"I said, why would we be worried about something that may not happen? I said, if a torpedo has my number, what can I do about it?"
My name is James Webb,W-E-B-B. I was born in Toronto in 1918 on the 17th of October. I enlisted the 22nd of July, 1940. I was promoted to the rank of corporal and this is without military training. But I was the official proofreader of case histories. Because I was able to understand the doctor’s handwriting. So I was promoted.
Well, after 18 months at the military hospital, I was called in halfway through New Years Eve leave, New Years of 1941, 1942. The married members of the unit had four days off at Christmastime. The single members had four days off at New Years. And after two days, I was called in, I was given a physical, sent down to Ordnance Corps, which is at the present time, Air Canada Centre. That was the original sorting building for the Canadian postal service. But Ordnance Corps took it over.
I was issued with a steel helmet, gas respirator and given a ticket to Halifax and said, report to Pier 21, Embarkation Transit Unit.
I was a medical clerk at that time. And I remained medical clerk until I guess it was April of 1942, when our commanding officer sent his Orderly Room sergeant back to Kingston and he took me out of the medical section and put me in charge of the orderly room. And I was promoted to the rank of sergeant. There again, without training.
An Orderly Room is the main office, the operational office. This was all the directives for the troops you’re carrying. And the one in charge of the orderly room is more of an office manager.
We set sail on the sixth of January and two weeks later, we were in Scotland on the 21st. We were travelling east one night and we were struck by a gale from due north. There was slight damage done to the ship but they rectified it and our pharmacist decided that evening that he wasn’t going to sleep in his regular bunk. He’d sleep on the bed in the pharmacy. Well, he got stuck there because with the rolling of the ship… medicines were carried in steel boxes, because we had to go from one ship to another and the only means of carrying those medicines was in steel boxes which could be locked. But they were unlocked onboard ship. They were stacked two and three high.
With the rolling of the ship, they fell and the floor was littered with broken glass and medicines. He was stuck on that bunk, he couldn’t get out of it. We went through the hospital and forced the door into the pharmacy so as we could rescue him.
The next ship we were on was the Rangitiki. Now, she was a sister ship to the Rangitata. The Rangitata, a New Zealand ship, was sunk. She was beside the, one of the Canadian ships that was sunk by the U-boat after a gun battle.
We had 900 German prisoners of war onboard. Now why were we bringing them out to Canada? There was fear that the German army would invade Britain. And Britain didn’t want 900 prisoners of war, prime prisoners of war, to be released and in amongst them by the German army. So they were shipped to Canada.
We had a Canadian armed escort, about the only one they ever had. And when the German saw who was behind the guns, they toed the line. They had enough experience with the Canadians before. They themselves told us, we just treated them as they were Canadians.
While I was in the medical corps, I was connected with the hospital and we had one of their key flyers as a patient. He had received the second highest decoration from Hitler himself, a jewelled eagle. And when we got him to Halifax, at the end of that particular trip, they announced - it was made over the public address system - no one will be going ashore until the souvenir is returned. That jewelled eagle had been confiscated by someone.
Well, it didn’t take long before we were taking the prisoners of war off because the eagle had been returned. And under the international agreement, you have to supply it under the Red Cross.
I know Yanks would stop us on our trips and said, aren’t you scared of being torpedoed. I said, why would we be worried about something that may not happen? I said, if a torpedo has my number, what can I do about it?
Now, as we left the [HMS] Queen Elizabeth in 1945, we were advised, in case of being torpedoed, you were in charge of a certain section of the deck for evacuation, you would have to go down to the ship’s armoury to draw and sign for a revolver and ammunition. Now, I wouldn’t know where the ship’s armoury was.