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I jumped over the ship’s starboard rail into the Atlantic shortly after the second torpedo hit. I say the Atlantic, but by then we had probably reached the outer limits of the Bay of Biscay, roughly 300 miles off the French coast. It was around 7:30 p.m., St. Patrick’s Day, 1945, and pretty well everyone was in the water when the wind began to pick up.
I was one of 42 crew members swarming around one Carley float designed to carry 12. By the time we were rescued the next afternoon–19 hours later–six of us from that float were alive.
* * *
His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Guysborough, pendant number J52, was a Bangor class minesweeper. Built at Vancouver and commissioned on April 22, 1942, she had eight officers and a crew of 83. Size wise, she was smaller than a corvette.
I joined her at Lunenburg, N.S., where she was completing an overdue refit. After a couple of weeks we left harbour for brief working-up exercises.
During the gun drill, which occurred just outside the harbour, the captain spotted a wooden crate that was about to drift by our port side. He screamed out from the bridge: “There! To port! An enemy ship! Sink it! Goddamn it! Sink it!” In no time at all three green or inexperienced sets of hands were busy spinning wheels. The gun spun this way and that while the barrel moved up and down gamely searching for the dreaded enemy. The captain screamed louder and the guys got it a bit together. The gun swung around again until its barrel dipped to target, which by then was a bit aft.
It was a good shot, close to the crate. We watched the shell skip and race across the surface. It was only then that anyone noticed the British cruiser, about a thousand, maybe 1,200 hundred yards away, and it was going to get it about midship!
What a shot! The little shell made a good effort, but died in the water a few hundred feet short of target. We did get the attention of the cruiser, though. They sent a flag signal. “Interrogative you. Interrogative the hell you are doing?”
We identified ourselves and said we were sorry. The cruiser came back with: “Carry on Canada. The war is the other way.”
A few days after this exciting action, Guysborough began her final voyage from Lunenburg. She was to cross the Atlantic on her own, making a stop in the Azores to refuel, then on to join a British flotilla in England. There was no leave at the Azores, but natives in outriggers came alongside with stuff to sell. I bought a blue silk cushion with a silk tassel fringe and the word Mother emblazoned on one side–in red. Beautiful. Now and then I wonder if it and my sexy tiddly uniform, including my 14-inch bell-bottoms, are still intact in the cold, salty deep.
ILLUSTRATION: Stewart Sherwood
But before I get ahead of myself, I would like to explain that our ship was equipped with Carley floats. A Carley float is like an oblong doughnut with a slat bottom attached by ropes so that either side up works fine in the water. Invented in the 1800s by Horace Carley, the floats were constructed of copper tubing covered with cork and wound with canvas. Most warships had them and one big advantage was they could be cut loose quickly, thus providing something for the men to get into or cling to.
The first torpedo had hit shortly before 7 p.m. It was an acoustic torpedo attracted to the ship’s propellers and it blew the quarterdeck up like a sardine can. Luckily nobody was injured in that first explosion and it looked as though the ship might stay afloat. However, we were helplessly adrift. A signal was sent giving our position and condition and most of the crew was assembled on the main deck. I remember an officer opened the canteen and distributed cigarettes. We wondered how long it would take for someone to find us and tow us in.
After the second torpedo hit, the ship began to sink. It listed to port and a lot of the crew ran uphill and went over the rail on the starboard side…. I guess this was a natural reaction, and it explains why nearly half of us ended up around one Carley float. The remaining crew was divided between four other floats, in relative comfort and security. With growing darkness, a rising sea and the ship sinking between us and the other floats, there was little opportunity or incentive to correct this imbalance. In fact, we had drifted so far apart in the swells that we were unaware of it, and this was unfortunate.
There were enough guys sitting or standing in our float to keep it nearly underwater. The rest were massed like seaweed around it, each one holding on to the guy in front…an undulating flotsam in the rolling sea.
Looking back at that time I have often wondered how people can remember stuff that happened 60 years ago. Surely the images must fade in retrospect, maybe change a bit with each recollection. Ever listen to how your kids recall events that involved you many years ago? What? Did it really happen that way?
But some of the images I have inside my head remain fresh and stark, and will remain so for as long as I live. I remember the icy water. I remember holding on to the guy in front of me with arms that began to ache as the hours passed. Up and down with each swell, up and down with icy water seeping from mid-gut up to my neck, each time sucking a bit of warmth away.
I remember the total blackness of the night. I remember the eerie silence, only the gentle slushing of the sea around us, no one uttering a sound. I remember the hopeless feeling of isolation and the awareness that I would probably die soon. That I would never marry. Never have children.
With dawn there were fewer of us around the float, and as the hours passed, exposure claimed more. They just drifted away, dead or no longer able to hang on, to make their aching arms work. The more men the sea claimed, the closer those left got to the float. The float was escape from the icy water, blessed rest for the arms, a chance to survive. I remember thinking that I was finally there. I could reach up and grab the ropes of the yellow raft! It was my turn to climb up and sit in royal comfort, to let the water drain away. I remember reaching out to the coxswain for help. He grabbed my hand and pulled, then said, “I don’t think I can do it, John.”
Throughout our ordeal the swain worked to keep our spirits up. In the beginning he exhorted us to paddle on this side and kick on the other side and he would take us into Portsmouth. He was senior officer of our situation, a Royal Canadian Navy type and we respected his experience as a seaman. As reality set in, I began to feel that he was a bit too cheerful for the occasion, and this latest declaration did not modify my opinion. I tightened my grip like my life depended on it, which it probably did. “Sure you can,” I muttered. “Sure you can.” Somehow he managed to pull me in. “Welcome aboard,” he said cheerfully.
I was among the last two or three to make it onto the Carley float. It was morning by then. There were 10 or 12 of us left. Those who drifted away during the night would have little chance of being spotted. I don’t think any were picked up alive. For them, if you can forgive the brief digression, I think the following is most appropriate: It is from a poem by William Ernest Henley.
The full sea rolls and thunders, in glory and in glee
O bury me not in the senseless earth, but in the living sea.
Aye, bury me where it surges, a thousand miles from shore
And in its brotherly unrest, I’ll range forevermore.
Sleep was equated with death on the float. Maybe not true, but those who died went to sleep first or maybe just passed out, and those who stayed awake were still alive. Most of us had been up for about 30 hours. To stay awake, we sang You Are My Sunshine, Don’t Fence Me In, Give Me Land, Lots of Land.
Sometimes I found it difficult to keep up with the words, and that was scary, so I’d jump ahead a line or so to keep up with the others. I was getting some funny looks, like maybe the choir would do better if you retired. I never really got into sync with the others, nor was I aware that this was just a precursor of a deadlier test yet to come.
I remember a conversation with a person I shall call Bob Smith, a young telegrapher from my mess. He was sitting second over on my left, and he had reached over to get my attention. “You haven’t met my old man, have you John?”
“How about coming over Saturday, stay for dinner? OK?”
“We’re sitting in the middle of the bloody ocean, Bob. Get a grip. OK?”
“My sister Marge is home. She’s nice. You’ll like her.”
“Oh Jesus yes, I’m sure I will,” I said, thinking to myself that I would so dearly love to see her on Saturday, Bob, and maybe rip her clothes off.
Bob nodded off after some more about his dad. He was dead in 15 minutes, and was slipped over the side. The swain had developed the habit of saying a few last words as the boys slipped away. This, at least, lent a semblance of respect–of order–to the ugly, heartbreaking stuff going on. “We consign the body of Bob Smith to the deep, and his soul to your care, oh Lord,” intoned reverend swain.
There were six of us left when we were picked up around mid-afternoon. We were all pretty tired by then. At some point earlier, I had nearly nodded off. The swain had reached across and slapped my face. “What the hell was that for?” I yelled.
“Because you were going to sleep,” he said.
“Oh, bullshit,” I snarled in response to his attempts to save my life. “Keep your hands to yourself.”
Just about then a great idea had popped into my head. I’ll show him. I placed both hands on my lap, palms up and then dropped my head down. I smiled to myself as I waited for the slap to come. He will feel like such a fool. When he slaps me, I’ll say why did you do that, I wasn’t falling asleep…I was just reading this book. But before the slap came, a bolt of lightning hit my frozen brain. I looked at my hands, still grey and corrugated from hours in icy salt water. There was no book! There was no book! I was slipping away to la-la land. A pint of adrenaline flooded through me and I was wide, wide awake, and stayed that way until we were picked up. In fact, I was the only one able to scramble up the rope net instead of being hoisted up to the deck of the destroyer. Nor did I rest after rescue. I remember exploring the ship, and it was certainly a big sucker. Maybe I didn’t sleep for a week. I don’t remember. But I came back from the brink. I survived!
We were taken to His Majesty’s Ship Drake, a stone frigate at Portsmouth. The next morning we were treated to showers–cold, salt-water showers. I don’t know if the heating system was down or if this was part of a training plan, but I will never forget the irony of this.
We were issued work pants and grey turtleneck sweaters and drafted to HMCS Niobe, the navy’s manning and accounting depot at Greenock, Scotland. During a station stop in London, a number of people came up to chat with us, and some offered us various treats. They had recognized the survivor outfits.
We were interviewed by the press, and our story appeared in the April 25, 1945, issue of the Toronto Star newspaper, beginning as a minor front page article and continuing inside with photos of Ontario crew members. A few years ago, it was convenient to show my two oldest grandsons–one in his early 20s and the other a late teen–copies of that paper. They seemed more impressed with the banner headline announcing that Hitler’s chalet had been bombed.
I left them to look it over and after a few minutes, Luke–the youngest–gasped. I walked over to see what had inspired this. Was it the bit about guys drifting away in the night or the ordeal on the Carley float? But before I could ask the questions, Luke said to his brother, James, “Hey, look at this!” His finger was pointing at the top right corner of the front page. “Back then you could buy a paper for three cents.”
About five months ago, while fooling around on the Internet, I found a reference to the dear old Guysborough which was listed as having been sunk on March 17, 1945. There was also reference to U-878. I clicked on U-878 and there it was, all about the sub that sank us. I had no idea all these years that this information was available or even known. I used to joke that if I met any German people I would ask them if their dad was in the war. If the answer was yes, I would then ask them if he served on submarines. “Did he sink a minesweeper? Eh?”
I was glad the sub did not surface and shoot us in the water. But I resented the fact that they did not pick us up. And why two torpedoes? We were obviously crippled by the first, unable to move.
U-878 was commanded by Johannes Rodig. It had one “success”–our ship–before being sunk by depth charges on April 10, 1945, in the Bay of Biscay by the British warships Vanquisher and Tintagel Castle. The U-boat’s entire crew was lost–all 51.
The war in Europe ended 28 days after the U-boat was sunk. Fifty-one dead from our ship, 51 dead on the sub: man for man.
I started to cry at my desk. I was alone in the house and I just sat and sobbed. One hundred and two young men dead. Why?