Veteran Stories:
William Vradenburg


  • The Memory Project, Historica Canada
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"I knocked on the door of the captain’s sea cabin...and [General MacArthur] just pointed to the bunk and I said: “Yes, sir?” “Christmas Day. Merry Christmas. You’re captain for a day. Here’s your uniform.” And it was his best tunic and his best hat... So, Christmas 1944, I was captain for a day. "


It turned out that I was the youngest rating on board. So, Christmas 1944, I was captain for a day, and it is an experience I will never forget. I mean… [General Douglas] MacArthur* was… I don’t know… maybe he was gruff, maybe he wasn’t, but the impression that I had of him was: hands in the jacket pockets, pipe in his mouth and on the bridge. He spent a lot of time on the bridge. He was a sea-going skipper, boy, and he was just an absolutely inspiring man. There was enough green on his brass cap badge to prove he had been to sea. He was [voluntary reserve] VR, wavy navy,** two and half, and he was… I got the feeling he was a gent, and that he had… everybody respected him as I did. It was instinctive. It wasn’t anything he ever said to me, or anything like that. The only time, I think, he ever spoke to me was on that Christmas Day. And I went up, and I was doing my usual thing on the voice-pipes, and the officer of the watch at the time was, I think, one of the sub-lieutenants, and he said: “Hey, Huff Duff, Skipper wants to see you in his sea cabin.” I thought, “Oh, geez. What am I in for this time?” So, he says, “You better hop to it.” So, I dropped what I was doing and went into the cabin… Well, of course, we did not wear uniforms at sea, as you know. I had a khaki fatigue pants, that is what I call them now, and a plaid shirt that my mother had sent me from home, it was sort of flannel and… but I was just doing the normal thing. And I knocked on the door of the captain’s sea cabin, which was not much bigger than a telephone booth. But he was in there, and on his bunk, was this… I knocked. He opened and let me come in. He never said very much, and he just pointed to the bunk and I said: “Yes, sir?” “Christmas Day. Merry Christmas. You’re captain for a day. Here’s your uniform.” And it was his best tunic and his best hat. Well, I think because it was a bit cool, I think I had the navy blue jersey on, you know that, like a sweater. And I just pulled on the tunic, and put the hat on. He said, “Well, you don’t look bad. On your way!” And that was it, and out I went. Well, I get salutes here, salutes there. All the junior officers saluted me, some… I think it was the PO Tel [petty officer telegraphist]. He is standing there, like this, and the sub-lieutenant turns to him and says, “Get your hands out of your pockets, PO. That’s the captain walking by.” He salutes. [Laughs] Well, geez, I had rounds at 10 o’clock. I went round, and I inspected the sailors’ mess and the stockers’ mess, and our mess, went down to the wardroom and a steward ordered me a drink, and the steward was the sub-lieutenant in the steward’s white jacket. [Laughs]. And he poured me a drink and I sat back, and put my feet up. He said, “Would you like a piece of Christmas cake, sir?” I said, “Yeah, I would not mind some, sub.” [Laughs]. Oh, gee! It was real fun. At around 11:30 in the morning. Oh, I thought I was on cloud nine.

...And all of a sudden —pa-toom! pa-toom! Two ships got torpedoed, over there like. And I ran up on deck, and I was all set to go to my action station, and the skipper said, “No sweat! Nobody’s got a trace. We’re not going to action stations right now.” He says, “We will maintain our station.” And this was, I think, one of the first times I ever realized that, when ships get torpedoed, the escorts do not go over and pick up anybody. But nobody said anything, so, you do as you’re told, and that’s all. And long after the war was over, I never forgot that because we had other occasions when we were a little closer, but we couldn’t leave our station. It was explained to me in the mess one day… the PO Tel would come down every once in a while and he would sort of brief us on things like that in the mess.

And I had an experience just last year relating to this. I was standing near the cenotaph. I wasn’t on parade myself because I did not… I got a game leg and I wasn’t feeling like marching, but I was there with my medals and my blazer, and all that and, standing right next to me, I don’t know why, was General Maurice Baril, Chief of the Defence Staff. And he looked at my medals, and he said, “You’re navy, I guess, eh? Or were you fleet air arm?” — because I had an air force crest on my blazer. I said, “No, I was navy, sir, at lower deck.” He said, “Will you tell me something?,” and I said, “Yes, sir, if I can.” “How come I never saw any pictures of Canadian ships picking up survivors? What did you do when a ship got sunk? Or did you see any ship get sunk?” And I said, “Yes, I saw quite a few ships get sunk, sir. But what do you mean by ‘what did you do?’” “Well, didn’t you go over to pick them up?” “I wasn’t driving the ship, sir. I was a lowly lower deck type. But no, people didn’t get picked up in most cases.” He goes, “You could not just sail off and leave them.” I said, “If you did it, you’d be deserting your station in the escort group around the convoy. And if a sub gets in the middle of a convoy, all he’s got to do is pop up. It’s his day. Nobody will shoot at him for fear of hitting another ship. And he can sit there, and he doesn’t even have to waste torpedoes. He can shoot ships in any direction and sink them.” He just looked at me like this… This is the chief of Defense Staff.  I was saying these things, and I couldn’t believe I was saying them, you know. But he had no idea. People just don’t know.

*Naval Lieutenant Commander Douglas MacArthur was the commander of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific.

** The “wavy navy” Wavy Navy refers to the rank badges worn by the officers and the trim on the Ratings collars

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