"Anything could have happened; death, anything, and I would have been responsible."
When the war started, I was working as a printer or in other words, doing typography. I was working at Fast Type Setters Limited. I received my letter from the army at some point; it was in 1941 or around then. I wasn’t very interested in the army and as for marching well, I didn’t care very much for it. So I said to myself, I’ll join the navy, at least I’ll get to travel! (He laughs) So I chose the marines, maybe with regret, but anyway I had to make a decision. I took training in ‘leading quarter’, decoding secret messages and on the teletype, which was a kind of typing machine that we used to send messages back and forth. We would handle messages, and we didn’t know if they were secret, confidential, or whatever. It would depend on the letter that would appear on the days that we were decoding. When we couldn’t decode a message, we put it aside and we wouldn’t even bother touching it since there was no way to discover the secret message.
In the navy, an incident happened to me, and a big one at that. When sending messages, we had about ten or so machines. So, using ten machines only, at different intervals, we had to put our messages on each of the machines where it was supposed to go. I would write the name, the time of arrival, the time of dispatch, TOD, TOA, etc., and all of that, the date, the time it was going to be sent, but never the minutes, we would never put the minutes. When sending the message, I would add the minutes and then it was done, and I would put the message in the filing cabinet. But what happened one day is that there was a shift change. When the new guys arrived, they saw the message and assumed that it had been sent and so they put it in the filing cabinet without saying a word to anyone. As one might expect, three days went by and the main people who were interested in the message never received a response with the person they were requesting a response. So they asked the person in question and he said that he never had received the message. Well, he never received the message, how come? So they repeated the message and that was the first time that he received it. They investigated to find out who was the source of the trouble and the trouble was me! (He laughs) Well, at some point, I eventually found out what was in the message and why it so interesting. It was a message from the three main leaders: the Prime Minister of England [Winston Churchill], President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt and another, the third, I can’t remember his name, but anyway, it was the three main guys... Anything could have happened; death, anything, and I would have been responsible.
The only other big thing that happened to us was in Newfoundland, at the Knights of Columbus, in a hostel [in St. John’s] one Saturday night; the place went up in flames. In Newfoundland during the war, there was no light, it was completely black at night and everything was barricaded. So the Knights of Columbus was completely barricaded and you couldn’t see any light; there was a dance going on in there. A fire caught and there were a hundred or so people inside, dead, they all died. I wanted to take a truck with a chain and rip off one of the walls to let all of the people out. But they wouldn’t let me; they said that too many people would die. So I said, “Yes but there are already people dying in there, what’s the difference? We could take a chance and save three people and maybe more.” They didn’t want to, so they all died. They held one big funeral for almost a hundred people. They opened up a cemetery; that, I remember.
One day, I submitted my request to become an officer. The interviews were conducted by an English officer from England. He would sit behind a big desk with his head bent down sternly and the way he would speak to you, you couldn’t understand anything. You would respond more or less something to the effect of what he said, but you were never sure. At one point, I apologized to him because I didn’t understand the answer. But he said it was ok and thanked me. Finally, I was refused for the reason that I couldn’t speak English well enough! Good reason, huh? (He laughs) That was my reason, but no matter. I said thanks very much, I’ll practise!