James Perry's wife died in 1962 just as they were planning their next winter cruise. James decided to go on the 1963 Christmas cruise of the TSMS Lakonia, which was a 20,000 tone vessel. It had originally started life as the MS Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt of the Netherland Line, sailing between Amsterdam and the East Indies. She was later chartered by the Holland American Line and used as a troopship during the Second World War, reverting to her peace-time service as a passenger ship. On 19 December 1963, now belonging to the General Steam Navigation Company of Greece, she sailed from Southampton for an 11-day Christmas cruise, carrying a total of 646 passengers (James being one of them) and 376 crew. At around 11.00pm on 22nd December, a fire broke out in the ship's hairdressing salon and quickly spread to the other areas, making it difficult to fight the blaze. At the time, most of the passengers were in the ship's ballroom, but they and the rest of those in their cabins, were not immediately made aware of the fire, due to the public address system having been disabled by the blaze and also because the fire alarm was not loud enough. The pressure boilers began to explode, filling the saloons and hallways with thick black smoke, suffocating passengers who had fled from their cabins.
Orders to abandon the ship was given by the Purser just before 1.00 am, with dazed passengers trying to make their way to the lifeboat stations, some in evening wear and others in pyjamas and nightgowns. Evacuation of the ship became extremely difficult as some of the lifeboats had been burnt, others had their davits completely rusted and other boats were swamped when being lowered. Only half of the life boats were able to be launched, some of them only half full, and there were still many people adrift in the sea with over 100 persons on board the Lakonia, which continued to burn fiercely and was rocked by violent explosions.
The last distress call sent at midnight and received by nearby ships and also at Cable & Wireless in Gibraltar, read: "This is my last message. I cannot stay any more in the wireless room and we are now leaving the ship. Please rush immediate assistance". The first to arrive on the scene, between 3.30 am and 4.00 am, were the Argentinian passenger ship, Salta, and the British tanker, Montcalm, with other vessels joining them some hours later. United States Air Force C-54 planes were sent from their base in the Azores and two RAF Avro Shackletons flew in from Gibraltar, dropping survival equipment, pinpointing survivors in the sea and guiding the rescue with flares. Survivors were transported to Madeira and some others, including the ship's captain, were taken to Casablanca.
Crewmen from the Aircraft Carrier HMS Centaur were able to board the Lakonia the following day, once the fires had died down and recovered a total of 22 bodies from the ship, which by then was a charred and smoking hulk. Soon after the first reports of the disaster reached Gibraltar, the Norwegian salvage tug, Herkules, set out to cover the some 500 miles to where the Lakonia lay. It managed to attach a towline to the Lakonia and with the assistance of a Portugese tugboat, Praia de Adraga, set off for the Rock with the Lakonia on tow. However, every day, the ship's list began to become more severe and on 29th December, at 2.00 pm, just 250 miles from Gibraltar, she rolled over her starboard side and sank stern-first in only 3 minutes.
In all, a total of 128 persons died in the Lakonia disaster, 95 of whom were passengers with James being one of them, and 33 crew members. With 53 persons killed by the fire and the others succumbing to exposure, drowning and from injuries sustained whilst jumping into the sea. HMS Centaur arrived in Gibraltar on Christmas afternoon and unloaded the bodies recovered in the Lakonia, with three more bodies, recovered by another ship, brought over from Ceuta by an RAF Launch making a total of 58 victims landed.
The mass funeral took place on Boxing Day in the evening, after memorial services had taken place.
James Perry was buried in Gibraltar's North Front Cemetery, but was later repatriated back to the UK. The 50th Anniversary Commemorative Plaque Ceremony took place in Gibraltar on 6th December 2013.
A letter, dated 5th Jan 1964, was received by our then Clerk, Philip Creswell, from Mr George H Herbert, Entertainments Manager, "S.S. Lakonia", which read as follows:-
'I received your letter 30th Dec regarding Mr J W Perry and return the photograph herewith. Mr Perry could be the old gentleman I mentioned - but I couldn't be absolutely certain. He has the same thin features and judging from the photograph the same white moustache. The elderly man on board was wearing a soft felt hat and a greyish raincoat with his life-jacket on top. I thought his voice was frail sounding. I spoke with him only briefly. He was one of I think nine passengers left on board (the remainder being crew). He said that he didn't wish to go over the rail into the sea. At one time he said he was afraid - but he didn't look it. I think I tried to sound light-hearted saying I was afraid too but we would all probably have to go and soon. The fire was then burning over our heads and we were standing on the only refuge left. Shortly afterwards the fire started curling down to our little bit of deck on the port side, burning debris was dropping and there was a danger that the ladders might burn. The Captain was there and he ordered everyone into the water. The passengers and crew with life-jackets (some had none) prepared to leave but still the old chap stood back. At this stage I felt I could no more, said goodbye to the Captain and went into the water. I believe some men stayed on for some time after I left - certainly if I had had no life-jacket I too would have remained longer - but it was a hard decision to make. I wish I could be of more help - I was so sorry for these old people on board and there were so many.'
James' sister, Helena Perry, kindly wished to present his Past Master's Badge to the Livery. She was glad to be told that his Apprentice, Keith Paul Kirby (Master 2000) had been handed over to another Master.