"The convoy gave a sense of comfort... we had about 18 ships in our convoy. Well, if anybody’s going to torpedo anybody its going to be those nice big fat tankers back there, not a Canadian ship carry lumber and pulp, paper rather, to South Africa."
There were seven of us, and we were all… there were a couple of able seaman, and the rest of us were ordinary seaman, and we had one leading seaman, who was a gun layer. He was from Prince Rupert [British Columbia], Art Saunders, who had been in the navy from the beginning of the war and had served in destroyers. And when they first decided to arm merchant ships, and it was a British program, not so much a Canadian one, but the Canadians had to supply people. Yeah, the first DEMS [Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship]* in the, Canadian DEMS came out of our general service, primarily had served in destroyers, had been in destroyers or were all gunnery people. Most of them were what we called AALGs, Anti-Aircraft Lewis Gunners,** which was one of the naval gunner rates, and Art Saunders was one of these people. So he had been in the navy about three years, just been made leading seamen, but had experience at sea, whereas the rest of us were brand new. I think we had two people who had served in ships in the Great Lakes, as merchant seamen. But, generally, we were new at the business.
And now, comes seasickness. After we loaded our lumber in New Westminster and Port Alberni [British Columbia], and we left Port Alberni out to the Alberni Canal in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and out into the Pacific, and in those long swells that came in there, that was my first introduction to seasickness and, which I experienced for the next 43 years in the navy. It never went away. It was not fun. But, I think, the main thing was uncertainty. You weren’t sure. I said we had an excellent background in technical training on the weapons we had, what constitutes… but you can only do a lookout for so long. You were up there with binoculars and these were the days when the structure in a ship, either a naval ship or a merchant ship, was such that the captains and the mates were one structure, and you were way down. You were not informed of things. For instance, before we sailed in the ship we had no idea where we were going. Although, I found out and didn’t believe it. A waitress in a restaurant said we were going to South Africa. And guess what, we went to South Africa. But nobody called us in and said, “Guys, we are going to be sailing tonight at 6:30. We are going out into the Pacific. We are going down west coast of North America. We’ll run into some American forces probably, but mainly, we are looking for those nasty U-boats from Germany. They’re all the way around the Pacific.” But nobody briefed us, and there was this concept… I know the first time I saw a blimp, a US navy blimp, well, my first reaction was, “Well, I’ll get that guy.” Nice big target, but it had US navy printed on it, and they’d come by and challenge us.
And so we went down the coast of North America, got water and fuel in San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles. Then we went down through the Panama Canal into the Caribbean and then, for the first time we experienced the convoy system because we had to go by convoy from Panama to Aruba. That was our next port of call for fuel. So that was the first time in a convoy. Kind of strange. But one of the things about Canadian merchant ships, we were the most heavily armed merchant ships of the Allied navies. As a result, the Canadian ships were always the lead ships of the outer columns of the convoy.
So we were number one in the outside, on the left hand column. And the only excitement we had in that particular convoy was about, late, about 2:30 a.m. in the morning, I was back on the 4-inch gun deck, a huge shape appears out of no place. Everything pitch black. And it’s a sister ship, the SS Winnipegosis Park. Not doing very good station keeping. A bit of a fright. Then I informed the bridge by phone and they put on a little speed being the first ship in the line, that they could do that. But there was also a sense of comfort. The convoy gave a sense of comfort and you said, I think, we had about 18 ships in our convoy. Well, if anybody’s going to torpedo anybody its going to be those nice big fat tankers back there, not a Canadian ship carry lumber and pulp, paper rather, to South Africa. And at that time, legally, we still didn’t know where we were going.
*Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships were shipping vessels armed with anti-aircraft and anti-submarine guns.
**Anti-aircraft Lewis Gunners were trained to man the Lewis gun, a multi-purpose weapon used for anti-aircraft and infantry-supporting actions.