DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) personnel taking part in gun drill aboard an unidentified merchant ship, Halifax, Nova Scotia, November 29, 1942.Lt. George A. Lawrence / DND / Library and Archives Canada / PA-106528
Steven Kulik's hand-written story, "My 1st Voyage on a Merchant Ship."Steven Kulik
"And we were in a rough sea besides and that was when we all thought, uh-oh, now we’ve had it, we’ve made him mad and he’s going to come and get us."
That would be 1940. I was working in a restaurant in Toronto at the time and one of the customers was telling me a story about ships and all, that he had just come back from… it sounded to me like… that it sounded good, that I would like to do that, go to work on a ship and go no matter where, anywhere in the world. So that’s what I did. I went to the shipping office. First of all, I hung around Montreal for a while. And in those days, you couldn’t go into the harbour either and then I heard, they said they were looking for some seamen to go on a ship in New Brunswick for the International Paper Company. I went to their office and I got a job on the ship, that’s the first ship I was ever on. And the only time I was ever on a ship. And they sent me to Dalhousie, New Brunswick, where I picked up the RJ Cullen, yeah. And we went to England on that ship.
Of course, it was in 1940. We were under submarine attack all the way over into England. As a matter of fact, it was when we were— Canadian navy only took us out to 200 miles and then we were on our own with the convoy. And ended up in England. From there it was on the way back home we were attacked in the dawn and in the twilight, we were under submarine attack. And I forgot to mention that we started out with 48 ships and we were the — I think only 17 of us got there in England at that time.
Of course on the way home we were under submarine attack again all the time. One evening when we thought the attack was over, we were all sitting in a lunchroom having coffee and stuff until we heard, “Submarine on the port quarter [left rear section of the ship]!” And we all ran out up on deck and there was a sub at the surface. He had just surfaced. In those days we had a six-inch naval gun on the ship and a three-inch anti-aircraft [gun], so we started firing at the sub. And after the first shell went over, the sub started to submerge. And eventually it went under and by this time it was getting pretty dark. And we were in a rough sea besides and that was when we all thought, uh-oh, now we’ve had it, we’ve made him mad and he’s going to come and get us.
Anyway, nothing happened, so the following day we figured out that he had probably run out of torpedoes and he only surfaced to get us with his deck gun which, in those days, we had a six-inch naval gun on our ship. All merchant ships had some guns on them at that time, just for that same kind of reason.
Anyway, yeah, that’s what we did and so what happened was to get away from the wolf pack, because that was what the submarines were called in those days, they hung around outside of Canada, waiting to get ships, we were at that time, we were the commodore ship [commander of a group of vessels travelling together], so we ordered the convoy to disperse and every man on his own. And we headed for Iceland, because the wolf packs were just outside of Halifax at that time. We went all the way up through, past Iceland, and it took us three weeks to get home.
So that was my first trip. And on my first trip, after I came back from England on that first trip, that’s when I went back to Toronto and it was while I was there that I started on the engineering course, which I went to Kingston for. And anyway, I didn’t end up as an engineer. I ended up as second steward on the ship.
In those days, a steward was called “mess room” steward, you know. So what I had to do was bring the food to the sailors when we were at sea, you know. That’s all I did was serve like a waiter. I was like a waiter and then I helped clean up the ship’s — the captain’s, the officers’ quarters and things like that.
While I was on the Lady Nelson, which was converted to a hospital ship, that was another trip I made to England to pick up Canadian soldiers who were sick and all this kind of stuff and bring them back to Canada. As I remember once after, when I was out of the war, and I tried to get a course with the — like a high school course, you know — and they wouldn’t give it to me, because at that time, I was working in a restaurant; they said, “you don’t need any more training, you’ve already got a job.” So that was my thanks for being in the merchant navy.
You see, because the merchant navy is not like the navy or the army that are armed personnel, you know. So we were just like the ordinary workers. That’s how we were looked at, at that time. It was only later on that they finally came through, which was very good. I had not expected it but it was welcome.