"and they always told us never to fire at an airplane when he was going away because he was as anxious to get home as we were anxious to get into port."
I’d signed up as a stoker in the navy, which was a fireman. But then I’d been in Windsor [Ontario] for about four or five weeks and nothing was moving, so they come along and asked for volunteers for DEMS [Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships] and that’s when I found out they didn’t know what it was either until we got to Halifax and that’s what they say when they told us we were gunners on merchant ships. Well, it kind of made you wonder what it was, but as soon as we got onto the Park boats, which were well equipped with quite a bit of armament, so it made you feel better anyway.
You always had to worry about aircraft coming, dive bombing and trying to get you, and they always told us never to fire at an airplane when he was going away because he was as anxious to get home as we were anxious to get into port.
Okay, so we’d have 18 gunners on our ship and when we’d get into port, we only had to stand watch, even though we were in port, we had to have watch. But the rest of us that weren’t standing watch, the ship’s crew, we would be mingling with them and we always had four fellows on the ship from our crew that was able to work with the merchant seamen and they would get paid, I forget what it was, we’ll say if it was 50 cents an hour or whatever it was, and at the end of the month, we would split that up amongst the 18 of us. So that augmented some of our navy pay, which was $39 a month.
If they were what they called a Murmansk Run or anything like that, they got pretty near triple pay for any of those ships that went that way because it was a very, very risky run, that one because the Germans were there with their submarines and everything else. And the ships that we’ll save, they never went in a big convoy, there was always navy just a few them together and so they would sort of be pried to the, like the submarines would get pretty well most, not most of them, but at least a third of them would go down in being torpedoed.
Usually, it’s 80 to 100 ships. It was always a big convoy and the only ones that went without a convoy were mostly your troop ships, like the passenger ships, they would go, you know, they would have the speed and they would be on their own and that’s the ones like [RMS] Queen Mary and they were always on their own. They never did go in a convoy. Well, your hospital ships, see the hospital ship that was carrying wounded, they would be all lit up at night and according to the War Act [meaning an adherence to naval Prize Rules which prohibit attacks on passenger ships and limit offensive measures against merchant fleets], they weren’t supposed to be attacked by enemy submarines or aircraft. But I guess one or two of them did, they were sunk by the enemy. But like I said, I was very fortunate.
Whenever there was an enemy attack by submarines, the naval ships that we had escorting us, they would turn all their sirens on and make it so everybody was on the alert and the whole crew on the ship were at standby and we’d be all manning our guns or whatever, to see if we could see the enemy. If they were close enough, you could see the ship, but if you were in the middle or the outside and if it was hit in the middle, all you’d see afterwards is maybe a little bit of debris floating by or something.
What I do remember mostly was we were, got in what they would call a rescue ship. And that meant you were on the outside of the convoy. And if the ship was torpedoed, you had to stay back and the convoy would keep on going and we’d have to stay back to try to pick up survivors or stay there. And then after we couldn’t get in, we didn’t find anything, we had to catch up with the convoy again. That was the most disturbing part of it because when you see that, when you see and you’re looking and you don’t find them, but you were trying.
We never did find anybody. No, that’s why I say, our ship was always very fortunate that we were never that close. We’d have to stay back, but we never did see any actual action or anything that I was involved in, like picking up survivors, because like I said, even though you stayed back, and if you weren’t anywhere near the area where they were, so you were just sort of floating around, just looking to see what you can see, but we never did. No, I was very fortunate. Different ones that I’ve talked to, you know, that were there and they said it was terrible.