the true stories
After seven years as a sick relief letter-carrier, it happened that I was successful in obtaining my first route. Prior to this, I would report to my station on Fraser St. and be dispatched from there to all corners of the lower mainland. Those were tough times but the overtime was dearly needed.
The old station was a great place and the letter carriers there were mostly war vets from the several services. Back then, a person could smoke at their sortation case and nearly every drawer held a flask of rum. Those men and women had stories that would curl your toe nails.
I befriended a Dutchman. He was an ex-Navy gunner and he reminded me of the men I used to occasionally see sitting around our kitchen playing crib and spinning yarns with my father. Dutch had a wonderful story about the crew of his vessel winning a competition which entailed dismantling a heavy cannon, rowing it ashore, dragging it overland, reassembling it, firing an accurate shot and then reversing the process.
In these days of tattooed dogs, cats, grannies and babies, I still relate body-ink to mariners. My dad and my grandfather were both well covered as were many of their contemporaries. I remember sitting with the big boys asking for the stories behind each different tattoo. My grandpa had a nude which had been covered in a succession of bathing suits as the styles had changed.
I have met mariners of many different races and taken as a whole I can tell you that a man well-traveled is a very educated man. They are very aware of the global situation, a wide range of trends and tensions and the causes for such. They are more knowledgeable of the customs, beliefs and habits of their fellow men than many scholars.
There is another common element they share which beggars description but I have never failed to detect it. Imagine any man and subject him to the power, majesty and fury of the deep. Let the hail pelt him, let the salt waves scour him, let the sun bake him and let the fog of war slow his passage while unbridled winds test his every weak point.
Let him bask in the sunsets that induce tears and let him heal in the purest of breezes. Let him witness the best and worst of all humanity in all regions of the globe. Let him find love beyond the barriers of language and space and possess no more than a lock of hair or a photograph to hold. Let him forget himself in his responsibilities toward his mates.
An examination of what remains with the man after enduring these trials will reveal that which is common to all mariners. A Filipino a Swede, a German or a Japanese, it matters not. He is the steady one. The wind has long torn away everything superfluous to his personality, his religion and his philosophy. His vision is clear, his actions are quick. He doesn't judge you by anything other than your ability, your loyalty and your mettle.
My own father, pictured above with his two sisters, was a Canadian Merchant Mariner. The girls were volunteer CWACS. Like many young men of his day, he went to sea. World War II was the backdrop to his nautical education. He sailed the for the duration of the war and beyond. From Pantry Man, Deck Hand, Ordinary Seaman, Able Bodied Seaman, Boatswain to Ships Carpenter, he rose through the grades.
U-boats crewed by young German men of the Kriegsmarine reached out across the Atlantic and by 1942 several of them had penetrated the St. Lawrence Seaway and began hunting from Labrador to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1942 1321 ships were hit by u-boats. 579 the next year, 246 the next and 98 in 1945.
On October 10, 1942 the SS CAROLUS in convoy NL 9 bound for Quebec City was torpedoed by Kptlt. Ulrich Gräf in U-106 at 48.47 N , 68.10 W in the St. Lawrence River. Of a crew of 30, 19 survivors were rescued by the HMCS ARROWHEAD and the HMCS HEPATICA.
On October 11, 1942 the WATERTON, a pulp-carrier en route from Cornerbrook, Nfld to Sydney, Nova Scotia in convoy BS 31 was torpedoed by Kptlt. Herman Rasch in U-106 at 47.7 N , 59.54 W, in the Cabot Strait. All 27 crew were rescued by HMCS VISON.
On October 14, 1942 the CARIBOU, a railway ferry running from Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port Aux Basques was torpedoed by Kptlt. Ulrich Gräf in U-69. The minesweeper GRANDMERE attempted to ram the surfaced u-boat and missed. She dropped eighteen depth charges and held Gräf under for sixteen hours. GRANDMERE plucked about 101 people out of the cold deep but 137 military personnel, women, children and civilians perished.
On October 29, 1942 the BIC ISLAND, a straggler from convoy HX 212, was torpedoed and sunk by Kptlt. Hans-Karl Kosbadt in U-224 southwest of Rockall at 55.05 N, 23.27 W. The ship was straggling after picking up 44 survivors from GURNEY E. NEWLIN which had been sunk by Kptlt. Döhler in U-606 the previous day and 77 survivors from SOURABAYA, sunk on 27 October by Kptlt. Seibicke in U-436. All hands were lost.
In October of that same year, my father happened to be serving on the CANATCO. It was his second voyage on that particular vessel. He joined the ship on July 20, 1942 as a Deck Hand and was discharged on October 3. His pay is recorded as being $50.92. On October 4 he engaged this ship again as an Ordinary Seaman. The ship was part of Convoy LN 11 which was running supplies to Goose Bay, Labrador for the building of an improved airstrip. This convoy ran between Newfoundland and Goose Bay and was designated NL or LN depending on whether it was north or southbound.
Convoy LN 11 was escorted by a couple of naval vessels. One of these was the Flower Class Corvette HMCS ARROWHEAD. On October 24 there was an explosion on board the CANATCO. The vessel became unstable as a result, ran aground of the Gannet Rocks and sank the next day at 53.56 N 56.25 W. All hands were rescued by the ARROWHEAD and brought in to Goose Bay before being flown to Montreal. Dad's pay is recorded as being $41.75 for that voyage.
My father continued to sail throughout the war and for a few years after. Through this time, he earned three medals. I first heard him tell of this story when I was a little boy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I had come home from school one day talking about the wonderful show and tell exhibit that a schoolmate had brought to school. The boy's father was an engineer who had collected samples of water from all the world's great rivers. The glass vials were alined on a white-board and the display was the stuff of dreams to a seven year old boy's imagination. I went on at length about the thing.
Later that night, my father came to my room with a small cedar box. He took out the three medals and the newspaper clipping in the picture above. He told me they were mine to keep. I nearly burst with pride and admiration. I pinned the medals on my jacket immediately. I slept in the jacket. Ready, aye, ready to 'drop my cock and grab my socks' should the ship become imperiled.
Next day after mess, during my first watch I showed them all over the schoolyard. When I went to my locker at day's end, it was bare. I found the jacket in a mud-puddle on the baseball diamond and all that betrayed the existence of the decorations were the three pin holes in the fabric. I cannot describe my feeling at this juncture but I can say it sloshed around my bilge from that day on. Knowing that I likely rubbed elbows with the bottom-feeder on a daily basis hurt the worst.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, I was doing my postal route and I spied a blue and white budgerigar pecking like a chicken at maple seeds on the asphalt roadway ahead. I took off my hat and approached from behind slowly. I took my time and stalked it proper. When I was in range, with one throw of my hat, I had it! I heard applause from the house behind my position.
There on the porch of the house was an old man clapping and his wife watching through the kitchen window joined in. A little girl came running from another house nearby to see. When I got the bird free of the hat I took it up to the old man's porch and we all had a good look.
It was a young healthy beautiful bird. I had young sons at home and they needed a pet. I told the people that I was going to take it home and keep it as a member of my family. The old man said that there had been a Buddhist festival across the river in Richmond wherein birds are prayed over and released for good luck. The little girl brought a shoe-box from her house and the old man rigged up a string harness so I could make this carrying cage fast to my waist.
I finished my route and on the transit train home, I stopped at a mall and bought the necessary cage and accoutrements. My wife and young sons were thrilled. My wife named the bird Freddy after my favourite singer/song writer in the Philippines. Freddy flew freely in the house from tree to tree that my wife had grown from sprigs into ceiling scrapers.
He lived a long happy life and had only one slight flaw. He would not tolerate being touched, petted or stroked. He snapped like a crocodile but sang like a choir. The old man on my route laughed when I told him each day of Freddy's latest exploits. I became friends with the old man. His name was Ivor and he was a Captain.
We spoke of nautical things frequently and of the Merchant Navy in particular. I told him about my father and the lost medals. Ivor gave me a back issue of a merchant marine newsletter he subscribed to. He had circled an article about the Canadian government finally issuing Volunteer Service Medals to seamen who sailed in harms way during the war. By this time, the average age of such men was over seventy and most had already painted their last sunset.
Ivor encouraged me to apply for one of the medals on behalf of my deceased dad. I did so and was initially rejected due to lack of evidence. A phone call to an aunt in California soon fixed the documentation problem. I submitted the items she sent me and after a few long months it was approved. More months later, I received, on my father's behalf, the sought after medal. It sits on my shelf as I write and the day it arrived, I felt like the barnacles had been scraped off my hull and that I was cutting a cleaner line through the water.
Ivor had exclusive use of a motor vessel owned by the Vancouver Maritime Museum called the Little Black Duck. One Saturday he took my two sons and I on a cruise around Burrard Inlet. It was a day I know they will never forget nor will I. When we were having breakfast that morning I told the boys that on board a ship, the Captain is God. The next Monday, Ivor remarked that in all his years of taking museum goers for cruises in the Little Black Duck, he had never seen more polite, serious or well-behaved young boys. He winked and said that he knew their grandpa would have been proud. Aye.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.