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Board of Trustees Honors Lifelong Resident for Civic Service

Barbara Wilson Shares Her Remarkable Story of Strength and Survival in WWII

Sitting in a vibrant blue dress jacket, Garden City resident Barbara Wilson was the epitome of youth and vitality as she sat and listened to Mayor Donald Brudie recount the harrowing events of her remarkable life story at the Garden City Board of Trustees meeting on Sept. 15.

Mayor Brudie told audience members of a tale that began in the summer of 1939. As the story goes, Wilson, a resident, of Garden City went to England on holiday. With the clouds of war looming over Europe, a mad dash exodus ensued, making the chances of passage out of England both slim and difficult to obtain.

“A young lady from Garden City was fortunate, or so she thought, to book passage on Sept. 3, 1939 on a 1924 liner named the S.S. Athenia,” the mayor said. The S.S. Athenia set sail from Liverpool, England, destined for Montreal, Canada. “Although the departure was uneventful, or so it appeared, England and France joined forces against Germany that very day as Germany had invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, starting World War II. In the late afternoon on Sept. 3, 1939, the S.S. Athenia was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the Hebrides Islands in Scotland,” Brudie explained.

Wilson and other passengers were forced to abandon ship at early dusk, the mayor said. “Of the approximate 1,000 passengers on board, 126 died. Some died on the vessel and others were in a lifeboat that, adjacent to the one our resident was in, was mangled on the morning of September 4 by the propellers of a rescue vessel.”

Brudie explained that not only did Wilson recall the entire episode in detail, but she also remembered how her hands were stepped on when she was descending the rope ladder to the lifeboat. Brudie said this almost caused her to lose her grip and plunge into the ocean waters. She further recalled that this did, in fact, happen to some passengers that fell into the water and were never seen again.

Wilson attributed her survival to her athletic prowess as a tennis champion the Garden City Casino. Not swayed by the events of Sept. 3, 1939, she returned home volunteering for Red Cross Service after her fiancé was killed in action. “She volunteered to go back to England to visit her fiancé’s gravesite. The heroine of this story is our own Barbara Wilson,” Brudie said.

Whereas September 3, 2001 marked the 72nd anniversary of the first day of World War II, the village wanted to recognize Wilson as one of the survivors of the S.S. Athena, the first ship to be torpedoed in World War II through high seas and for her volunteer work with the Red Cross. “I am honored as the mayor of the village to present you here tonight with a citation,” Brudie said.

During a standing ovation, Wilson thanked the mayor and those in attendance for the acknowledgement. “I can’t tell you what this means to me. It was no fun being on that ship when she was torpedoed and seeing people whose eyes were rolling around, lying on their backs. You knew they were dying. There was nothing you could do to help them. I was one of the lucky ones who survived and I was so grateful that I could be here and that I am here now,” Wilson said.

The picture of health, Wilson quipped that it was only recently that she became injured in a bad fall. “Now after all this, I slipped in the parking garage… on some grease, fell down and broke my hip,” she said. Raising her cane, she told the audience, “That’s why I carry this. But the doctor says I won’t be doing that too much longer and I hope he’s right…and thank you all so very, very much.”