Herbert John Pitman was born in late 1877, in the village of Sutton Montis near Castle Cary, Somerset, England. His family had been farmers, but in 1895, at the age of eighteen, he went joined the British merchant marine, aspiring to become an officer. His nautical education began at the Merchant Venturers’ Technical College, while a four year apprenticeship with James Nourse Ltd. followed by five years as a deck officer with the same company provided the necessary practical experience. After spending 1904 with the Blue Anchor Line, followed by s short stint with Shire Line, he signed on with the White Star Line in 1906, earning his Master’s Ticket that same year. For the next six years, he would serve variously as Fourth, Third, and Second officer on the vessels Delphic and Majestic and as Fourth Officer on the Oceanic. Pitman was posted to the Titanic at the end of March 1912, joining the ship in Belfast. Once the ship was at sea he was responsible for supervising the Quartermasters and Able Bodied seamen, along with the ship’s basic navigation.
Off duty when the Titanic struck the iceberg, Pitman didn’t regard the incident as serious; he was putting on his uniform, preparing to take the midnight watch, when Fourth Officer Boxhall told him about the collision and that the Titanic was taking on water. Pitman went forward, briefly watched a handful of steerage passengers kicking pieces of ice around the well deck, then did a quick inspection of the fo’c’s’le, which he found undamaged. Going from there to the bridge, he was instructed to assist First Officer Murdoch with loading and launching the starboard lifeboats. After nearly half the boats had been lowered, Murdoch put Pitman in charge of Boat No. 5, shaking Pitman’s hand and saying, “Goodbye; good luck.” Pitman would later recall that is was at that moment he knew for certain that the Titanic was truly sinking. Pitman stepped into the lifeboat, convinced he would never again see his friend Murdoch alive.