Veteran Stories:
John Stokes

Navy

  • Dead sailors from the HMCS Esquimalt lie on the stern of the HMCS Sarnia, April 1945. The HMCS Esquimalt was torpedoed by U-190 on 16 April 1945, only 27of the minesweeper's 71 compliment survived.

  • Survivors from the HMCS Esquimalt are seen on a life raft before being rescued by the crew of the HMCS Sarnia.

  • John Stokes (left) with his childhood friend Fred Mimee, who survived the sinking of the HMCS Esquimalt in 1945. John was a Stoker on the HMCS Sarnia and helped Fred to safety.

  • A wounded survivor from the HMCS Esquimalt is taken from the HMCS Sarnia in Halifax, 1945.

  • A wounded survivor from the HMCS Esquimalt is taken from the HMCS Sarnia in Halifax, 1945.

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"And that’s when we received the signal to pick up the survivors from the Esquimalt, which had been torpedoed that morning."

Transcript

I was a stoker petty officer [tending the ship’s engines] on the [HMCS] Sarnia minesweeper, operating outside of Halifax and Newfoundland, sweeping the ocean there. And we were supposed to meet the [HMCS] Esquimalt which had just come out of repairs, converting back to a minesweeper. The Esquimalt was on convoy duty and they were replaced back again into minesweeping. We were supposed to meet them at a certain area on the ocean outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia and at a certain time in the morning. When we came there, we were at the area. They did not show up and we patrolled around for a little while; and then the captain decided that he would go and take a wander, and see if they could find them. And that’s when we received the signal to pick up the survivors from the Esquimalt, which had been torpedoed that morning.

And we proceeded to them and they were not very far away from the Halifax [East] Light Vessel [floating lighthouse], which is anchored out there, stationary. And we found some of the Carley floats [lifeboats] that were there with survivors in it. Our lifeboat crew took off. We dropped them and they took off to see if they could find some more survivors. They went as far as the Halifax Light Vessel; and they took survivors that had reached there; and they picked them up. And then we picked up our lifeboat and all the survivors that we could find. And also any dead bodies that we could find, we brought them in.

We approached the, there was two Carley floats that were tied together and with a group, there was, I don’t know how many were on there because, I mean, at that time, everything was pretty hectic. We pulled alongside. We had a scramble net tied over the side of the ship and I went down and grabbed a hold of the Carley float and another sailor came down and he tied the Carley float to the scramble net. And then I saw my friend was sitting on the edge of the Carley float and, of course, he was the first one I got a hold of and helped to get up onto the deck. And then we got him up and then we got all of the others that were in the Carley float. There were some dead laying in the bottom of the Carley float, some were alive. I don’t know how many were because at a time like that, you don’t start counting who were there and who was not there. But when I recognized my friend there, I knew he was on that ship. I recognized him right away and, of course, he would be the first one I passed up on deck.

He was sitting on the edge of the Carley float with his feet dangling inside the Carley float and his legs were all swollen because they had been immersed in the water for quite a long time; and in April, that water was cold. And he looked at me and I said, what the hell’s the time to go swimming at a time like this, I said, can’t you pick a better day? And he started laugh. So I knew he wasn’t injured or anything like that, outside of the immersion foot [aka trench foot, prolonged exposure to moisture] that he had. But he was awful glad to see us. And we proceeded into Halifax Harbour which the navy was waiting for and they had cleared a section of the dock there. We pulled in there; and the ambulances were there waiting for the survivors to come in; and they proceeded to take them off the ship, off to the hospital.

And they were confined in the hospital to a big ward in the Halifax hospital. They were held incommunicado with anybody. They didn’t want anybody to get in touch with them. But I went up the next day from our ship. I took up writing paper, candy bars and all stuff from our canteen. They lost everything. So I went up there and, of course, the head nurse said I can’t go in. So when I told her the fact that the fellow that was there, one of the fellows, I said, him and I, we went to school together, grew up as kids and joined the navy. I said, I was the one that fished that bastard out of the Carley float, up onto the deck of the ship. So she let me in anyway and I was sitting there talking to him and the naval photographers came in; and they wondered why I had permission to get in there. So when they found out the story, of course, they had to take a picture of me sitting on the bed beside him. And then they published that in the paper.

And then I came home on leave. I told his parents that everything was alright. It was nothing serious, that he would be okay and that as soon as he got out of the hospital, he’d be coming home on leave. So that was that. But it was quite an experience. Fortunately, it was a very calm day out on the ocean that day because it could get pretty rough out there sometimes, so that’s why there were so many survived because, otherwise, if it had have been a rough sea out there, they would not have survived very long.

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