Veteran Stories:
Harry Bemister “The FOO” Barrett

Navy

  • Harry B. Barrett in Royal Canadian Navy uniform, 1945.

    Harry B. Barrett
  • Harry B. Barrett, November 11, 2001.

    Harry B. Barrett
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"But fortunately, we’d come along before he set it alight. So St. John’s didn’t seem like a very safe place to be to me."

Transcript

I had been put in HMCS Avalon, as the shore base in St. John’s [Newfoundland] was named and it was at what they called Buckmaster’s Field up above the city proper, up on the high land. We were put into neat little buildings there with rows of bunks. On the first morning, it was really just a holding base for people being transferred from one ship to another or from ship to shore for courses and so on, or men who had been torpedoed and brought in as survivors from various ships. We were all Navy however, so I saw a good deal of St. John’s and enjoyed it. It’s a very interesting old city of course, very historic. But also, there were problems.

One Saturday night, the American base, Fort Pepperrell [a U.S. military base located in St. John’s between 1941 and 1960], had an unexplained fire break out and the next Saturday night, a dance in the Y[MCA] downtown was disrupted by somebody in the attic of the building being caught as he was attempting to set fire to the place. And then on the 12th of December [1942], it was a nice bright day and I had a friend who had been in the radio course with me, Bob Presnio, who was Air Force and stationed in Torbay about 10 miles outside St. John’s. And I had walked out to visit Bob and then after having had lunch at his base, we came back in to try and get into a program in the K of C [Knights of Columbus] hostel, which was quite near my barracks. The place was sold out so we had our supper there and then we were sitting, visiting.

While we were there, suddenly, we realized the place was on fire. In an attempt to get out - we were, it was an H-hut and we were in the cross of the H - people were swarming out of the restaurant and we mingled with them and the lights went out and I remember being knocked flat on my face and losing contact with Bob. But eventually just the press of the crowd pushed me out the front door. My last real memory of being in the building was having my head pushed up tight against the hinge of the door, my arms in tight to my sides; I couldn’t move, I was just being pushed by a huge mass of people. Suddenly the screws came out of the hinge and I sailed out into the street on the door but right behind it was a tremendous blast of fire and all those people behind me just, they never survived it.

I was grabbed by a lieutenant and taken around to the far end of the building to help catch mostly Chinese survivors from torpedoing who were jumping from the second floor into the fairly deep snow and we were to try and catch them and break their fall. By the time it was over, the estimate was a hundred people had died in the building, a hundred more had been seriously burned and in hospital. And the remaining hundred, which fortunately I was a part of, had survived it. And my hands were burned rather badly and the back of my head but I was, I was lucky.

We were finally sent back to our barracks and as we approached them, somebody saw a fellow running and chased him, and that turned out that someone had been trying to set fire to our barracks, there was gasoline on both sides of the building and an empty gasoline can. But fortunately, we’d come along before he set it alight. So St. John’s didn’t seem like a very safe place to be to me.

At any rate, I also was terribly concerned for my friend, Bob Presnio, who I couldn’t find. Next morning, we were sent down to carry out bodies from the burned-out building. They were taken to a big gym or rink I guess it was and laid out in rows, with white sheets laid over them. And from twelve to four in the morning that second night, I was alone in there with a rifle over my shoulder, patrolling between these rows of cadavers. They were frozen solid when they went in but of course in the warmer rink, they began thawing out and it wasn’t a pleasant night and I think the longest watch I ever put in. Because every now and then, a body would roll and there’d be a frozen arm would thaw enough to let it collapse and so on. So I was pretty glad to get out of there.

It would be about another night and another day and I was called to the guardhouse and to my surprise, Bob Presnio’s mother was there. And that was the first that I learned that Bob was alive but had been badly burned and was in the local hospital.

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