The Forgotten Man Responsible for Titanic Mania

The Amazing Story of Titanic’s Last Surviving Crew Member

Titanic Survivors in Lifeboats © Philip Weiss

April 15, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. While the famous and infamous have had their Titanic stories told, one man’s remarkable story remains unexamined.

Walter Belford first came forward and identified himself as a member of the Titanic’s crew in 1955 to writer Walter Lord who was working on a book about the Titanic which would be called A Night To Remember.

When Belford had reached the age of 92 in 1962, he was believed to be the last surviving crew member of the Titanic.  On April 15 of that year he was interviewed by the the New York Times on the 50th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking.

Belford told his story of seeing Captain E.J. Smith standing calmly on the bridge as the great liner was going down. Belford was the chief night baker of the ship and described how he was preparing rolls for the next day when the Titanic struck the iceberg. In dramatic fashion he told how after the last life boat had left the ship, the Captain addressed the remaining crewmen by saying, “Well boys, I’ve done the best I can for you. Now it’s in your own hands. Do the best you can to save yourselves.”

Belford then went over to the side of the ship and jumped overboard from thirty feet above the water. He had on a lifejacket and his white bakers uniform with a quart of whisky in it. Five hours later he was plucked alive from the bone chilling water by one of the lifeboats. While in the water he kept taking sips of the whisky sporadically to keep warm. When he was picked up he still had a few drops of whisky left.

It is a riveting account of survival. There’s only one problem – Walter Belford was never on the Titanic.

Yet, Belford’s story is one of the most important stories of the Titanic’s sinking.

You see, Walter Belford was not a crewman according to the Titanic’s sign-on crew list. He was not listed on the 1912 U.S. Senate Investigation of the sinking, which contains the names of  all the crew members. If Belford was on the Titanic, he most peculiarly didn’t file for lost wages with the British Board of Trade, which any crew member would have done. In addition, in the New York Times article from April 16, 1962 Belford claims that he just turned 92. The Social Security Death Index record indicates that Belford would have turned 90 in 1962, not 92. Also in a sloppy piece of reporting, Belford definitely would not have been the last surviving crew member. In a Times article that appeared the day Belford was interviewed, another survivor Washington Dodge said he corresponds with First Class Steward F. Dent Ray who was the man responsible for getting Dodge’s father into one of the lifeboats.

It seems Belford appropriated the story of Charles Joughin, who was the baker aboard the Titanic and who had left the ship at the last possible moment and did survive for a long time in the water with a bottle of alcohol.

Nobody questioned the veracity of Belford’s story while he was alive. All evidence points to him being an impostor. So why is he so important?

Because Walter Belford unknowingly became the impetus for what would end up being the leading organization in the world pepetuating the Titanic’s collective memory.

Author Walter Lord started the resurgence of interest in the sinking of the Titanic with A Night to Remember. Lord interviewed survivors of the disaster to form the foundation of the minute by minute account of Titanic’s sinking.  A Night To Remember would end up being the basis for a fine movie of the same name. When Lord put out his initial query to find Titanic survivors, the first survivor that came forward to meet Lord was Walter Belford.

Lord later acknowledged that Belford was very important to him in his compilation of A Night To Remember. Lord died in 2002 and never acknowledged that Belford might have been a fake survivor after questions arose about his actually being on the ship.

As mentioned earlier, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sinking, Belford with other Titanic survivors attended a ceremony held at the Seamen’s Church Institute in New York City. The aforementioned story was covered in many newspapers across the country. Belford’s photograph from that story is reproduced below.

 

Photo © New York Times

As a teenager in the 1950′s Edward Kamuda of Massachusetts had developed an interest in all things Titanic. Kamuda saw the photograph of this event in the newspaper and tracked Belford down and corresponded with him.

Kamuda was dismayed when he discovered after Belford had died in March, 1963 that Belford’s letters, artifacts and documents, had been thrown away by his landlady. The wanton destruction Belford’s memorabilia included an annotated copy of A Night To Remember which was being used by his landlady to line her birdcage.

Kamuda made a promise to never again let Titanic historic material be destroyed again.  The Titanic Enthusiasts, later renamed The Titanic Historical Society came into existence out of Belford’s death.

The Titanic Historical Society which started with a handful of people meeting in Kamuda’s home in Indian Orchard, MA in 1963, grew into a worldwide organization with thousands of members. The Society over the years has done much valuable research into all aspects of the great luxury liner and preserve the history of The White Star Line and RMS Titanic.

(Listen to Edward Kamuda’s interview from 2008 from Connecticut Public Broadcasting which includes interviews with Titanic survivors)

The members of The Titanic Historical Society are the progenitors for the Titanic craze that would continually fuel interest in the great ship.  Among the events that epitomize Titanic-mania are the dramatic rediscovery of the Titanic by Robert Ballard in 1985 and James Cameron’s 1997 smash movie, Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Now in 2012, the 100th anniversary will be observed with a frenzy of books, articles, a re-release of James Cameron’s Titanic film now in 3-D and various commemorations.

Why Walter Belford claimed he was on the Titanic will never be known. There are still those who believe Belford’s story to be true including some members of the Titanic Historical Society, even though the evidence points to him not being on the Titanic. But the movement Belford posthumously inspired to have the Titanic remembered, lives on.

For another little known story concerning the Titanic, click here to read about the mystery of the saved Titanic baggage.

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