Veteran Stories:
Robert Bruce McTaggart

Merchant Navy

  • Flag of the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission (Nortraship). Mr. McTaggart served in the Norwegian Merchant Navy for the duration of the war

    Credit: Željko Heimer, FOTW Flags Of The World website at

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"I was part of a group of Canadian merchant marine eligibles who were recruited by a union representative of the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission [Nortraship]."


When our allies, the government-in-exile from Norway, relocated in New York, they owned the largest fleet of oil tankers and other transports in the world at that time. And Norway was occupied by military from Germany, so they couldn’t go home for recruits or supplies or money, or anything. And they ask permission from the Department of Transport in Canada, could they come to the merchant marine in Canada and recruit temporary replacements for themselves. And I put up my hand. The thing that persuaded my parents to let me go as a reinforcement for the Norwegian shipping people in New York, was I was in Detroit, delivering a load of newsprint. I was working on the lakes at that time, the night they burned down Detroit. Many, many people died in that, I don’t know how many. I don’t remember. But it was a major, major racial riot that burned out most of the downtown city of Detroit [June 20-22, 1943], all of the public transportation. Some of us, at least myself anyway, and our crew that was unloading the, the paper at the docks, the afternoon of the day that that happened, were warned not to go ashore that night by the men who was unloading the cargo. They saved my life. We left town the next day and that’s when the invitation to join with the Norwegian shipping mission in New York arrived and that’s how I persuaded my parents. Obviously, it’s safer for me to work in New York than it is in Detroit. They said, okay, you can go, but make sure you come back for school in the fall. Yes, dad. And away I went. I was part of a group of Canadian merchant marine eligibles who were recruited by a union representative of the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission [Nortraship]. And we were put on the train in Toronto and arrived in Pennsylvania Station in New York City, got photographed, fingerprinted and within 24 hours, we were all gone to sea, on different locations and different ships. They divided us up. They used us wherever they wanted and from there on, we went, or I went where I was told I had the opportunity to go. So the first opportunity I had to go to sea was 33 days between New York and Scotland, one way. I was damn glad to get there. It was rough. When we got to the end of that trip, they thought they could get along without me and they hired a fellow who had just recently escaped from Norway by sailing alone across the North Sea and a professional seaman of their own nationality; and they fired me and they hired him, and away they went. I got left standing on the deck about 30 miles outside of Glasgow with a friend of mine who was a radio officer on the same ship. And I found my way to London, reconnected with the hiring group and very shortly after that, I was on a freighter that was running between New York and the Middle East, the [SS] Viva. This was a newer ship and cleaner, and better food. We were in New York every 30 days and had our wallets replenished and all around a good outfit, very professional. Up-to-date ship, built in 1938, I believe. And we were fast, clean and well fed, well paid. So I was a regular visitor to our home port at that time was New York and later on, that was changed to cargo coming mostly out of South Carolina. It was all headed for the Middle East basically, like Basra and what was then Bombay and what is now Pakistan. Another port of call we had there was Angola, and the Portuguese protected it on the southwest coast of India. And we came back empty, picked up another load and went back. First trip was around the south end of South Africa, up into the Indian Ocean. After 1943, when the Allies invaded Sicily and Italy, the Mediterranean was open and the ships would come back to North America to reload via the Mediterranean instead of all the way around. So that worked out all right. And eventually, I was discharged in New York and then I became ill. Besides, they had recruited me for one trip and I had exceeded that. So it was time for some leave; and I bought a train ticket and went home to near Toronto in Kitchener, where my parents were living. And my parents were very agitated that I had disappeared for so long and they didn’t hear from me. So that was okay.
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