"I was just getting to sleep when there was a hell of a thump. It was followed by several more hell of a thumps. It scared the devil out of me."
When I first joined the ship, we left Londonderry and transited the Irish Sea to go to the [English] Channel. And with my first night at sea, after I wrestled with my hammock and got organized, I was just getting to sleep when there was a hell of a thump. It was followed by several more hell of a thumps. It scared the devil out of me. So I leaped out of my hammock and was getting my lifejacket to go up on the upper deck, and waiting to get in the water. One of my mess mates stopped me; and he said, oh, don’t worry about that. It was, when the Germans found they couldn’t bomb London, they were getting shot down too fast, they started putting together these V1 [flying bomb] and V2 [long-range ballistic missile] rockets. These things, they were inaccurate as the devil and some of them were landing in the Channel. And they would blow up in the Channel. Well, sound underwater transmits easily. So you’d swear that the thing was exploding next to your hull. So that was one exciting thing. That was my start.
But I guess the most tragic thing, I guess, was when I was in high school. The war had started; and I wrote a story for our yearbook. This was in a little place called Mimico outside Toronto. I wrote a story and I was impressed with the navy, of course, so I wrote a story about a cruise liner being sighted by a U-boat in the Atlantic. They were just about to sink the cruise liner when a British cruiser came up on the scene and shot at the U-boat, and sank it. Everybody was saved and everybody was happy. And to make it even more ominous, I called the U-boat the U-13. That seemed like a real sad name for a U-boat.
Anyway, flashing back to the war now, one day we were breaking in a new ship and we were doing exercises outside Londonderry before the whole group transited to the Channel again. This was in the latter part of the war. We went out that night; and just around midnight, I was writing a letter to my wife before I went on watch at midnight. And suddenly, there was a terrible bump. I didn’t have a clue what it was. But in fact what had happened was the officer of the watch had noticed smoke coming out of the water. And he didn’t know what it was. So he headed for the location; and they realized then that what he was seeing was a U-boat snorkeling.
So he revved up speed and I could tell that when I was writing the letter because as I was writing, I felt the engines, the pulse getting faster. You can tell when you’re a speeding ship, as you know. Anyway, what happened was, we rammed the U-boat sitting outside Londonderry and we sank it. In doing so, we ripped open our own hull. So we had to rush back in before we sank ourselves. Fortunately, there was a dry dock that was empty in Londonderry, so we were able to get in and get the dock closed and we were okay.
Two things. One is that a friend of mine, that had been on the course with me, had just arrived in Londonderry in his ship and they were berthed just astern of us. So I went over to see him and he said to me, he was new to the area; and he said to me, gosh, how are things here, Ken, they must be hotter than hell, eh? I said, no, as a matter of fact, it’s boring as hell. We get contact, we throw depth charges [anti-submarine weapons] over or rockets; and they explode and nothing happens. It’s boring as hell. But it was the same night that we went out and rammed the U-boat, so we had to limp back into Londonderry and get in the dock fast. He came over to see me this time. He said to me, yeah, boring as hell, eh? [laughs] So that was another interesting part of the thing. But the U-boat, when we found out more about it, I found out it was the U-1003. So it was a tragic coincidence. I think there were about 35 people onboard and I think there were 13 people lost. And 23 came up on their escape here.