'God does protect his children'

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

Donna Taylor’s incredible life journey is matched only by her attitude about it.

Seventy years ago, the Conway woman — then named Carol Shaw — was a 7-year-old survivor when the SS West Lashaway was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-66 on Aug. 30, 1942, about 375 miles east of Trinidad. She, along with her older brother, Richard, and sister, Georgia, had lived with their missionary parents, Harvey and Vera Shaw, in French Equatorial Africa. The ominous developments of World War II made their return to the United States necessary, and they booked passage on the cargo ship.

When the torpedoes came, Vera Shaw and Georgia, 10, were below deck. They were never seen again. Harvey Shaw was badly injured. Taylor said the ship’s captain knew her father was injured and unable to take care of his children, so he had her and Richard, 13, transferred from their father’s to the most seaworthy of the four rafts. But with the rafts tied together and bumping perilously into each other, the captain ordered them cut apart. Harvey Shaw’s raft drifted off to the horizon.

“The last time I saw him, he was alive,” Taylor recalled 70 years later. 

She and Richard were among the 17 survivors rescued by the HMS Vimy, a British destroyer, from the 8-by-10 raft after nearly three weeks adrift at sea. The 42 survivors of the torpedo attack remained together for three days on the four rafts until they were separated in bad weather.

Through everything, Taylor considers herself to have been exactly where she was supposed to be.

“I think I was in shock,” she said of her emotional state in the aftermath of the attack. “When the torpedo hit our ship, I was thrown up in the air and came down and hit my head on something on the deck, and I can remember my head was bleeding, and when I went to get my life jacket, there was palm oil all over the deck. That was our cargo. I slipped and broke my right elbow.

“I do not remember the fear; I don’t remember being scared. I don’t really even remember asking about my parents. I was in shock, which I think was a blessing in disguise.”

Yet she holds no grudge, even against the German fighters who launched the torpedoes that made her and her brother orphans.

“That was really amazing,” she said of the 1987 reunion that brought her together with her fellow raft survivors, the crew of the German sub and the American ship that later sank that sub. “[The Germans] could not understand why we even wanted to be friends with them, but when it’s wartime, any enemy vessel is fair game, and they had no way of knowing there were civilians on the ship. But it was really an interesting experience to get to meet them and tour a sub much like the one that torpedoed us.

“They couldn’t believe we wanted to be friends because they had killed our parents, so we were able to explain to them we were where we were supposed to be at the right time. We could share with them that God loved them like He loved us, and we didn’t have any reason to hold a grudge against them.”

The SS West Lashaway sank within 90 seconds of the attack — too quickly for its lifeboats to be lowered.

“The rafts were on the deck, and when the ship went under water, they stayed afloat,” Taylor remembered. “We had 19 people on ours. Some were sitting on the floor; our feet and legs were in the water all the time. We had so many people and that weighed it down.”

Two from that raft didn’t survive until the rescue. 

“There weren’t a whole lot of survivors [from the sub attack],” she said. “A lot of men got trapped inside and did not even have time to come up to the deck. Of course, they went down with the ship. We thought my mother and sister were sucked down when the ship went under. I was thrown out and evidently my brother was, too.”

On Sept. 18, the raft was sighted. At first, the crew of the HMS Vimy thought it was a disguised German sub and opened fire.

“Mostly all I remember about the rescue was we thought we were going to be rescued, but the ship started shooting at us,” Taylor said. “We had rigged up a tarp as cover and made that into a flag, and when they saw that, they stopped shelling. They were homing in on us. But it never got that far.”

A young HMS Vimy officer, Raymond Venables, carried young Carol to safety.

“Each officer was assigned a survivor, and I just remember that he was very sweet to me,” Taylor recalled. “He got me down to first aid and got my wounds dressed and a hospital robe to wear. We were allowed to eat anything we wanted if they had it, and he said I asked for peanut butter soup, which was my mother’s recipeAfter reaching America, Taylor and her brother spent about three months in an orphanage.

“It was a home for missionary children where our folks had said they wanted us to be if anything happened to them, but it was not a good experience for my brother,” she said. “There were very strict rules, and going through what he’d gone through, he didn’t adapt well. I adjusted fine.”

Lloyd and Edith Hobson, who had known the Shaws, adopted young Carol in 1944.

“When they found out my parents had been killed, there was a daug
hter in the family who wanted a little sister, and they came and wanted to know if we wanted to go on a vacation,” Taylor remembered. “I wanted to go, but my brother did not. [The ordeal] was a lot harder on him than me.”

Richard went through various foster homes and orphanages and ultimately wound up with an aunt in Burlington, Iowa. The two have kept in touch all these years; he’s now 83.

“Wherever I was, I had someone looking out for me, and he didn’t have that,” Taylor said. “He came and stayed with us, but he was having such a terrible time with the adjustment that he could not behave himself and he had to go back.”

She said she knew she would change her last name to Hobson with the adoption, so she decided — at age 9 — to make a fresh start and change her whole identity. For several weeks, she said, she went to school with a different name every day.

“My poor teacher suffered through it,” she said, laughing. “My two new brothers were Don and Bob, so I changed my name to Donna Roberta after them.”

She grew up in Michigan, graduating from high school in Detroit. That’s where she met her husband, Bill, who brought her to Conway in 1973 with his job with FMC Corporation. They have three daughters: Wendy Shirar of Conway; Cheryl Holdman of Benton and Becky Williams of Fayetteville. All three graduated from Conway High.

“This is home for them, and it is for my husband and me, too,” Taylor said. “His family was from Arkansas. His mother went to UCA back in 1920, so we have felt Arkansas was home.”

At 19, Taylor got to speak to Venables, her British rescuer, by transatlantic phone call. The two corresponded for several years. The last she knew, he was still alive.

Through the Internet, her daughter Wendy made contact with Venables’ daughter Helen James, who wrote in 2008 that he was “sitting by a log fire in a small town in South East England by his wife of 65 years.”

James posted her father’s response to Shirar’s query:

“A little girl of 7 off a raft beset by sharks after nearly three weeks with tough seamen of different races and nationalities — that is not something you forget,” Venables said. “She was so calm. Perhaps she clung to me a little tightly, but her first words as I remember them were, ‘I’m glad you picked us up. It’s my birthday Sunday.’”

Although she doesn’t remember that conversation, today Taylor considers her life to have been blessed.

“It’s a way to share the good news and the love of Christ,” she said. “Really, when I look back on it and I realize what all the Lord has done for me through not only saving me through that but the contacts that I have, it has turned out to be a tremendous blessing. I think it’s an encouragement for people to know that God does protect His children and provides for them. There were times we could’ve had more food, but we didn’t starve.” 

Looking back on her experiences, she said she sometimes thinks, “Did that happen to me?”

“I wasn’t even aware of war,” she said. “I didn’t even know what that was. My brother was older and was aware of it, and I’m sure our parents, too, were probably praying for safety each day. We’d had a beautiful trip and were real close to safe water when they got us. Another 2 1-2 days and we’d have been OK, but that just was not the plan.”

But 70 years later, she’s brought back to those days adrift by, of all things, a television commercial.

“That one where the little girl is sitting in her classroom and looks up and thinks she recognizes somebody and it turns out to be her military father? That commercial gets me,” she said. “For years I dreamed of my dad showing up and finding me. My husband said, ‘Do you not ever think that way about your mother?’ But no, evidently, I just knew after the shipwreck, after I didn’t see her, I knew she was gone. My dad — I knew he was still alive.”

She and her brother found some closure in 2000 when they learned that their father’s raft had been rescued a week after theirs off the island of St. Vincent. Harvey Shaw was still alive but died on the way to the infirmary. He is buried in the Anglican cemetery in Georgetown. They were able to visit his grave in 2002.

“I had known all along probably that it was hopeless looking for him, but it really bothered my brother,” Taylor said. “The last time we saw him, he was sitting with his head in his hands, very dejected. That was our last vision of him.”

But according to their research, a newspaper article quoted the raft’s only survivor, who was asked how he managed to live all those days before the rescue. 

“He said, ‘The missionary taught us to pray,’ so that let my brother and I know that he did not stay in that dejected state,” Taylor said. “He did somewhat recover from that; he still was able to help other people. That was what gave me the most closure.”