Veteran Stories:
Joe Pearcey

Merchant Navy

  • Joe Pearcey (centre) with his wife Madeline (right) and daughter Linda (left).

  • The escort carrier HMS Fencer riding out a hurricane in 1943.

  • The escort carrier HMS Fencer rolling heavily in a hurricane in 1943.

  • Four aircraft crash while landing on deck from a return flight.

  • U-boat sunk en route to Murmansk, Russia

    Joseph Pearcey
  • Photo of the Fort Ambrose that Mr. Pearcey served on.

    Joe Pearcey
  • Mr. Pearcey's Certificate of Discharge paperwork.

    Joe Pearcey
  • A letter about a meeting from the Department of Defence requesting Mr. Pearcey's attendance.

    Joe Pearcey
  • Mr. Pearcey's Air Raid Patrol Band.

    Joe Pearcey
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"This one time, the paper boat just got outside the harbour and was torpedoed. The torpedo never did explode, but it was inside the ship. So the ship had to come back to the dockyard."


I got a job during the war. I was 18 years of age. I joined the [SS] Fort Amherst, that was owned by Furness, Withy [and Co.]. They had two ships: Fort Amherst and [SS] Fort Townshend. The reason I got the job there, they were a passenger ship, they were more or less conveying troops back and forth. The route was to Halifax, from there to New York, U.S.A. From there, once a month down to Bermuda. But getting back to a little bit before that, the reason I got the job, they had a little printing press, the same as I was trained [on] at Dixon Company, and they used to set up change menus, different menus for different dinners. That’s how I got the job there. I used to print the menus for them, just by letter press and when I was finished, and I used to go in the galley [ship’s kitchen] and help out with work there. The little printing press was only so big, in a little room, and we had individual type. You could pick from the cases, and you set up that way. They was just outside the galley, where they did all the cooking. And all you had in there was your press and what we call a stone, like a table, for to put on your different lines of type, lay the type, and change it on a daily basis. But it was only small, but then when I was finished, I’d be in the galley, helping out, cleaning up dishes or pots and pans, or something like that. But as far as I’m concerned, the danger was just outside of St. John’s Harbour. I didn’t realize it because I was so young, I didn’t even think that we’re at war when you’re on a ship like that. I used to smoke a little bit and when I started to get seasick, I gave up smoking. I never smoked since, which is a good thing. Now, I know there, during the war, I don’t know if you heard tell it, they had a net, a big steel net right across the entrance of the harbour. After a couple of months or something, they found two torpedoes, unexploded in the net, caught in the net. There was another case where my father, who was a stevedore [dock worker who loads and unloads ships], longshoreman. They used to send in the paper from Corner Brook to the dock here at St. John’s. He’d load the paper onboard the ships to go to different places, the States and maybe over across to Europe somewhere. This one time, the paper boat just got outside the harbour and was torpedoed. The torpedo never did explode, but it was inside the ship. So the ship had to come back to the dockyard. My father and a crowd of longshoremen had to take all the paper, all of the whole of the ship, and the men had to go down, the army crowd, and try to discharge the torpedo, which they did. And you know, they were paid extra time and extra danger duty for doing that. Now, there was, on Bell Island [an island off Newfoundland], they used to sell the mining of iron for years. The Germans was the biggest customer; and they were buying up all the iron and then when they started the war, they were making shells and everything out of it, but anyway, they came in with the submarine and sank two ships off of Bell Island. There was one ship down there now, there was also a passenger ship called the [SS] Caribou, and they had passengers and crew, they all got killed, torpedoed. I mean, the danger was all over. Now, I didn’t realize it because I was so young and I didn’t care. But I know there was a time when mother used to tell us after, that when a ship was leaving the port of St. John’s, the harbour of St. John’s, there was always a message off one radio station. This is supposed to be a true story, how true it is, I don’t know. But anyway, it always said that a black cat was lost at a certain time; and the owners should remember and pick it up, and return it to a certain date. Now, this is over the radio station and apparently, they had picked it up as a code from somebody, letting them know that a ship is leaving the harbour of St. John’s. Now, how true that is, I don’t know. I was never outside of St. John’s harbour until I joined a ship. It’s a different world out there; it’s a different sea. But we used to, as soon as we’d go out there, we’d join a convoy of 300 ships or more. You had a lot of warships going around and we had to join the convoy until we came to the route of Halifax. When we got to Halifax, we’d drop off to a smaller convoy and we’d get into Halifax Harbour, and then we’ll be there for about four or five days. We would then head out and join another convoy, a big convoy, about 300 ships or more. From there, we’d go to New York, U.S.A.; and that was a different planet to me because in St. John’s, we had nothing. We were very, very slow catching up because it was in the Depression years, not only that, we were not a province of Canada. We were under the rule of the English government. So anyway, what happened then, when I got into New York, the States, see all the neon lights and everything like that. I thought it was another planet because the traffic and the cars and all that, I was never used to. I was just about lost; and I couldn’t get over the astonishment of so much changes that we had. Putting to sea was another world, especially in New York. We then stayed there for four or five days and we went from there, once a month, to Bermuda, and then back the same trip.
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