Veteran Stories:
Thomas “'Sparks'” Atherton

Merchant Navy

  • Thomas Atherton on the SS Dentonia Park in the Mediterranean, July 1946.

    Thomas Atherton
  • Picture of SS Dentonia Park before guns were removed, 1945.

    Thomas Atherton
  • Identity Certificate Merchant Navy, Canada, July 16, 1943.

    Thomas Atherton
  • Shore Leave Pass, Alexandria, 1946.

    Thomas Atherton
  • Thomas Atherton's Medals (left to right): 1939-45 Star; Atlantic Star; Burma Star; Canadian Volunteer Service Medal with clasp; War Medal 1939-45.

    Thomas Atherton
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"Well, the flares going off and the tracers going on, kind of exciting. Well, the ship beside us was right on fire, right from bow to stern."


I was all interested in boats. When I was a kid, my cousin and I bought a homemade canvas canoe and somebody had put their foot through it, so we repaired it, cost me 45 cents. I was interested in being on the water, so when I was younger, my cousin and I sailed a boat around the Welland Canal in St. Catharines.

When I was younger, I joined the sea cadets in St. Catharines. Made a week’s trip on the Oriole De Force, (HMCS Oriole) which was a 90-foot Ketch, owned by the navy and I believe it’s still on the navy. And I wanted to go to sea during the war, so I quit school at 16, 1941. Went to work for Loblaws, to get money to go to radio school, because I figured if I joined the navy I might end up on shore and I wanted to go to sea. Anyway, I didn’t get enough money so I borrowed what I needed to go to radio school in Toronto and I got my license, the end of February, first of March, in 1943. And I went and got my medical exam in Christie Street Hospital, which was a veterans Hospital in Toronto.

And I passed that and I joined up with a Canadian transport, 1943. They looked after the manning pool that put seaman on the ships. Got sent to a ship down in Saint John, New Brunswick as a wireless operator. We took off for India. So we went to Norfolk, Virginia, to catch a convoy. So we went across the Atlantic in July, I guess it was, 1943. We were the first going to India and we were the first slow convoy I understand in the Mediterranean.

So went past Gibraltar, the American escort, they went into Gibraltar and out came a British cruiser with stripper flak, a couple of destroyers, big destroyers, a couple of Canadian corvettes, and a monitor ship came out that had two cannons on it, going up to bombard the Italian coast, because they were just finishing up in Sicily. And a submarine came out and joined the convoy, so we went along and eventually, the monitor ship left and then the submarine disappeared one morning, during the night. And then we went on to Suez [Canal]. The ship beside us got hit by something and then I was a loader on the Oerlikon Gun up in Monkey’s Island. And when the alarm bells went off, I was, jumped right out of bed. And I was kind of blown and jumped out anyway, because it was the ship just beside us that got it. Well, the flares going off and the tracers going on, kind of exciting. Well, the ship beside us was right on fire, right from bow to stern. I don’t know what he was carrying but it was something pretty flammable. But the convoy never stopped, it just kept on going.

So we carried on and went down through the Suez Canal. But the first ship I was on, it was just full of rats. They used to put the lunches out on the chart room. Well, then the rats would get at it, so they started bringing them into the radio room. You’d sit there and you’d listen to the cockroach, chew off the cream in the milk can. When we got to Calcutta, they fumigated the ship, got rid of a lot of the rats.

Coming back from India on the first ship, we pretty well ran out of food. They got beef in there but I think it was water buffalo because you needed an axe to cut it. Anyway, we had the one meal, macaroni and cheese; I’ll never forget that. First of all, you held the bread up to the porthole to pick the weevils out of the bread. And you look through the macaroni and cheese and put the worms over to the one side and then you ate it. I tell people that and they say, you didn’t eat it, did you? And I said, well, there’s no store out there, you know. It’s either eat it or not.

Then the next ship I was on was the Champlain Park and it made three trips to England. May, we were back in Montréal and loading up to go across to England again. I was in the theatre there watching a movie and somebody ran in the door and says, oh, the war’s over.

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