Every 11 November, I remember Charlie and I eventually fall asleep, watching him and his three buddies endlessly climb the ladder and especially, the sailor who closed the hatch.
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You may have wondered or may not have wondered what veterans think on Remembrance Day on 11 November. At this stage in my life, I’ve experienced 60 some 11 November services and for me, 11 November is a day with a fixed routine. Wake up, breakfast, daily devotions, shave and dress for the Remembrance Day ceremonies at a local arena. There is a 50/50 chance the day will be overcast or cloudy. And it is certain to be on the chilly edge of winter. It is also certain that the bad memories will bundle up and come along, especially the memory of Charlie.
At the arena I join with the other vets, who will march in a platoon in the parade of presently serving armed forces, police and cadet corps. Our platoon is a mixed bag of all three services. The marching is ragged because we’re old and the air force never could do it right. I thrilled to the skirl of the bagpipes and the whump, whump, whump of the big bass drums. My heart goes out to the poor sods who drew sentry duty at the four corners of the cenotaph. Their heads bowed and arms reversed, motionless for a long time. It is an amazing feat of physical endurance. Last year, one was a woman. It is likely they’re dedicated volunteers.
For me, the enemy is there as well, even though I never saw a live or dead enemy in the war. They’re the ghosts of the 30 or 40 German sailors who perished when HMCS Edmundston attacked U-877 [German submarine] on 27 December 1944. I wonder, were those men willing members of the monstrous evil regime we were fighting or were they conscripted? Either way, they died a horrible death. Two minute silence for those who gave it their all; those who never heard the chill, clear notes of Taps or Reveille at a Remembrance Day service. It is over and my wife, Muriel and I, are taken out for lunch by members of our family. After a lunch and that, and then I prepared to greet a host of memories for the rest of the day.
And then I remembered Charlie. Charlie and I literally bumped into each other on a street corner in Saskatoon about a year after war’s end. I met Charlie in basic training at Cornwallis in Nova Scotia. He was tall, athletic, blonde and friendly. When I looked at him on the street corner, I wasn’t certain it was Charlie. The confident Charlie was gone. The new Charlie was haggard and untidy. It was nearly noon and I invited him home for lunch. Muriel always gracious, welcomed Charlie and adroitly adjusted the menu. When coffee arrived, Charlie’s hands shook so much he required both hands to raise the cup to his lips. Gradually I coaxed him to tell us what happened to him.
After Cornwallis, Charlie joined HMCS [HMS] Nabob, a baby flat-top [escort] aircraft carrier. Off the coast of Norway, the ship took a torpedo. Charlie was ejected from his bunk. When he picked himself up from the deck, water was up his ankles. Charlie was first on the ladder and three friends were following. As Charlie emerged through the hatch, the command ‘close all white watertight doors and hatches’ boomed from the loudspeakers. As seamen stationed at that point slammed down the cover and tightened the turnbuckles. Charlie’s screams of protest were ignored and he was physically restrained from opening the cover.
Nabob was severely damaged, but kept afloat. It took 10 days to be towed to harbour. There were about 30 fatalities, mostly caused by drowning. It was a navy version of death by friendly fire. Militarily, the captain acted wisely. The rating who closed the hatch acted properly, instantly obeying an order. The captain was probably commended for saving the ship. Every 11 November, I remember Charlie and I eventually fall asleep, watching him and his three buddies endlessly climb the ladder and especially, the sailor who closed the hatch.