Lester Clarke in Royal Canadian Navy uniform, age 17, Halifax, Nova Scotia, September 1943.Lester Clarke
Lester Clarke in Moncton, New Brunswick, November 23, 2010.Historica Canada
"It was so rough that when the waves would go from under the corvette, we could see the propellers going in the air, out of the water altogether."
I was drafted onto the HMCS Eyebright. At the time, it was in Pictou [Nova Scotia] for a refit. They [corvettes] were, you know, relatively small compared to destroyers and so on, and very rough. Just one propeller instead of two, so you were going this way as well as that way. They were noted for being the roughest ship in the navy. Quite a few people that would be seasick on them, they’d have to draft them off and put them on a larger ship or give them a shore draft.
Our first, I guess, after the refit in Pictou, we went to Halifax and then took right off for Bermuda. After a refit, you have to go through what they called evolutions to make sure that everything was seaworthy before they put you on convoy duty and try out all the engines, and the armament and so on. So we spent about, I guess, a week and a half in Bermuda and then we were on convoy duty after that.
The convoys would form up that time in the harbours and you never had any idea when you were going to be leaving. It was usually in the wee hours of the morning that we’d slip out of the harbour with the convoy and then more ships would come out of say, Newfoundland, St. John’s, some out of Sydney, and we’d pick them up as we went along. When you got your full complement, then you, we headed out for Britain.
I think maybe the one memory that, although there’s several, but the one that stands out the most was probably Christmas Eve 1944. We were going along pretty well and then all of a sudden, we picked up an echo on the ASDIC: there was a submarine underneath us. By the time we found out that, he was close to the convoy, so the submarine kept going right in under the convoy. We were after him by this time, we were chasing him. But we couldn’t drop any [depth] charges [anti-submarine weapons] because we would have blown up some of the closer ships in the convoy. So we were signaling to the convoy ships to spread out, to let us drop some charges and some of them seemed to move pretty slow, you know. But they did eventually spread out and that allowed us to drop charges on the submarine; and we kept them going and chased them right out through the convoy. And I said, I guess it would be about midnight when we got him free of the convoy and where we could, you know, concentrate on the attack. So we kept on his tail, kept a signal in the ASDIC and every time we’d get in a favourable position, we’d drop charges. It was a moonlit night and very calm, kind of a night the submarines loved. I was thinking of Christmas back home, what the kids would all be doing and here I was, strapped to the Oerlikon [anti-aircraft gun]. I was captain of the port Oerlikon at that time, the captain of the Oerlikon is the one that fires.
A lot of thoughts were going through my mind at that time, should I be here or should I be home with the family on Christmas Eve? But I’ll never forget that night. We kept him in our ASDIC until daybreak. And then we lost him. When daybreak came, we were all alone on the Atlantic. We had left the convoy behind, but it took us about three or four hours to get back into the convoy again, but we did our duty, we chased him away from the convoy, which was our objective, to protect the convoy. I guess I remember that night because of being Christmas, and so on.
And then the next day was Christmas. It’s a tradition in the navy the youngest guy onboard ship is captain on Christmas Day, so I was captain for a day, but we had “action stations” [command to prepare for combat] a couple of times and we had to revert back to the original.
Another time I’ll never forget, we had 27 foot whalers for our lifeboats, two of them slung on the side. So one day we had action stations and we’d had to drop charges and that fouled up our ASDIC and radar systems. We didn’t have a technician onboard our ship. The only technician was onboard the senior ship, which is a destroyer. So we had to lower a lifeboat and row over to the senior ship; and got the technician and brought him back and it took him quite a while to get our ASDIC back up and running again.
In the meantime, the seas had got quite rough. A storm was coming up; and we rowed him back to his ship. He had quite a time getting him back onboard because the motion of the waves and everything, but he did get back. But by the time we got back to our ship, a storm was on. We were out in this lifeboat. It was so rough that when the waves would go from under the corvette, we could see the propellers going in the air, out of the water altogether. And we were down there rocking; and the way you get the lifeboat hooked up, you have a line aft and forward and a block-and-tackle, and you had to hook them on and then the guys onboard would all run towards the forecastle, pulling the rope that would raise us up. The first time, we just got one end hooked and the wave hit us and so just one end of it come up. When the ship rolled over, we finally got that unhooked, so we were on even keel again and the next time we got both ends. But they’d get us up so far and then the ship would go this way and we would smash right up against it in the lifeboat.
Once they got us up high enough, we would go way out. When she rolled, we’d come back and smash up against it and a couple of guys would jump onto the deck at that time. And that’s how we had to get all the guys off. I was the third from the last getting off, I remember. There was cuts and bruises because of the lines flying around, and so on. But that was it; we all got off. The lifeboat was so smashed up that they just cut her loose and let her go.
I guess we all went and we did what we thought we had to do.