigs invited on deck to say goodbye before the New York loosened her moorings and the city’s official welcoming tugboat brought well-wishers back to shore. Rumor had it that Amelia Earhart, the new Queen of the Air, would loop-de-loop over the Hudson, the grand finale to send the ship on its way. Earhart was a great friend of Commander Byrd, and, unbeknownst to the public, the new mistress of his very married publisher. She had promoted the expedition as a personal favor, endorsing Lucky Strike cigarettes (“Lucky Strikes were the cigarettes she carried on the Friendship when she crossed the Atlantic. For a slender figure, reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”) and publicly handing over her $1,500 earnings to fund the Antarctic trip.
Finally, snatches of sleep until—something creaked. A rat? Scary shadows flickered across the walls. What happened next felt like a hallucination: just a few feet away from him on the dark second forecastle deck, Billy could just see a kid around his age, equally shocked to have company. The puny boy whispered his name: Jack.
Jack was a happy-go-lucky sixteen-year-old Jewish kid who had dropped out of school. Before this caper, Manhattan was the farthest he’d ever traveled from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he’d been born. Jack told his unexpected competitor that he’d arrived at the City of New York at seven o’clock in the morning, an hour before.
Well, determined Billy, then he was here first, hours ago. This was his spot.
Jack tried to discourage Billy, insisting that it wouldn’t pay for him to make this two-year trip without any of the thought he himself had put in. Why, Jack had brought a suitcase stuffed with warm clothes for once they neared Antarctica. He’d come aboard with extra clean underwear and a $100 bill pinned inside a coat pocket. Billy was practically naked. Negative 74.4 degrees? He’d freeze!
Billy was no dupe. “Is that so?” he shot back. If this was going to be such a rotten trip, why didn’t Jack get off the boat?
The boys argued for nearly an hour, cramped in their almost-adjacent shelves on the lower hidden forecastle, first in whispers, and then louder and louder. But then, to their joint amazement, yet another voice piped up: “Keep quiet! They’ll find all of us!”
Could there really be a third stowaway? Yes, the voice told them, for over two days! It was a deeper voice, manlier, belonging to one Bob Lanier, a black youth of twenty. Even knowing where to look, Billy and Jack could see only his feet.
Well, Jack said, that still left him the “sensible” one who had thought this through. Who goes the cracked step of swimming in the Hudson? Nuts! He’d taken a ferry and entered from the Hoboken pier when the crew wasn’t looking, without getting wet or tired out.
Bob said he had hired a rowboat to get to the ship, remaining as dry as Jack. Then he stopped talking, even when Billy and Jack called out to him. He let the younger daredevils bicker over who had the right to be with Byrd.
As the sun broke from behind clouds above deck, thousands of wistful Byrd fans jammed the pier. Nineteen Eagle Scouts were thickly clustered where the expedition publicists had prearranged for them to congratulate the cherry-picked Paul Siple, who, in full view of the cameras, calmly said goodbye to his tearful parents and his twenty-five-year-old sister, Carolyn, and admitted to curious reporters that, no, he didn’t have a girl. One reporter later described Siple as “[t]he fully-accepted Peter Pan, standing on deck as calm as Capablanca.” (Cuban-born José Raúl Capablanca was world chess champion from 1921 to 1927.)
Nearly six foot four and weighing more than two hundred pounds, Siple was hardly a boy in the same way that Billy or Jack was, and his Boy Scouts uniform bulged with telltale manly muscles. But the media kept up the charade, even though the nineteen-year-old had already completed his first year at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, his double majors biology and geology. (Byrd had shrewdly set an age of seventeen to twenty for his scouting recruitment.)
Below deck, the boys agreed, finally, on something: Siple had to be a ringer! He was a member of the Alpha Chi Rho fraternity. He was not a boy like them.
Up above the boys’ heads, Commander Byrd had joined the flagship crew for a minitrip around the Statue of Liberty before his scheduled return to shore. Dressed in khaki trousers and shirt, and topped with a little khaki sunhat appropriate for the wilds of a jungle, Byrd was the very embodiment of what Americans thought an explorer should be.
As commotion increased above, adrenaline spiked below in the hold. The trio was terrified of being discovered before the ship left port. If only they could hear more than muffled voices.
Journalists fired off last questions, with Byrd pooh-poohing rumors that the two thousand gallons of booze, four hundred gallons of rum, one hundred gallons of port wine, one hundred gallons of sherry, one hundred quarts of champagne, and additional rye and burgundy on board were anything but medicinal. What an undignified question! “Just when we are starting,” he told the goading reporter who dared to raise that issue now, “I can hardly afford to discuss things that are not so. I have issued the order that there is to be no intoxicating liquor aboard except for medicinal purposes, and that this alcohol is to be kept under lock and key by the medical officer of the expedition.”
(The explorers of what’s been called the heroic age did not have to suffer the indignity of American prudency: Ernest Shackleton wisely brought along plenty of hard liquor to cheer his men. In 2006, several unopened cases of the malt whisky his boozy crew imbibed in 1909 were found beneath the floorboards of their expedition hut in Antarctica’s Cape Royds. The whisky was smartly cloned by the original distiller, Mackinlay’s, for sale in the twenty-first century as Mackinlay’s Shackleton Rare Old Highland Malt.)
The City of New York left Hoboken’s Pier 1 with two hundred tons of material aboard and thirty-three people (not including three thrill-thirsty stowaways) shortly before one o’clock. Barges had been set up under spitting skies for hundreds of cheering spectators, and there was a band aboard New York City’s official municipal welcoming tug, the Macom (its name an abbreviation of “Mayor’s Committee”), an iconic boat built in 1894 and still in regular use for greeting visiting dignitaries, from foreign leaders to triumphant sports stars. The band’s playlist included “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “Till We Meet Again,” “While,” and “Laugh! Clown! Laugh!”
After a final speech, a Junkers monoplane manned by the expedition’s much-lauded pilots dipped and capered across the voyaging ship’s bows and banked at vertiginous angles over her stem, the most forward part of a ship’s bow. (Although some 1928 reporters thought aviatrix sensation Amelia Earhart was also circling overhead in tribute, others got it right: she had merely come aboard for the send-off.) Ships docked at piers and on the river whistled goodbye. Harold Cunningham, the captain of the largest working American ship, the Leviathan, swung his gargantuan liner to pay respect before heading to Rio de Janeiro. Well-heeled passengers in nautical sweaters and vested suits came to the rails, and—seeing the gold-and-blue banner for the “Byrd Antarctica Expedition” on the ship passing by—waved wildly. Next to the Leviathan, the forty-three-year-old square-rigger looked like a bathtub toy.
Up on deck of the New York stood the assigned Times reporter, Russell Owen, already a well-respected veteran of exploration coverage but not yet nearly the household name he would become by expedition’s end. He’d later describe leaning against the railing and taking his first notes as an unofficial crew member while each swash of wave hit. Owen’s dozens of articles over the next two years would earn him a Pulitzer Prize.
Still down below and having missed all the revelries—and panicking a few times at the sound of nearby footsteps—the three hidden youths felt real motion now. Their bona fide adventure began as the City of New York slowly navigated the tricky waters of New York Harbor, heading toward the Atlantic Ocean and a quick first stop in Virginia to top up her coal briquettes before sailing for the Panama Canal.
Shirtless men in overalls scampered on deck, working to square the yards (adjust the sails) before hitting the Atlantic. Below deck a radio was turned on.
Did the boys discuss a plan to emerge? Did they even have one? Byrd would disembark soon, yes—but even if they were found before he left after sailing a few miles with reporters for show, they’d have plenty of opportunity to meet their hero in Dunedin, after all, in two months’ time.
Nerves frayed, sloppy with exhaustion, Billy and Jack were at it again, not even in hiding anymore. Why wouldn’t a young fellow like Billy be thinking of getting a start in the world instead of traveling around? He’d have to work awfully hard if they caught him, and he wouldn’t be paid for it.
Footsteps! Someone above had heard Jack and Billy arguing: that someone being sharp-eyed Sverre Strom, the six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound Norwegian second mate and ice pilot—one of the very few foreigners invited to join the Americans. Everyone wanted Norwegians. Strom had been hired as a veteran of the Samson when it sailed under his country’s flag. He had ten years’ experience at sea, and, unlike most of the newbie volunteer passengers, he knew how things were supposed to run.
Hearing Strom’s voice, Billy dashed to the bunker in a desperate attempt to hide again. But no luck. He was caught, pinned down by Strom’s strong tattooed arms until backup could come.
Excerpted from The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro ($26; Simon & Schuster), available now.