This has to be the craziest birth story I’ve ever heard.
It was early 1942. Joseph and Desanka Mohorovicic and their daughter Visna, 2, were moving from Yugoslavia (recently invaded by the Axis) to the United States.
The family had traveled together as far as Cape Town, South Africa, but were split up when Desanka was refused passage on a ship to the U.S., possibly because she was 7 months pregnant. So she and Visna stayed behind while Joseph went ahead to New York, where he was to work as an attaché of the Yugoslav Consulate.
Desanka and Visna embarked a month later on the U.S. steamship City of New York.
They were near the end of their voyage when, on March 29, about 40 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the City of New York was hit by a torpedo. It was under attack by German submarine U 160. The ship fired back, but when a second torpedo hit it began to sink. Dozens of crewmen and passengers were killed.
The survivors crowded onto lifeboats. The ship’s doctor, Dr. Leonard Hudson Conly, wisely followed Desanka and Visna onto their lifeboat. (He fractured two ribs while boarding, though.)
That night, Desanka went into labor. Dr. Conley had no anesthesia to offer her (or use for himself) and few medical instruments to work with. The lifeboat was being tossed about by 15-to-20-foot waves. It was dark, it was cold, and everyone was soaked with seawater. And, of course, at least one enemy U-boat was nearby.
Despite all this, Desanka gave birth to a baby boy in the wee hours of March 30.
“I didn’t have to wash the baby,” Dr. Leonard Conly would later say. “The sea did that for me.”
The destroyer USS Roper soon arrived to rescue the survivors and transport them to Norfolk, Virginia. The baby was later named Jesse Roper Mohorovicic after the rescue vessel, which had been named in honor of naval officer Jesse M. Roper (1851-1901).
Here’s a photo of the Mohorovicic family, minus Joseph.
Sadly, Jesse Roper Mohorovicic passed away just a few years ago, in 2005. (He was buried at sea.) But a few months before he passed, a grandson was born. One of the baby’s middle names? Roper, just like grandpa.*
- “Baby Born in Lifeboat Named for Rescue Ship.” New York Times 12 April 1942: 13.
- “Battle of the Atlantic: Birth in a Boat.” Time 13 Apr. 1942.
- Cressman, Robert. The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000.
- Hickam, Homer H. Torpedo Junction: U-Boat War Off America’s East Coast, 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996.
- Moritz, Owen. “WWII ‘Lifeboat Baby’ Dies at 63.” New York Daily News 15 Aug. 2005.
- “‘Place of Birth’ Question Stumps Parents of ‘Lifeboat Baby.'” Pittsburgh Press 1 May 1942: 24.
- Sea burial for grown ‘Lifeboat Baby’
- “Wounded Doctor Delivers Baby as Waves Toss Lifeboat.” Evening Independent [St. Petersburg, FL] 2 Apr. 1942: 3.
Image: The National Archives, via NOAA
*Update, 2/4/2020: I recently received an email from Jesse’s daughter, Caroline, who let me know that her son’s full name is Jesse Roper Rees. (His grandfather’s New York Daily News obituary had him listed as “Joseph Roper Mohorovic Rees.”) Thank you, Caroline!