Joe Wilson (in background) in the HMCS New Westminster.Joe Wilson
Navy News article from February 3, 1966, reporting Joe Wilson's retirement from the Royal Canadian Navy.Joe Wilson
Joe Wilson waiting for a train from Portsmouth to Dunstable, England, while on leave, 1948.Joe Wilson
"The captain come up and briefly said abandon ship and that’s what I done."
I was born in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, England. Immigrated to Canada in 1927, landed in Pier 1 [Pier 21], Halifax on, believe it or not, 16 April, 1927. A lot of things happened to me in April, so it seems.
I was an ASDIC [Sonar; underwater sound detection] rating [enlisted sailor], anti-submarine detector. They were transmitting sound waves and you’d get echoes back, echoes back from supposedly a submarine, or from whatever you’re hitting. Quite often, it’s a whale or a school of fish. It’s like you’re hitting a hammer inside of your head, closed, clonk, clonk, ping whoop, ping whoop. It’s just like that, a straight echo coming back. Sometimes the sounds are well, pretty near the same, but as you can understand, that’s what you’re trained for and that’s what you’re listening for.
We’d [HMCS Esquimalt] gone out on patrol that particular morning or day before that; and everything seemed to be all right except on the morning of 16 April , at approximately 6:30 in the morning, I was on an ASDIC set, but I never heard anything. I didn’t hear no echo or anything like that from a submarine. But I certainly heard the torpedo [fired from the German submarine U-190] that hit. The ship went dead. It was just like a thud, like if you’re sitting somewhere and there was a thud. That’s how it felt. There was no great big shock or anything like that, but just a straight thud. We knew something happened. We didn’t call in because we didn’t have enough time. There was nothing sent, no SOS or anything like that sent from the ship. It started to roll over to starboard and sinking at the same time. The stern was going down. The captain come up and briefly said abandon ship and that’s what I done. I went across the upper deck, by the funnel and jumped in the water.
I was no sooner in the water then the aftermast of the stern as it was sinking, came down and hit me across the back; and took me and the Carley float [life raft] down. I struggled back up, back up into the Carley float and that’s where I was for the next six and a half hours.
I was actually sitting inside the Carley float. My feet and half of my body was in it, but waves in the water… But sitting in the Carley float was one of the reasons why I was saved. You see the temperature of the water that was damn near freezing. In the North Atlantic, it always is. If I remember correctly, we started off with about 17 in the Carley float and around the Carley float. When we ended up, we only ended up with seven. Most often they drift off a Carley float. They just left, to put it that way.
We were kind of peeved about the whole system because we were no sooner out there when the ship went down, but two aircraft went across overhead. They were on their way out doing their morning patrol, I presume. But we waved and shouted, and so on and so forth, but they ignored us. They ignored us until they got back in harbour and had their cameras and pictures exposed, and showed us people down below. We weren’t little fishing boats. We were bloody sick in Carley floats, trying to be saved. Pretty hard to describe it… but we were still hoping that we’d be picked up, of course. One thing, we could see Sambro lightship [permanently moored ship acting as a light beacon]. on the horizon. A chap by the name of Jack Ware, he was close on the Carley float close to me. We decided we’d try to paddle with our hands because we didn’t have any oars onboard. So we worked with our hands and we got the others to help us and we paddled; and we were the only Carley float that made Sambro lightship. We got there just at the same time as the [HMCS] Sarnia’s whaler boat [basic sail training vessel] was picking up survivors.
I didn’t know it at the time, but after I got out, I looked at my watch, when it hit saltwater, it stopped at 6:28. From there, I went into Halifax. I was sent to hospital then for the next two or three weeks. Very bad legs and feet, and bad back. However, I survived that and I’m sitting now talking to you.