Photo of Robert Pickering in 1943.Robert Pickering
Mr. Pickering pictured on board HMCS Giffard in 1943.Robert Pickering
Photo taken on V-E Day (May 8, 1945) in New York Harbour. Mr. Pickering's friend is holding up the newspaper.Robert Pickering
Mr. Pickering is pictured lying down shortly after being pulled out of New York Harbour on V-E Day (May 8, 1945) after celebrating.Robert Pickering
Photo of HMCS Kenogami (K125), a Royal Canadian Navy Flower-Class corvette, in 1944.Robert Pickering
"I must have been in the water half an hour swimming and pulling guys over to the ship so that they could get up the scramble net."
We [members of the ship's comany, HMCS Giffard] were just getting ready to go on watch at 11:30 at night [on May 7, 1944], they wake you up and at 12:00, you have to go out and take over a watch. And about 10 minutes after 12:00, there was a big boom and we thought that they were just practicing dropping depth charges [anti-submarine weapons] and that, but we soon found out a torpedo had hit the [HMCS] Valleyfield on the left hand side. We were only half a mile astern [behind] of her. So we stopped and then the skipper realized that he shouldn’t have stopped; and he took off again and made a swing around, see if they could get a [ASDIC] ping off of the submarine. And when he couldn’t do that, there was three other ships there, he called them up to come back and hunt for the submarine. And we went back to pick up the survivors that we could find.
And there was something like 52 survivors, six of them were dead [HMCS Giffard picked up 43 survivors from HMCS Valleyfield, torpedoed and sunk by U-548, 50 miles south of Cape Race, Newfoundland; 5 of the initial 43 survivors died of exposure]. And there was one bunch of fellows on the port side picking up survivors and I was on the starboard side. Put my lifebelt on and the heaving line around me tied down and there was a fellow up on deck that was from Chatham [Ontario] and he had a hold of the other end and I told him not to let go [laughs]. I must have been in the water half an hour swimming and pulling guys over to the ship so that they could get up the scramble net. And that piece with the photo that the Chatham paper had, somebody told him it was only two that we pulled in, but we must have pulled a half a dozen in. Like I say, there was six of them dead. Instead of leaving them laying on the deck, they, they put them in a room that was cold, so they put them in there and then they had a funeral in a couple of days. And I was one of the pallbearers for [Archie William] Mills, was his name, a coder [a naval rating who coded and decoded messages. Mr. Mills is commemorated in the St. John's (Mount Pleasant) Cemetery, Sec. A, Plot 1, Grave I].
And come to find out this Mills lived next door to my grandfather’s cousin in Cottam, up near Windsor. And I was down to Leamington doing some work for my grandfather; and this car pulled in the driveway. This woman and young girl got out of the car; and she come up and said, "are you Bob Pickering?" I said, "yes, ma’am." She told me who she was; and she said, "can you tell me about what happened?" So, I had to: that was the hardest thing I ever done was talk to her about her losing her husband. And I said, it just so happened that I was the pallbearer on this guy’s funeral. So I explained to her what had happened, where it happened, and where he was buried and things like that. And that was the hardest thing I had to do, but I never let it bother me.
And there wasn’t too many people in Chatham even know about it yet, I don’t think, that I was a rescuer. Except that it was in the Chatham paper. And, of course, people in them days, they didn’t think much about it. It’s not like this new one, every time one of the soldiers gets killed, they have a big parade about it and everything else. We never had any of that. Of course, in wartime, you keep it quiet so that the Germans don’t know how many people they killed. But for years, nobody knew that I was on the [HMCS] Giffard.