"And you’re always nervous. You’re in a convoy, you never know who’s going to get hit, if anybody’s going to get hit from torpedo or something like that."
I didn’t really enlist. I was actually recruited by the government while I was attending Radio College of Canada in Toronto to become a radio officer. The government recruited us. They needed people for the ships that they were building and they didn’t have enough people to crew them. So I went along with… We signed up for two years, refunded our tuition for the course and we were paid from the time we signed on until we were assigned to a ship. So that’s how I ended up in the merchant navy.
I was a radio officer and there were three of us on the ship; and we were on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We worked eight hour shifts, sitting, doing nothing, sitting in a chair with earphones on. They used to call it BAMS [Broadcasting to Allied Merchant Ships], British Admiralty Merchant Ship Messaging. All the orders and everything went through the British Admiralty, and were picked up on short wave radios; and you kept your earphones on in case you should receive a message in code to our ship, if there was any changes made in our destination or anything like that.
I was on three different trips with, on the [SS] Louisburg. And they were all different destinations. So the first destination, we left Vancouver and we were bound for Bombay, India. We were alone, unescorted, out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was kind of scary. There were submarines operating out there, but we had no escorts in those days. And there was some, we had on that ship, it was quite interesting, we had eight feet of deck cargo. The deck cargo was piled eight feet high on all the available space on top of the hatches and everywhere else. And besides that, we had two tugs, 75 tonne tugs, bolted and chained down to our No. 2 and No. 4 hatch on the ship. And we were delivering those supposedly to be used in the harbour in Bombay for the use of tugboats in moving ships and so on, and so forth.
But we hit a very massive storm, and I don’t know whether you’d call it a tornado or what. Just, oh, in late March, we’d sailed on February the twelfth; and we had a really very bad storm. Some of our cargo started shifting and even the tugs started shifting a bit, and we had a lot of concern. The captain was, and everybody else, because if the cargo had shifted too much to one side or the other, we could have capsized. And we didn’t though; fortunately, we were able to get through it. But, at that particular time, I myself was going back to check our antenna in the rear of the ship and I had to go where the deck cargo and so on, and so forth; and I had a bad fall and I was thrown back onto the deck on the hatch lid, where the lid would go on, there was this, I was thrown back against that and I hurt my neck and back. And, of course, on those ships, we didn’t have any medical equipment. Our purser [responsible for administrative duties] was supposed to be our first aid guy and that was it. You got aspirin and liniment and that was it, there was no … Anyway, I survived the injuries and they didn’t become serious until later.
Yeah, the only time I ever got any message was shortly after we left Fremantle. We were on our way to Bombay. And I got a message on my shift ̶ a coded message that we were not to go to Bombay, but we were to change course and go to Colombo, Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka. We were sent there because the harbour had a big explosion. A munition ship blew up in the harbour in Bombay and leveled a considerable amount of the city; and there were thousands of casualties and it was never reported, never any newspaper anywhere, it was kept under wraps. I guess they didn’t want anybody to know about it.
So we had to go up there. We were there for a while; and finally, we were able to get alongside the dock and unload our cargo. But, another little strange story. They lifted one of the tugs up off the deck and set it down in the water and alongside of the ship, and it proceeded to take water and actually it sunk right there. After we’d hauled it all the way from Vancouver.
I got mail from home and I realized or I was told that my brother had been shot in action over in France. He had been injured, wounded, and sent over to No. 4 Canadian General Hospital in Aldershot, just outside of London. So while we were in Grimsby, England is where we docked on the east coast of England, and I went down by train and stayed in a bar or hotel type place just outside the hospital and spent some time with my brother while he was in the hospital. When I walked in, he just about flipped. He didn’t know I was coming or where I was, or what I was doing. And that was an interesting little side thing on that particular trip. Otherwise, it was pretty uneventful except, you know, being in a convoy. And you’re always nervous. You’re in a convoy, you never know who’s going to get hit, if anybody’s going to get hit from torpedo or something like that.
We celebrated both VE [Victory in Europe Day] and VJ [Victory in Japan] Day out in the Pacific Ocean. I don’t even think, we didn’t have any toddies; we didn’t have any of those rum toddies that they always talk about seamen having. I think the only that had the booze is the captain. [laughs]