Veteran Stories:
Ethel Rowell

Army

  • Photograph of a plate - a pictorial history of the Number 14 Canadian General Hospital. Made in Perugia, Italie in 1944 or 1945.

    Ethel Rowell
  • Snapshot of Ethel Rowell taken in Italy, 1944.

    Ethel Rowell
  • Photo of the Westmount Ward in Perugia, Italy. Ethel Rowell is pictured standing near the far left post in 1944 or 1945.

    Ethel Rowell
  • Newspaper article from The Montreal Gazette in 1988. The article describes the story of the SS Santa Elena Torpedoed.

    The Montreal Gazette
  • Description of SS Santa Elena, November 6, 1943.

    Ethel Rowell
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"You just automatically went to your boat station to find out what was going to happen next, so then when the abandon ship order came through, well, we got into our lifeboat."

Transcript

We went to Liverpool and got onboard an American ship called the [S.S.] Santa Elena, which was very exciting because they had real food, good food and white bread that we hadn’t seen for two and a half years. It was just dark brown bread and actually after a few days, they scolded us for eating all the white bread up.

And from there, we just traveled on to Italy. At that point, we didn’t know but we found out that that’s where we were heading. We left in October from Liverpool, the exact date I don’t know but it was October of 1943. And it was, oh, maybe 10 days, a couple of weeks, I really don’t remember but on the 6th of November, we had just gone through the Strait of Gibraltar and around 6:00 at night, we heard enemy action and I thought to myself, well, that’s nothing, that can’t be because nothing ever happens to us. And then they were strafing the deck and then I heard heavy gunfire and then all of a sudden, wham and the ship listed and I was down in my cabin. And I thought to myself, well, this is an emergency.

I bought a little flask on my last trip to Scotland and I bought it just because I thought it was a cute little flask. But then - you don’t know how your mind is going to work in a case like this. My mind said, this is an emergency, and I bought that little flask for an emergency, so I took the little flask out of my purse and left my purse on the bunk and I went up to my boat station. That was automatic, that you just automatically went to your boat station to find out what was going to happen next, so then when the abandon ship order came through, well, we got into our lifeboat.

I was lucky; I was in a lifeboat that had a motor. So I didn’t have to row. But the people that lowered the boats, they really weren’t very expert at it because the one lifeboat sort of hit the next one and anyway, eventually, we got down to the water, and from there on, time didn’t exist for me because we were motoring around trying to find somebody that would take us aboard. And we came to a destroyer and they said, no, you can’t come on here, we’re sinking. We didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know anything about what was happening except that the gunfire seemed to have stopped at that point.

And we came to another destroyer and no, you can’t come on, we’re sinking but it might have been the same destroyer for all I know. But eventually, this beautiful big dark shape, huge shape, was still in the water and it was a big passenger ship. And it had stopped. It had had orders to stop to pick up any survivors if there was trouble. So when we came along beside it, with each swell of the ocean, we were told when the boat goes up, grab a hold of the scramble net, which is a big net that was hanging over the side of this big ship. So that’s what we did. The lifeboat came up high and we grabbed onto that scramble net and I hung onto that scramble net tight as a spider could hang onto his web. So it’s a good name for the thing because it’s a big, heavy net, made of rope - I don’t know how thick but thick enough to hold a bunch of people.

And so we climbed up, I think it was something like sixty feet. And got onboard and there we were onboard a ship that was friendly and welcomed us. We didn’t know where everybody was from our unit because we were scattered in different lifeboats and some of them went to North Africa and most of them got on the [SS] Monterey.

I don’t remember, it was sort of like six hours maybe that we were floating around because I think it was shortly after 6:00 that we were hit. By the time we got picked up, it was midnight by the time I was standing up on deck. So that was how we got rescued.

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