In the early morning of April 15, 1912, 21-year-old
Richard “Dick” Norris Williams II was washed off the deck of the doomed RMS Titanic and
into the icy water of the North Atlantic. Rescued by a lifeboat, but almost up to his
waist in near-frozen water for several hours, Williams suffered such extreme frostbite that
medical personnel wanted to immediately amputate his legs; instead, Williams decided he liked
his legs where they were and went on to make rather good use of the appendages. Born on January 29, 1891 in Geneva, Switzerland
to American parents (in fact, his father, Charles Duane Williams, was a descendant of
Benjamin Franklin), Williams had a privileged childhood, studying at an exclusive Swiss
boarding school and later being admitted to Harvard. He was traveling with his father (an accomplished
tennis player in his own right and whose efforts in part led to the creation of the International
Tennis Federation), when they boarded the Titanic (as first class passengers) in Cherbourg,
France to sail to America to participate in a tennis tournament. (The year before, Williams had won the Swiss
Championship.) After the Titanic hit the iceberg on April
14, but before anyone was too worried, Williams was passing a stateroom where a steward was
unable to open the door to free the panicked passenger inside. Williams broke down the door and freed the
passenger; but ignorant of the impending tragedy, the hapless steward was more concerned with
property damage – to the point that he threatened to report Williams to the White Star line. After this, to pass the time while the ship
was sinking and to keep warm, father and son headed for the gym. Ultimately Williams did leave the ship, however. As for this, while it’s clear by all accounts
that he was eventually washed from the floundering Titanic, some provide that just before this,
Williams witnessed his father’s death, and that the older Williams was crushed (along
with several others) by a collapsing forward funnel. However, there doesn’t appear to be any direct
quote from Williams himself that has survived to today describing this aspect of the story,
other than that he very clearly states that his father was not with him after he was thrown
from the ship. Whatever the case, once in the icy water,
Williams later recounted, “After we hit the water the Titanic rebounded
and I was hurled through the air, and clear away from the boat, beyond the suction zone…. I was not under water very long, and as soon
as I came to the top I threw off the big fur coat. I also threw off my shoes. About twenty yards away I saw something floating. I swam to it and found it to be a collapsible
boat [Collapsible A]. I hung on to it and after a while got aboard
and stood up in the middle of it. The water was up to my waist. About thirty of us clung to it. When officer Lowe’s boat [Lifeboat 14] picked
us up eleven of us were still alive; all the rest were dead from cold.” Later, Williams found himself aboard the RMS
Carpathia, the Cunard Line steamship that responded to the Titanic’s distress signal
and ultimately saved approximately 700 lives. (Interestingly, there was another large ship
that was actually within visual range of the Titanic when it was going down. However, owing to the fact that their radio
operator had gone to sleep for the night and the captain chose to ignore the emergency
flares coming from the Titanic and the weird way it was sitting in the water when they
were discussing the matter, that ship didn’t bother going to help. Back to Williams- the problem for him was
that, beyond having to endure the frigid night sopping wet from his little dunk in the ocean,
as he mentioned, his legs were still submerged in water in the lifeboat. The result was that when the Carpathia’s doctor
saw his legs, he strongly recommended they be amputated. Refusing to let his burgeoning tennis career
be cut short, however, Williams declined the offer despite the potential risk to his life. Instead, he simply did his best to get the
blood flowing again, hobbling around as best he could until he needed rest and then sleep. Even then, he’d religiously wake up every
two hours to walk around with the hope that the added blood flow would allow his legs
to heal. Ultimately as the strength in his legs returned,
he continued to ramp up his physical activities every day until all was back to normal. His efforts paid off- within a year Williams
became the intercollegiate tennis champion in singles, playing for Harvard, and went
on to win it again in 1915. (He also won for doubles in 1914 and 1915). Williams’ most famous tennis wins include
singles titles in the U.S. Championships in 1914 and 1916, doubles champion at Wimbledon
with Chuck Garland in 1920, Olympic Gold medalist in 1924 with Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman in mixed
doubles, and he was a member of champion Davis Cup teams in 1925 and 1926. But tennis wasn’t the only place he put his
legs to good use; Williams served in the U.S. Army in World War I, and was granted awards
from France for valor including the prestigious Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor. He was ultimately inducted into the International
Tennis Hall of Fame in 1957 and died on June 2, 1968 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania at the
age of 77.

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Dennis Veasley

19 thoughts on “From Titanic Survivor and Near Amputee to Hall of Fame Tennis Champion”

  1. The thought of a guy being on the sunken titanic, being told his legs needed to come off, and saying NO and putting in the monster effort to regain his fitness makes me feel really bad about being too lazy to walk across the room to get my remote control

  2. Interesting story. I would like to see a daily Monday through Friday or Monday, Wednesday and Friday today in history sort of videos. I understand that would be a big undertaking and may not have time for that. Even just notable or obscure events in history would be entertaining. Doesn't always have to be about a single person to be interesting. Groups of people have done great things in the past and there have been many moments in time to cover. Even recent events like the discovery of M87.

  3. I've always been a fan of you guys doing this channel's jam since summer last year, I love it and keep it up, I like the editing in this and the content is always one step further than pub knowledge which is always a pleasure 🙂

  4. is it true the titanics flares where the wrong color? i heard they had celebration color flares and not distress flares

  5. Never, ever heard of a closer ship that didn’t respond to signal flairs. Wake the fuckin radio guy at least!!!

  6. Keep it up! You are doing great I remember finding your videos first through Biographix back when it was two videos a week. Now look how great that turned out. It’s still my favorite think on YouTube.

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