Ben Mason (in foreground) with mounties, 2008.Ben Mason
Department of National Defence enrolement in Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, 1941.Ben Mason
Ben Mason at USO in New York, 1944.Ben Mason
Ben Mason in Uniform, 1941.Ben Mason
Ben Mason's Certificate of Discharge, 1945.Ben Mason
"And yeah, that was kind of fun too because had the sub surfaced of course, the first thing they’d do is shoot out the searchlight. And you’ve got your arm on that. So it wasn’t a favourite spot."
My name is Ben Mason, which is a nickname of course. But I was born in the Prairies. Joined the army when the war broke out, in North Battleford and thought I was on my way. The particular unit that I joined became [the] South Saskatchewan [Regiment] and ended up in Dieppe which was - fortunate for me I got discharged because I was underage. So I thought, well, you can keep your army, I’ll go and join the air force or the navy or something.
First place I went was the navy in Saskatoon and they said, you know, we’re looking for a signalman with good eyesight in the North Atlantic convoys and although you’re underage, we’re going to send you off to signal school. And I said, well, I don’t know anything about signals. And they said, we’ll teach you.
So off I went to Saint-Hyacinthe, they called it “Sainty-a-Saint”, in Quebec. And at the end of that, I thought I would be heading off to where we thought the war was. But they sent me to the West Coast and it was disappointing because I thought I was going to be a big war hero there. The idea of the West Coast was they needed to have a telegrapher and a signalman on each one of the so-called fishery [Fisherman’s] Reserve boats, which were little wee fish boats. Their purpose was to screen traffic but mainly to ferret out any fuel storage tanks that the Japanese had deposit because [there was] a huge Japanese population on the coast. And they weren’t all on our side.
But you know, the fishermen knew the coast, and still do, fishermen, they knew everybody and everywhere and this was great. But it wasn’t what I thought I was joining as the navy. So I protested a little bit and they said, we’ll fix that. So they shipped me off to Halifax and onto the [HMCS] Napanee, which is one of the corvettes and you probably know about corvettes. They were 205 feet long, very seaworthy but they were rough in bad weather. And our purpose was to screen the convoys over to Europe, mainly England, keep the subs and warn them and chase the subs and keep them away from the ships…which in those days was quite difficult to do because they would form wolf packs [German U-boat tactic designed to attack convoys] and we didn’t have many ships to start with. But corvettes were easy to build and they built a tremendous number of them. I’ve forgotten the numbers now but the numbers of ships in the Canadian Navy during the war made us the third largest navy in the world. And little old Canada, which is farming country.
You know, speaking of farming country, the majority, well, a lot of the sailors on the ships, like myself, were prairie boys, never seen a ship, never really seen any amount of water. And I presume there must have been a romantic something or other there as well as the, knowing that we had to do something about this. Because if Hitler had got England, that would have been it. And the amount of stuff that came over from America to Europe was just staggering. Convoys would be made up, they tried to make them up of ships that had relatively close to the same speeds because we liked to keep them in a group, they were so much easier to protect if there was no stragglers hanging back there. Sometimes, stragglers had to be left to their own devices if they couldn’t keep the speeds.
But the navy, we would zigzag around the perimeter of the convoys, searching for sub contacts and if we found them … People have often asked me, how many subs did you sink? And it’s impossible to say because once we threw depth charges at them - the idea being to break them up underwater - they would sometimes shoot up you know, an old pair of overalls and bits of junk to make us think that they had been damaged. And you lost contact while them depth charges are going off. So you really and truly, unless they actually surfaced and you got hold of them, you didn’t know if you had them or not.
We were scared but you wouldn’t ever let on that you were scared. We were as much scared, you know, lots of times of the weather as we were of the enemy but if you were a signalman, as I was, on watch, you stayed right where you were, on the bridge. If you were an off-watchman, which meant that you hightailed it to the aft and the searchlight there was right by the pom-pom [anti-aircraft] gun, huge big searchlight, you turned it on -behind shutters of course - and kept it on the bearing that they thought they had submarine contact. And yeah, that was kind of fun too because had the sub surfaced of course, the first thing they’d do is shoot out the searchlight. And you’ve got your arm on that. So it wasn’t a favourite spot.
Tankers that got torpedoed and fire and burning oil everywhere. And some guys still alive, their heads bobbing in the burning oil and screaming… We couldn’t stop, we just couldn’t stop and pick them up. So yeah, those memories do come back and you can’t help it. I try to put them out of your mind but you can’t. I’d call them nightmares. But that was a tough thing. But there were good times too, you know. You’d get ashore and learn how to drink Newfie Screech, which is bad rum. And Newfoundlanders used to say, oh yeah, we’ve got Screech. We’d send our poor codfish down to Jamaica and they’d send their poor rum up to us here.