Ordinary Seaman A.B. Smith outside his family's home in Vancouver, British Columbia while on his first leave from the Royal Canadian Navy, 1944.A.B. Smith
Able Seaman A.B. Smith (on the left in the front row) and fellow sailors from SS Point Pelee Park, New York Harbour, June 1944.A.B. Smith
Beer ration card issued to Able Seaman A.B. Smith in Vizagapatam, India while he was serving as a DEMS Gunner in SS Garden Park, June 1945.A.B. Smith
An oil tank farm two days' travel up the Orinoco River in Venezuela, May 1944. Able Seaman A.B. Smith was serving as a DEMS Gunner in SS Point Pelee Park when she picked up a load of crude oil bound for St. John's, Newfoundland, with stops en route in Trinidad, New York, Boston, Portland, Maine, and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.A.B. Smith
Able Seaman A.B. Smith with Denise, his girlfriend at the time, in Melbourne, Australia, New Year's Eve 1944-45.A.B. Smith
"They looked like they had a pretty good life so when they said they needed DEMS gunners, I volunteered for DEMS."
We finished that new entry training, I think it was about four weeks and then they asked you what you wanted to become: a gunner or a stoker or a telegraphist or signalman, like, or writer or other branches or duties that were needed. And then the one said, DEMS [Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships] and I knew what DEMS was because I had done a little bit of work on the coastal boats here before I went into the [Royal Canadian] Navy and I saw what the DEMS gunner had, a rifle on most of the coastal boats. It’s about all they had. But I had no idea what good it would have done but anyway, they looked like they had a pretty good life so when they said they needed DEMS gunners, I volunteered for DEMS.
And after I volunteered, I figured all the time, I bet you my first ship will be an oil tanker because they were the main target of all the subs at that time. Well, in fact, most of the time during the war, tankers were their main target.
The first ship I got, we had an American 4" [gun] which we’d never had any training on at all. So you just never know what you’re going to get. The [SS] Point Pelee Park to Newfoundland, down the coast to Boston, New York, up the Orinoco River in Venezuela, through the Caribbean, Trinidad, Aruba, up the Orinoco River we went into a place called Carúpano [Venezuela], it was just an oil tank farm in the middle of the jungle. And you’d go up the river for two days to get to it, Orinoco River’s got piranhas in it, crocodiles and you name it, they’ve got it; monkey string through the rigging, parrots all over. Very interesting, very interesting.
We had a chief petty officer as a rule or a petty officer. Sometimes they were chiefs but most of the time they were just petty officers. And we had had a leading seaman and then the gunners were able seamen and ordinary seamen and of course, being a new one, I was an ordinary seaman, ordinary seaman gunner was my rating actually. Petty officer, he designates you to whatever he wants you to go on and I was given the starboard bridge Oerlikon [20-millimetre cannon], which is up on the monkey’s island, which is right up on top of the wheelhouse. It’s where we always stood our lookout watches and the gun pits were on each side, there was a starboard and a port Oerlikon. And we had to show one of the merchant seamen how to assist us on that gun. And the merchant seaman would be the loader and you would be the shooter.
And we got 50 cents an hour when we worked aboard the ship, over and above our navy pay. And that was all put into a pool which we shared when we got back to the home port. So over and above our navy pay off each ship, we got; that happened when a seaman would get sick, the [DEMS] gunners would usually fill in on their job because all we did aboard the ship, our normal job was just lookout, just as we were lookouts, that’s all our job was - and to maintain our guns.
Well, we had one scare when I was on the Point Pelee Park. A neutral ship had radioed that she’d seen a sub off Cape Hatteras [off the coast of North Carolina]. Of course, being neutral, they were sailing with all their lights on and everything whereas we were always blacked out. But anyway, we were going to get to that position the next morning so the captain – this Point Pelee Park was a coal burning ship, that was her, she was steam powered with the coal burner - so the captain ordered the chief engineer, well, he asked the chief engineer to get up all the steam he could and to open her up as fast as we could. And she got up to about 14 knots, which was pretty fast for an old freighter or an old oiler, oil tanker. But she looked like a freighter because she’d originally been built as a freighter. She still had all her derricks and her booms on her from the freight but then her holds had been all made into deep tanks and then converted to an oil tanker because they were using anything they could get to pack oil in those days. And we would sail with a fleet of tankers in a convoy but we would look like the only freighter in the middle of them, or on the outside or wherever we were in the line, you know. It was different but he got the steam up, she’d got up to 14 knots and we never did see that sub but that was the only time that we were really on a sharp-eyed lookout.
On the [SS] Garden Park, the last ship I was on, we were sailing on, we were off the coast of New Britain. We were 900 miles north and east of New Britain on V-E Day [Victory in Europe, May 8 1945] and after we’d gone down around Australia, up to India, Burma and all that sort of stuff and we were on our way back home, we were one mile from the same position coming home on V-J Day [Victory in Japan, August 15, 1945], which was a coincidence. But on the way down, it was a dry ship; we didn’t have any booze or anything aboard it. And on the way home, some of the guys had stocked up a little bit, so we had a little bit more of a celebration on V-J Day than we did on V-E Day.
But then we had a big shoot all the way home - not all the way home - but the navy ordered the captains, by open wireless by then, for the gunners to shoot all the ammunition aboard the ship off and so we did that. Had lots of shooting, merchant seamen got in on it and we had a ball shooting. Always looking for something to have fun with; it breaks the monotony of pound, pound, pound, pound, pound of the engine going all the time and not seeming to move anywhere because it’s just like being a matchstick on a little pond in the woods. Just, you don’t seem to be going anywhere.