Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » En Route to the Field: Missionaries Aboard the S.S. Vestris, 1928

En Route to the Field: Missionaries Aboard the S.S. Vestris, 1928

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 03, 2009

David Henry Huish, born in the Mormon colony of Morelos, Sonora, Mexico in 1906, and Keith Wynder Burt, born in the Mormon colony of Cardston, Alberta, Canada in 1908, met in the Mission Home in Salt Lake City late in 1928, after both young men had been called to serve missions in South America. After finishing their few days’ training in Salt Lake – which did not include language training – the two young men traveled together by train, via Denver, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., to New York City. They spent two and a half days exploring New York, then boarded the S.S. Vestris, a ship of the Lamport & Holt Line (British registry), which specialized in service to South American ports. The Vestris left its dock at Hoboken, New Jersey, at 3:45 on Saturday, November 10, 1928, and Elders Burt and Huish quietly celebrated the fact that they were really and truly en route to their mission field. They ate supper that night, as did most of the 129 passengers and 199 crew … but both landlubbers were already feeling a little queasy from the rocking of the ship, and they retired early.

The boat was still rocking heavily on Sunday morning, and Elder Burt was feeling so seasick that he didn’t rise for breakfast. Elder Huish did go to the dining room, but the thought of heavy food made him ill, and he settled for a grapefruit. Elder Huish’s description of their first Sabbath as traveling missionaries:

The ship was rocking badly and it was a hard thing to make the dishes stay in place. I was obliged to leave the table, was dizzy and became seasick – the only time on the ship. On going back to our room, I found that elder Burt had been sick while I was gone, and he was ill several times during the day.

The ship listed and rocked considerably, so we stayed on our beds and slept practically all day Sunday, our main reason being not so much sleepiness as fear of seasickness. We remained in bed all that night, but did not sleep much. … I sang some songs and played a few tunes on my harmonica. Elder Burt had a saxophone along with him. he took it out and tried toplay a few pieces but found that it had a few keys out of commission. So ended the Sabbath on the S.S. Vestris.

Because this was the first time either elder had been to sea, neither realized that the rocking of the boat was abnormal, nor did they understand some of the noises they were hearing. The Vestris had left its dock and steamed straight into the leading edge of a hurricane. As they proceeded southward, the seas got higher and the side-to-side rocking of the boat more violent.

The elders did not know that that the rocking had caused cargo to be ripped loose from its restraints in the hold, nor that the ship’s enormous stores of coal had shifted, preventing the vessel from returning to an upright position as each wave passed. The ship began to list ever more noticeably to one side – to the point where Elder Huish’s record says “The ship was tipped so much that it was hardly possible to stay on the bed, in spite of the railing.”

Nor did the elders know that shifting cargo had ripped four holes in the ship’s hull, and that the ship was taking on water rapidly. The captain had sent out an S.O.S. at 10:00 that Sunday morning, but after putting all available hands, including cooks and ship stewards, to work bailing in the hold, he decided his distress signal had been premature, and he cancelled it.

On Monday morning, both elders rose and decided to try their luck with breakfast. But when they reached the dining room after finding that “it was almost impossible to stand up in the halls, and we had to cling to the railing in order to walk,” they found no stewards in the dining room. Another passenger told them, “They’re all down in the coal bunkers bailing out water. Wouldn’t you rather go without your breakfast than lose your life?” This was the first indication the elders had that the Vestris was in trouble. “This is getting to be a serious matter; something is dreadfully wrong,” Elder Burt said to his companion. The two went back to their room and waited.

About 11:00 that morning, the two young men heard a commotion in the hallway and opened the door. There they found the third class passengers climbing up from below. One of the women with them, having thought that all second class passengers had already been evacuated, was surprised to see the elders. “For heaven’s sake, boy,” she said, “get out of your room, this ship is going to sink.” The elders joined the general exodus to the deck.

It took us quite a while to get there; sometimes we couldn’t climb the slant of the ship, and once I slipped and was thrown against a chair [on] the other side of the room and broke the chair into pieces. We finally reached the deck and had to lean against the wall or hold to the railing of the ship in order to stand up. Even ropes were used to help people from the stairways to the railing.

An amateur photographer with a small kodak camera snapped pictures that morning, some of which were later published in the Baltimore Sun, winning a Pulitzer Prize for that newspaper. The most famous of those pictures shows how badly the Vestris was listing, supporting Elder Huish’s description.

The sailors were attempting to lower lifeboats, a task made especially difficult because the boats had to be lifted so far over the side of the tilting ship. There was no general call by the crew for the passengers to don lifebelts, but most did anyway. Both elders strapped on their belts, over their overcoats. About 2:00 p.m., the ship began its death roll, and Elders Burt and Huish, sitting side by side in Lifeboat 4, realized that their boat had never been cut loose from the ship and would be pulled down when the Vestris sank. Both men jumped out of their boat.

Elder Burt made it into the water before the ship sank. Elder Huish did not.

I was still on the side of the ship when it went down and a big wave came along with the suction of the ship, and took me under. While in the water I caught hold of a panel, the bottom of a life boat or something, and came up. … I floated on a 2×12 plank for a few minutes and pretty soon a life boat, No. 14, came somewhat close and I swam over to it and was helped in the boat. We picked up about twelve more people – 19 in all. I looked constantly in the water and into the other life boats for Elder Burt, but he was not to be seen.

Nineteen in a lifeboat was a pitiful tally. Investigation later revealed that Boat No. 8 had foundered and sank with 65 passengers aboard. Boat No. 1, which rowed away and abandoned No. 8 rather than take any of its passengers aboard, held only about 10 – all but one of them members of the ship’s crew. One recent writer, reviewing the newspaper reports of the next few days, summarized their contents as “The headlines of the day told only of the sinking of the steamship Vestris and the epic achievements of the officers and crew in shouldering aside the women and children and saving their own lives.” In all, an estimated 111-120 perished in the hurricane-tossed waters off Virginia that day, a disproportionate number of them being passengers. The sinking of the Vestris was one of those great maritime incidents that resulted in massive investigation and the changing of laws, in this case the condition and provisions of lifeboats, which on the Vestris were decayed and poorly stocked.

Returning to Elder Huish’s report:

The waves soon drove us from the wreck. We had no rudder and only three oars, so we were helpless in picking up any more people. The water was warm at first, but towards evening it became cold, and I never shook so much through fear of facing the public as I did during that night from cold. We drifted all night, without any flares or torpedoes. Two or three storms came up, one hail storm. By morning the waves were very high and we did not know at any time whether we would be swallowed up or not.

About 11:00 p.m. at night came our first hope, when we saw a flashlight. The ship came nearer and about 4:00 a.m. they picked up one life boat. From then until 8:00 a.m., we drifted and were finally picked up by the American Shipper – the last of the five boats that this ship picked up. We had been trying all the time to get their attention with a flashlight and with our shouts, but to no avail until after dawn.

They gave us something to eat on the ship, and a place to get warm and to dry our clothes. They searched for more survivors as long as there was any hope, and then set sail for new York, and arrived here about 9:00 a.m. We were treated well on the ship, but slept on blankets on the hard floor and were glad to get that.

Other lifeboats were rescued by other ships, and even some lone swimmers who had not made it into lifeboats managed to survive long enough for rescue. Elder Huish hoped and prayed that Elder Burt would be among the survivors, but his body was never recovered.

News of the sinking had reached the mission home in Brooklyn, and two missionaries were waiting at the pier to receive Elder Huish when the American Shipper returned to New York. Elder Huish was cared for at the mission home, the other elders contributing clothing and personal supplies, while his report of events was telegraphed to Salt Lake and to the family of Elder Burt.

Ships carrying Mormon emigrants and missionaries have had a remarkable safety record, but not a perfect one. Elder Keith W. Burt is the third missionary known to have died by accident at sea (the first two being Thomas Atkinson and Hiram S. Kimball, who died in 1863 when the boiler exploded on the small vessel carrying them from the wharf at San Pedro, California out to the steamer that was to have carried them to the Sandwich Islands.) Many others have died of illness at sea or in their mission fields and await the day foreseen by John, “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it.” (Revelation 20:13)


S.S. Vestris
logo of the Lamport & Holt Line
Elder Keith W. Burt
Elder David H. Huish
the listing deck of the Vestris
struggling to lower lifeboats from the Vestris



  1. Wow. Thank you.

    Those pictures remind me of the images of the Titanic. It must have been horrifying.

    Comment by Mark Brown — April 3, 2009 @ 8:16 am

  2. Incredible. This is amazing and tragic.

    On a tangential note, my father served a mission in Hawaii in the 1950’s and the only way to get there and back was cruise liner. A terrible sacrifice, to be sure.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 3, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  3. Ardis, you continually post stories that stir up emotions. This is an incredible first hand account of the shipwreck, and how devastating for Elder Huish to know that he was safe (for the moment) not knowing if his companion was safe or would be found.

    Comment by Maurine — April 3, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  4. Amen to Maurine’s comments; this is stupendous.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — April 3, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

  5. More on the Vestris sinking.

    Comment by JimD — April 3, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

  6. Wow. That’s an amazing story.

    A bit of a similarity to Joseph Conrad’s book Lord Jim, in which the crew deserts the sinking ship, but with a much different end to the story.

    Comment by Researcher — April 3, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

  7. Do you know if Elder Huish continued his mission?

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — April 3, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

  8. He did, Jeff. His mission was changed, though, to Great Britain. He stayed in New York for about three weeks, recovering and being outfitted again, then sailed for Liverpool on December 5, 1928. I can’t imagine the courage it would have taken to get back on board a ship …

    Elder Huish served two and a half years, returning in July, 1931.

    Thanks for that link, JimD — I especially like the pictures at the very bottom showing the rescue of the last survivor.

    And thanks to all the other commenters who have responded to this story. The drama of Mormon history didn’t end with the overland pioneers, did it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 3, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

  9. Another great post, Ardis.

    It’s remarkable (and sad) that laws about lifeboats still needed strengthening in 1928, 16 years after the Titanic sank.

    Comment by Mark B. — April 3, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

  10. What a sad story! I get so frustrated thinking that if they had only known of the hurricane they could have avoided it by starting a week later. How I wish I could go back in time and save people who died of causes that are so completely avoidable nowadays. It just seems wrong, somehow.

    Comment by Tatiana — April 3, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

  11. Elder Burt was my great uncle so my interest was certainly piqued by this post. I don’t recall my grandma ever saying much about what happened, but I do remember hearing the story more than once from my dad. My grandma always had a close bond with her brother, and when she served her own mission she apparently felt he was something like her guardian angel.
    Somewhere in the family files there’s a letter from a church leader (LeGrand Richards comes to mind, though I’m not sure since uncle Keith’s accident precedes Richards’ service in the 12) commenting on uncle Keith’s “transfer”.

    Comment by Ryan — April 3, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

  12. Elder Huish served two and a half years [in Great Britain], returning in July, 1931.

    Ardis, may I ask for an examination of changes to missionary service durations over time? Most members remember the 18-month missions for men in the early 1980s, and many are aware of foreign-language missions for men lasting two and one-half years (through the 1970s?) in the days before the MTC provided extensive formal language training. Of course, in the 19th century missions could last for years and years depending on location and personal circumstances.

    I’m curious why Elder Huish’s mission was for two and one-half years despite being reassigned to Britain; the young Gordon B. Hinckley, who would have arrived just as he left, served for two years. Was it because Elder Huish’s call was originally of that length and that didn’t change?

    Comment by Yeechang Lee — April 4, 2009 @ 7:45 am

  13. Keith Burt is my uncle. He is mothers oldest Brother. After hearing of his death Elder James E. Talmage sent a letter to my grandparents which is very interesting and informative. I have a copy in my personal files. It states that Elder Burt received a “transfer” enrout to his original mission call. This tragedy was a deep and poignant pill for my grandparents William & Edith Burt. With that said they remained faithful, and their example is sterling! My grandrather just a couple of years prior to Keiths death at sea had left his own family for two years to serve a mission in England leaving my grandmother with eight children to run the family store. Elder Talmage was his mission presidnet. This is just a little history…

    Comment by Alma B. Davis — April 4, 2009 @ 8:18 am

  14. Ryan, and Alma B. Davis, this is an unexpected and poignant connection. Thank you both for taking the time to comment, with contributions that couldn’t have come from any other direction.

    Yeechang Lee, you ask questions that I don’t know the answers to, but which would make a great post if I can find them out. I’ll see what I can learn — thanks for the idea.

    And thanks to all others who have read and commented.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 4, 2009 @ 8:29 am

  15. Thank you, Ryan and Alma. It’s remarkable and touching to have you commenting to this post. You have really added a lot!

    Comment by Ben Pratt — April 5, 2009 @ 1:01 am

  16. Robin Davis, brother to Alma and uncle to Ryan Davis-
    I have in my possession, a book of Poetry sent to the parents of Elder Keith Burt after the accident at sea. The handwriting and message of condolence is from President Heber J. Grant.
    to the parents. President Grant’s handwriting is excellent, as we have been taught due to his practice in penmanship.
    My mother, Nina Burt, shared that Keith’s passing at sea was such a blow to her father, that he would walk the streets of Cardtson, (Alberta Canada) trying to make sense of it all.
    Interestingly, several of us – relatives of Keith – have served missions in South America, Elder Keith Burt’s destination.

    Comment by Robin B. Davis — April 5, 2009 @ 7:51 am

  17. Thank you, Robin. Your family’s comments keep adding detail and perspective that wouldn’t be possible from any other source.

    I hope at least one of you has written down what you remember hearing from your mother and others, so that it isn’t lost to your family? These details (together with a transcription of President Grant’s condolences, and the letter from Elder Talmage) would be of great interest to the Church to preserve in its archives, too.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 5, 2009 @ 8:42 am

  18. […] Keepapitchinin, Ardis Parshall shares the gripping story of two landlocked, sheltered youth who departed for a Mormon Mission in 1928, only to be involved […]

    Pingback by Points of Interest, vol 2. #6 « Mind, Soul, and Body — April 6, 2009 @ 8:38 am

  19. My name is Morgan Davis, I am a brother to both Alma Davis and Robin Davis who have commented. Elder Keith Burt was my uncle. I can say amen to what Alma and Robin have said. I was called to service in the Argentina mission in early 1958 for 2 & 1/2 years. Pres. James E. Faust was my Stake President and was the main speaker at my missionary farewell. He said that I was specially called to serve in Argentina and that I was called to serve two missions. One for myself and one for my uncle Keith. In his talk Pres Faust told the story of how Elder Burt had been called to South America, with headquarters in Argentina, how the ship Vestris had sunk and how his mission had been changed, but it was still necessary to have me represent him by going to Argentina. My mission president, knowing this got me started by giving me as a senior companion the most dedicated elder in the mission.

    Comment by Morgan Davis — April 6, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

  20. What a responsibility (and an incentive) for a new missionary! Thanks again, for this additional glimpse at this story from the Davis family.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 6, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  21. Keith Burt was also my uncle, and I am a cousin to Alma, Robin and Morgan Davis. I have compiled a history of Elder Keith Burt from his birth until his death which is located in the LDS Church Archives. Included are letters received by the Burt family from around the world, offering comfort and hope that they will see their loved one again.

    There is also a very interesting history included about the Vestris and the concerns with its seaworthiness. At the time it sailed, life jackets were not required, nor was there any to radio for help. Following the sinking of the Vestris, changes were made to oceanliners by the US government. Incidentally, the Vestris was a beautifully outfitted cruise ship with all the luxuries one could imagine in 1929.

    Thank you for your post. The story continues to inspire family as well as casual readers.

    Comment by Susan E. Woods — April 9, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  22. Oh, NOW you tell me, Susan! The Archives are closing up tomorrow for two and a half months, while they move to the new building. I don’t know that I’ll be able to spend the time on this that I want to spend in the next 24 hours, but I’m going to try.

    Thank you for yet another unexpected and most welcome contribution from Elder Burt’s family.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 9, 2009 @ 11:31 am

  23. I have come across this article a little “after the fact” but wanted to mention another miraculous twist in the story of Elders Huish and Burt. My husband, Bruce, is also a nephew of Elder Burt, and for over 10 years has home-taught a wonderful family. Just recently we discovered that the husband of this family, for whom Bruce has always had great love, respect and affinity, is the nephew of Elder Huish.

    Comment by Deborah Evans — September 21, 2010 @ 10:14 am

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