Helena Opid Modrzejewska, or Madame Modjeska as she was called, is a name most Nevadans wouldn’t recognize.
But, perhaps, it should be, as Nevadans, who are recalling key historical dates and individuals important in commemorating this year’s 150th year of statehood, must include Madame Modjeska among those distinguished persons who have figured prominently in the state’s cultural development.
A well-known Shakespearean actress who emigrated to the U.S. from her native Poland in the late 1870s, she was the first major European actress to appear at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City that over the years has hosted such performers as Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes Booth who killed President Abraham Lincoln, Al Jolson, Lilly Langtry and John Phillip Sousa.
The national and international plaudits Madame Modjeska received at Piper’s served as the springboard for her subsequent successful career in the United States and her worldwide reputation as one of the greatest Shakespearean actresses of all time in roles, for instance, as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia in Hamlet and Desdemona in Othello.
Madame Modjeska, in fact, reached such lasting acclaim that 35 years after her death in 1909 at the age of 68 from kidney disease, her name was given to a World War II Liberty ship.
But, alas, the 441-foot, 7,100-ton SS Helena Modjeska, one of 2,710 Liberty ships built by the U.S. and operated by the U.S. Merchant Marine during the war, was not destined to achieve the fame and acclaim provided the heralded actress with the same name.
Even the fact the ship ever existed and suffered a mystifying disaster at sea is known only by a handful in the U.S.
Commissioned on Nov. 6, 1944, the SS Helena Modjeska, that had a civilian crew of about 70 and a 20-man naval armed guard in charge of its deck guns and anti-aircraft batteries, plied the world’s oceans during and following the end of WW II, delivering and receiving troops and heavy cargoes such as tanks, trucks, aircraft and railroad stock.
The ship, which was not involved in combat during its lifetime, performed well during its wartime service and, following war’s end, was tasked with returning heavy military equipment from Europe that had been determined to be salvageable.
On Nov. 16, 1946, 13 months following the end of WW II, the SS Helena Modjeska’s life was to end ingloriously less than two years after its launching and commissioning.
Carrying a full cargo of Army trucks and tanks lashed to her deck and stored in the hold, the ship struck an underwater reef on the treacherous Goodwin Sands off England’s Kent coast during a heavy storm and became dead in the water, listing badly.
The East Kent Mercury newspaper described the scene the following day:
“Driven by a howling wind, the rain fell in blinding sheets as darkness fell. It was seen that the Helena Modjeska was suffering immobility from the buffeting. The scene at sea was one of savage grandeur.”
The New York Times, in a story headlined “Thieves Steal 2 Boatloads from Stranded U.S. Ship,” wrote:
“Thieves last night raided the Helena Modjeska, a U.S. cargo steamer stranded on the Goodwin Sands, and got away with two boatloads of loot — part of the $3 million cargo aboard.
“Customs officers, police and coast guards visited small ports up and down the coast in an effort to trace the men and goods. Eight tugs standing by the grounded ship made an effort to refloat her, but had to abandon it because of the ebbing tide,” said the Times.
And there was more news from the wreck scene.
A dozen German prisoners who had escaped from a prisoner of war camp in England and had stowed away in the Helena Modjeska’s hold managed to escape during the storm and also were being sought by the authorities.
Soon, the ship broke in two and both sections floated away from one another. The crewmembers on each section were rescued by nearby fishing boats and a large launch carrying reporters and photographers that had been chartered by the London Evening News.
All members of the crew were accounted for except the ship’s captain, 56-year-old William H. Curran, who was declared missing following his rescue by the newspaper boat.
The following morning Curran, a master mariner who had spent many years at sea, was found dead in his locked hotel room in the nearby town of Ramsgate.
It was learned he had checked into the hotel, alone, following his rescue, and had told the hotel staff, “I fought to save my ship... but it was hopeless... I am going to my room and do not want to be disturbed even by the police.”
An autopsy determined he died not by his own hand but from a heart attack.
As for the missing German prisoners, they were rounded up two days after the ship broke in two.
Both sections of the SS Helena Modjeska were towed to port and broken up into scrap.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus and be reached at email@example.com