Veteran Stories:
Paul Bender

Merchant Navy

  • M. Bender at the time he was serving with the Merchant Navy shortly after the Second World War, Mombasa, circa 1948-1950.

    Paul Bender
  • M. Bender at the time he was serving with the Merchant Navy shortly after the Second World War, Singapore, circa 1948-1950.

    Paul Bender
  • M. Bender at the time he was serving with the Merchant Navy shortly after the Second World War, Australia, circa 1948-1950.

    Paul Bender
  • M. Bender (2nd row, 2nd from right) posing with members of the Royal Canadian Navy at HMCS Stadaconna. 1954.

    Paul Bender
  • Captain Bender posing in Ottawa in front of his house in 1958.

    Paul Bender
  • Captain Bender posing with Navy Cadets at HMCS Carlton. 1963.

    Paul Bender
  • Mr. Paul Bender, August, 2012.

    The Memory Project
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"Well, I can describe to you what they looked like, the ones that we rescued. Some of them wore clothing, many of them didn't. They were all horribly burned. They had all drunk the crude oil. So they were vomiting it up and it was coming out of their mouths and out of their noses. Their burns were just horrible."

Transcript

My first ship was sunk on November the 16th, 1943. So it was very close to my 16th birthday. The ship was the ship struck a mine and it sank. And I believe there were 17 sailors were killed. So then of course we were rescued and then sent to another ship after a few days.

And my next voyage was to north Russia in the Russian convoys to a place called Ekonomia, which is east of Murmansk. And that's where I learned how to be seasick. And in case I didn't learn it properly on the way there, I learned it again on the way back because the weather in the winter in what is called the White Sea going to northern Russia is atrocious, absolutely atrocious. And we spent more time trying to get rid of the ice on the ship than doing very much else.

The routine on a ship is that you are on duty for two shifts, four hours on duty and eight hours off duty. But even when you're off duty, if you're in bad weather, the ship doesn't suddenly become a nice stable area. And also, of course, if there is any attack on a convoy, you can be called out to defend your ship. But basically you are you're working for eight hours and you're supposed to be off for 16.

I spent as much time as I could when I was off duty studying for my progressive Certificates of Competency because after four years you're supposed to sit for an examination of second mate. And so I spent as much of my free time as I could doing that.

Well, the convoy system, of course, was very highly developed by the time I started in [November] 1943. And of course the position that I had in the ship was almost the lowest you could possibly get. So nobody consulted me about how things should be done. Any convoy conferences were attended by the captain and we just never knew what was happening until it happened. But certainly the convoy system was a very effective way of transporting the goods across the Atlantic and anywhere else the convoys were needed. I spent a good deal of time in the Mediterranean during the Italian campaign [1943-1945]. So there were convoys going there as well.

The worst experience that I had was in a convoy that we left Halifax and this was in 1944. This was the return convoy from the one that was attacked twice. And this convoy out of Halifax was attacked over a period of three days, constant attack. The ship that I was on well, let me step back a bit. Some of the convoys were they there was a rescue ship was assigned to each convoy, which was a kind of a hospital ship. So this rescue ship would rescue sailors who were managed to get off ships that were sunk and would care for them.

But not all convoys had rescue ships. And the convoys that did not have rescue ships, it was the warships who would pick up survivors, but very often the warships were so busy hunting the U-boats that they sometimes assigned ordinary merchant ships to do it.

And the merchant ship that I was on, on one convoy we picked up 84 survivors from a ship that British ship that was sunk. It had a crew of 105. But the one that I wanted to mention, we were sent to pick up survivors for the tanker that had been torpedoed. Now, when a tanker is torpedoed, it there is a huge explosion and the ship is immediately on fire from one end to the other. The ship that I'm talking about, I think it was a Norwegian tanker, it was carrying crude oil. And after the ship was hit, of course the crude oil is on fire and the crude oil leaks from the ship onto the surface of the ocean but it's still burning.

So any sailors who survived the explosion and want to get off a sinking ship, they have to jump into the ocean which is burning. It's like a sea. And that's where I learned why, when I was at the Nautical School we were taught to do the breaststroke for swimming. Because when you do the breaststroke, you push your hands forward and you can push the burning oil. So you don't do any fancy strokes like this. That's the one that you use.

And anyway, we were sent to a rescue however many survivors there might be, but the boat that we were in for rescue purposes was made of wood. So we couldn't get very close to the ship. Because if we got too close the ship, the boat would burn. So we would stop on the perimeter of the burning oil and call out to whoever was able to swim towards us.

Well, I can describe to you what they looked like, the ones that we rescued. Some of them wore clothing, many of them didn't. They were all horribly burned. They had all drunk the crude oil. So they were vomiting it up and it was coming out of their mouths and out of their noses. Their burns were just horrible. Remember, I'm 16 years old and this is what I'm told to do, to rescue these people out of the water. So I can describe to you what they looked like, but I'll never be able to describe their screams of pain and their cries for help, which for many of them never came and never could because there's no way that we in a wooden boat are going to go into the ocean that is burning to rescue them because we would not be able to make it.

All the time we are in the rescue activity our ship is stopped waiting for us, and a stopped ship is a sitting target. So, the ship is yelling at us get on with it, we are calling to whoever is able to survive so we can rescue them. Very, very stressful. And I suffered quite a bit as a consequence of that convoy. And I had to take when we got to Liverpool, I think it was, I had to take some vacation because I was suffering from what is called stress disorder. We didn't know that such things existed as stress as a stress disorder. And like I say, I was 16 years old and having to do this job.

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