52 Ancestors: Cause of Death

Today I would like to share the story of my 2nd great uncle, the brother of my great-grandma Myrtle, Lester Erwin Sanford.

Lester was born 5 September 1896 in Woodburn, Oregon, the oldest of the eleven Sanford children. The family moved around a lot when Lester was growing up: as far north as Yakima, Washington, and south as San Jose, California, and even for a time along the Oregon Coast at Bandon.

Lester Sanford
Lester Sanford.

Lester served in World War I, leaving Hoboken, New Jersey on 24 January 1918 bound for Le Harve, France. On 5 February the ship he was traveling on, the Tuscania, was hit by a German torpedo. The Tuscania took over four hours to sink, at 10 PM. 230 were lost, 201 American troops and the rest crew. It was the first ship carrying American crews to be sunk. It wasn’t until 11 February that Lester’s mother Mabel was informed her son survived.

The entry from Lester’s diary, 5 February 1918:

Everyone ordered on deck with life belts on, as we were nearing the grave yard. had dinner, went back on deck, were told any one seeing a submarine, would be given $25.00 by the Captain of the boat. Had a boxing & wrestling match as the sea was smoother, was 5:00 p.m. so went down to my bunk to get my towel & soap & washed, was just combing my hair, when I heard an awful explosion, the lights all went out. we all scrambled on deck “saying take your time.” then I realized we were hit, we were in┬áthe Irish Sea between Ireland & Scotland it was 5:50 p.m. when we were hit and was pitch dark now so we fell in our places and the boats were lowered. my boat come down and before I could get in, it was full of other fellows that didn’t belong there. boats samashed to peices on the side of the boat and ropes broke. it idn’t look good to me so I stayed on board. men were jumping over board and were never seen again, men were floting around drowned. it was sure a terrible sight. so in about 2 hrs & 15 minuets three torpedoe boat distroyers came along side of us and we slide down ropes on them. I went down the Star Board Side on to a boat called H.M. Pigeon and we left for Port. we lost most of our clothes. we arrived at a place called Brunclanie, nearly frose from being wet, we marched to an Irish camp in Ireland 4:00 a.m. in a hurry.

Survivors from Tuscania Shipwreck.jpg
Oregon survivors from the sinking of the Tuscania.

Among the survivors with Lester was Harry Randall Truman, who died on Mt. St. Helens during the eruption on 1980 (Harry is in all the footage prior to the eruption, and quite a character here in the PNW).

The rest of his diary entries are pretty mundane. Lester spent some time in Dublin and London before being sent to France, where he dug trenches and cut logs during his time. It does not appear that he saw any combat.

Lester returned to Oregon and on 8 February 1920 married Myra Lena Roberts. They had one daughter, Mildred.

Myra, Lester, and Mildred Sanford.

Lester went to work for Southern Pacific Railroad as an Engineer. He was at work in Klamath Falls, Oregon on 19 September 1941 when there was an accident. The account of what happened was published the next day in The Klamath News:

According to railroad officials, the heavy freight, pulled by a huge Mallet mountain engine with the cab in front, hit the end boxcar, loaded with box shook, of a string of six standing in front of the express office building at 12:50 a.m. The impact shattered the cab and burst locomotive steam pipes which sprayed live steam on the three men, all of whom were in the Mallet control room. There was no one aboard the boxcar.

Picture of Train after accident
A picture of the train.

Lester was taken to the hospital but died a few hours later. He was survived by his wife, daughter, and both his parents. He was 45.

Lester Erwin Sanford
Lester Sanford.

And thank you to everyone who shared information about Lester on Ancestry! As I have written before, my grandma never mentioned many family stories, and this was one of them.

Until next time,