Veteran Stories:
Colin MacPhail

Merchant Navy

  • Colin MacPhail at Remembrance Day ceremonies on November 11, 1995.

    Margaret MacPhail
  • Pension documents stating the various merchant ships Colin MacPhail served on, the majority of which were Norwegian.

    Margaret MacPhail
  • News article about a young Colin MacPhail in trouble with law enforcement for falsely pulling a fire alarm.

    Margaret MacPhail
  • Colin MacPhail's wife recounting the story of her husband saving another sailors life.

    Margaret MacPhail
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"I got to be a seaman and I’ve got scared, oh, you wouldn’t believe it. Oh, I saved a man’s life. It was a storm that was acting different than other storms."


Once we got on the Norwegian ships, they took a liking to me because I was a kid off a farm. And you know how dumb they can be. They don’t know anything about life. And they looked after me, I was just like one of their own. I was a saloon boy. The saloon boy, he washed the dishes and he shined the brass and he’d set the table and things like that in the captain’s quarters. And take coffee up to the bridge. He was an English speaking fellow, we’re Norwegians, they couldn’t speak English but they were trying awful hard. At the last I got off in times, they’d give me orders in Norwegian and I could carry them out. She was a sleek oil tanker, just the thing that the torpedoes were looking for. And painted a light grey. She stood out from the convoy. From the aft was a bridge up about six or eight feet. And they were very low to the water, the oil tankers, especially when they were loaded. That was my job to go back to the aft part of the ship, to the galley, and bring up the dinner. When it was storming, you had to walk, whenever the big wave come and threw you, you start running like hell from here up to midship with whatever you were carrying. And they used to laugh and I did that every day for I don’t know how long. I got on in Halifax, that’s where it started from. I went to the Norwegian consulate and we took it from there. We went from there overseas and went out up in the Orkney Islands [a series of islands north of Scotland]. I will tell you I was scared, look at the land going, the land leaving me behind and we went to the Caribbean to Curaçao Island to get oil. From there, we come back to Halifax, come into Bedford Basin [the Northwestern part of Halifax Harbour] and waited until we got a nine knot convoy. And so we got back and you’d wait there until you’d get enough of those ships to make a convoy. And sometimes, they were huge convoys. And every time we went over, Falmouth [United Kingdom] and a place like that where you can discharge your oil there, every time we went over, we were attacked. It was just sewn with mines [anti-shipping explosives]. I don’t remember of going the complete trip without depth charges [anti-submarine explosives]. But not losing the ship. I got to be a seaman and I’ve got scared, oh, you wouldn’t believe it. Oh, I saved a man’s life. It was a storm that was acting different than other storms. You’d look up. You’d be in a hole and you’d look up probably 60, 75 feet up a hill like that, that you could see in water. And then she’d come down, that hill would come down and you’d go up on the hill. Every once in a while, there’d be a wave come over the back. And I was standing there and I was watching the sea and you’d be looking up. It was something to see. You’d say, that’s not going to kill you, the torpedoes will kill you. Mind you, you had to be very careful what you were doing. Well anyway, I just had backed up and I was watching and I was right under the canopy where you can go downstairs, you could hold on and be safe there. And this guy come up with his hands in his back pocket and he turned his head and he was watching this way, just whenever the boat went down with the water, this wave coming like this and hit him. And it just slapped him down there just as if it was a piece of stick. When they put him down on the deck, there was so much water come with it, it just took him right over to the side of the ship and he was going under the rail, he was under the rail. And I was standing there and then all of a sudden, it come to me, get him! And when I got him, he was down the shoulder and everything else was gone and I got him by the legs. And you know if I had waited one second longer, I’d have lost him. There was a celebration, the first thing that started off, the war was over, a celebration. Boats were all tied up, English, Norwegian, you name them, they were all tied up. We only had a bottle of whiskey and then English fellows had torpedo fluid. And this torpedo fluid was deadly stuff. Well, they ran out of other stuff. So it was alcohol mixed with torpedo fluid, but they took them off over the ship, over our ship, around the dock and over the next ships in the morning. Brown, dying, just a complete mess. Men went through the war. One man especially, he was a married man, he went through the war, he had a family and he was celebrating and he was one of the ones that was like brown as a, dead as a doornail. Oh, it was a tragedy, that. I was lost. I was alright for a while but I was lost. That was a lot to happen to a young person in four years. Over 50 years ago, it all happened in your little community. And you probably made a trip or two to town or so and this is why I say I was so thankful that I got with the Norwegians because some of those merchant ships were the pits. When I got those medals, I was thrilled with these medals. I believe if I had to go through a thing like that again, as a young person, I think I would. And I can’t say enough about the Norwegians. I think they did me more good than harm.
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