Raymond Bérubé, April 2010.Historica Canada
Cable party on the forecastle of the armed merchant cruiser H.M.C.S. Prince David preparing to weigh anchor, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, February 1941.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-105151
Telegraph Office in the HMCS Lanark, 1945.Raymond Bérubé
"Some were crying for help while others were frying and agonizing in burning oil. I had never seen or heard of such a cruel way of dying in my life until then."
I joined the Navy (R. C. N. V. R.) on Aug. 10, 1941, in Quebec City, I was 20 years old. After two months of basic training I was directed, by choice along with some other recruits, to the Naval Signal School, then located in St. Hyacinther, Qc., and subsequent to several months of intensive training, I was qualified as a telegraphist. Shortly after, I was sent to an “Eastern Port”, Halifax, N. S., so-named by the medias during the hostilities for security reasons; then I was temporarily assigned on a local harbor ship being sent to Lunenberg, N. S., for naval inspection and minor repairs. After my return, I was assigned to a corvette leaving for North Sydney, N. S., for a short period of training before proceeding to St. John’s, Nfld., where we were given a new assignment with an escort group accompanying convoys making their way to Europe. The Atlantic was still infested with U-Boats often operating in “wolf-packs”.
One night at the end of summer of 1942, our convoy was severely attacked and regardless of our efforts, we lost several ships. We managed nevertheless, to pick-up some survivors; one didn’t survive, and as we were still far off the coast, our Captain decided for a burial at sea. The whole operation was performed as per rules contained in K. R. & A. I. (King’s Rules and Admiralty Instructions) inherited from the Royal Navy and adapted for such circumstances. i.e. “The corpse must be properly wrapped in canvas, then “ballasted” and sewn; the last stich must be passed through a point between the nostrils just under the nose, to make sure that no sign of life is apparent”. An appropriate prayer is read by the Captain, then the body is dropped into the sea.
During another difficult crossing, a tanker loaded with high-octane gasoline, was torpedoed during the night (U-boats rarely operated in daylight) and high-reaching flames, combined with heavy black smoke, rapidly wrapped-up to doomed tanker. We could see some of the crew members jumping over the side with burning clothing; they looked like balls of fire. We came as close as we could to pick up as many of them as possible, at least those who were closest to us. It was quite an endeavor the ship was stopped and started rolling heavily; we used whatever tools we had to grab and pull them out of the water, they were very slimy just like eel-fish. After a while, we had to leave and, involuntarily left behind, those who were out of our reach. Some were crying for help while others were frying and agonizing in burning oil. I had never seen or heard of such a cruel way of dying in my life until then. Sometimes difficult decision must be made by a captain, but he’s also a human being with a heart.
During the Spring of 1943, I was “drafted” to the Esquimalt Naval Base on the West Coast, where a new generation of escort vessels called “frigates” were being built; and on completion and acceptance by the Navy, they were sent to the East Coast via the Panama Canal to be operated on the Atlantic. It was a very long but marvelous journey.
After our return to St. John’s, Nfld., nicknamed “Newfie John” in our “salty” language, the Naval Authorities gave us only a short while before re-assigning us to an escort group. We “pulled out” with the first convoy showing up. On March 13, 1944, we participated with two other escort ships, (U. S. A.) in the sinking of U-575, and picked up 14 survivors (prisoners). Afterwards we resumed our daily routine as best we could, considering Mother Nature’s whims and other mood swing in terms of temperature. During winter particularly, when cold was often several degrees below zero; especially on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland where even salt water froze. Often, we were “mustered” up on deck on our “off hours”, to participate in “chipping” the ice accumulation to prevent the ship to “keel over” and “slip under”.
Another nightmare period appeared when German U-Boats were equipped with new acoustic torpedoes and which were responsible for heavy losses sustained by allied ships in convoys; but Naval Authorities quickly found a way to out-maneuverer them by having a net filled with scrap metal drag at the rear of the ship to cause a louder sound so as to cover the one coming from the propeller and thus absorbing the brunt of the torpedo in the ship’s wake. Then came the spring of 1945 and May 8, the day the war ended. All U-Boats were summoned “TO MAKE SURFACE WITHIN 24 HOURS AND SURRENDER OTHERWISE THEY WOULD BE CONSIDERED AS PIRATES AND SHOT ON SIGHT”.
The lights came back “on” everywhere where the black-out had been mandatory. For us it was like leaving behind a black period and returning to normal life. I was “discharged” in Quebec City, from where I had departed four years and two weeks previously as a new military service man: I was back as a fulltime civilian again.
After the war had gone by
I was shored up “high and dry”
I went railroading
For a new living
Am now retired peacefully
By the St. Lawrence River
Being a great grandfather