They Were Prepared
The true story of a small community that was organized to meet a war emergency
THOMAS H. RADDALL
THIS IS a true story of good women and good men. The women live by the shores of an inlet on the Nova Scotia coast. The men
came to them out of the sea, out of a frosty February night, in bitter need.
Censorship forbids names or much geography; but we can say that the inlet is mostly wooded, with some scattered homes of fishermen, and at the end of it lies a town. The town is small, but it is very great in spirit. For close on two centuries its men have toiled in the woods and on the sea mostly on the sea.
They have fought in all the empire’s wars since Wolfe took Quebec. In 1914-18 many of the townsmen joined the Army, as well as the Navy. The first Canadian name on the Menin Gate memorial at Ypres is the name of a boy from this town; the last Canadian name recorded there is that of a boy from the countryside behind the town.
As in that war, so in this new great war the men of the town have gone away. Scarcely a family but has sent father, brother, son or some other loved one to join the battle. They are serving in the Air Force, the Army, the Navy; many are in the merchant marine.
The women they left behind have never wholly Relieved in the poet’s “Men must work and women 'must weep.” In this home of fishermen and seamen the women work, too, and let the harbor bar do the moaning.
Within three weeks of the war’s outbreak the people of the town and the whole countryside were organized for Red Cross work. Nova Scotia women
are famous for knitting and needlework. These were no exception, and since September, 1939, they have shipped prodigious quantities of hospital supplies and knitted comforts for the services. Homes were thrown open to servicemen; and when patrol craft began to visit the harbor, the ladies of the I.O.D.E. opened a large clubroom in the town hall, and served light lunches, free, to their crews. Incidentally, they made no appeal to national organizations for funds, not even their own I.O.D.E. The club was equipped and financed within the town.
In the fall of 1940 the matter of an A.R.P. organization came up. Danger seemed remote, but the summer’s events in Europe had proved the virtue of preparedness. Three men of the town sat down to consider the matter. They sent for British A.R.P. literature, but because conditions here were different, they worked out a plan of their own, in full detail, which was approved by the town council. Since then, other towns have asked for copies, and the scheme has become a model.
Auxiliary fire force, rescue squads, demolition squads, salvage squads, wardens, first-aid teams were organized and trained. These were composed of men, of course. But the job of the women was the biggest of all—the organization and training of a staff for an emergency hospital. The town had one or two private homes with a few beds, for lying-in cases; but the nearest hospital was thirty miles away.
The women got to work. Nova Scotian girls, for lack of opportunity in business and industry, go in strongly for professional nursing. A few were
practicing in the town. There were two Victorian Order nurses to call upon. There was a retired Army nurse. At least fifteen women had been professional nurses before marriage or retirement. One had been a hospital dietitian. The town’s five doctors entered into the scheme with enthusiasm. One man, the leading spirit of the whole enterprise, undertook to obtain whatever equipment was necessary—a tall order, for there were no funds. The Government of Canada offered financial assistance only to A.R.P. work in “defended areas.” This town was not “defended,” except by its own stout heart.
There was a new brick school, well-heated and ventilated, with hot and cold running water, electricity, and good sanitary facilities. It was the logical place for an emergency hospital, and the school board agreed. The desks and seats were easily removable. Three large classrooms on the ground floor could be used as men’s, women’s and children’s wards. A smaller room could be used as a kitchen, another for an operating room. There was ample storage in the basement.
Now for equipment. In addition to the hospital, two first-aid posts had to be equipped. The leader and one of his committee went to work. A local paper mill donated twenty double-deck iron cots of the sort used in construction camps. By sawing through the uprights with a hacksaw it was possible to make two cots of each—enough to equip the twenty-five bed hospital and leave fifteen more for the first-aid posts. The company went further and provided eight stretchers, made in its carpenters’ shop, and much other material as time went on. A local carpenter made a most ingenious operating table, capable of quick adjustment to any desired position. All of these were stored in the basements of the school and the two first-aid posts.
The women put their heads together on the matter of other supplies. Each agreed to bring certain things from her home as soon as an alarm was given—blankets, bed linen, towels, basins, pitchers, pails, trays, brooms, pyjamas and bedgowns, bed jackets, slippers, hot-water bottles and so on; not to mention electric plates, kettles and all sorts of kitchenware, and—in case of failure of the electricity—oil stoves, lamps and lanterns. Orange crates, painted white and stood on end, made excellent bedside stands.
The doctors agreed to bring along their own anaesthetic apparatus, sterilizers, blood-pressure equipment, a portable X-ray and instruments of all kinds. Catering arrangements were made with restaurants and a nearby hotel. The school cadet corps and boy-scout groups were to provide orderlies and messengers. For ambulances, several merchants agreed to send their motor delivery vans to the school and to the first-aid posts, as soon as t he alarm was given. The local drugstores agreed to stock a reserve supply of bandages and various other medical requireme-nts, a list of which was drawn up by the doctors and nurses.
Would It Work?
SO FAR, so good. But would it work in an emergency, with so much of the material scattered over the town? They practiced, setting up one ward at a time, on Saturdays, when school was out, and invited a Red Cross official from the provincial capital to come and see what they were doing. He came and saw everything, and promised Red Cross help in certain matters. There arrived first-aid pouches for the mobile teams, equipped haversacks for the first-aid posts, and complete kits in metal boxes for the hospital. Later on, the Red Cross sent additional stretchers and blankets, pillows, mattresses, and quantities of sterilized dressings.
They next had a field day, and invited the provincial minister of health. Boy scouts became “casualties” in the streets, and in backyards and gardens. First-aid squads—all graduates of the St. John Ambulance training course—patched them up, sent them in the van-ambulances to the firstaid posts, and thence to the emergency hospital, where everything was set up and ready for business.
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The minister complimented the town. It was the best demonstration he had seen.
Everyone was pleased; but the committee, the doctors and the women said, “It took us three hours to set up the hospital. We must do better than that.”
Cupboards were built in the school basement, and blankets, mattresses, pillows and medical supplies were stored there. The women went over every detail carefully, to see where a minute could be saved. And in addition to all this, they went on with their church work, their Red Cross work, their I.O.D.E. work, and the many other things which demand a woman’s time—not to mention housework.
One night last February, just after the town had dug itself out of the worst blizzard of the winter, there came a mysterious telephone call. A naval voice explained that, for unstated reasons, a number of seamen were adrift in open boats somewhere off that part of the coast. They would be suffering from exposure and frostbite—in other words, most would be bed cases. Could the town look after them if they made the shore thereabouts?
“We can,” said the town. That was at one a.m. Telephones rang and messengers scurried. Men and women arose and dressed quickly. Men went to emergency posts. The women snatched up the articles which were their particular responsibility
and ran through the snow to the schoolhouse. Desks and seats were whisked out of the classrooms, and the beds brought up from the basement. The school furnace was banked low for the night, but the janitor was right on the job, and when the doctors asked for seventyfive degrees Fahrenheit they got it.
By three a.m. the hospital was set up, the operating room fullyequipped, with a full staff of trained nurses, volunteer nurses, doctors, orderlies and messengers. They waited. And waited. After a long time, word came. There would be no need of their services. The seamen had been picked up and taken ashore somewhere else. Everything had to be dismantled and cleared away, and the seats and desks brought back, ready for school next morning.
It would have been human to grumble a bit. These people said, “It took us two hours to set up. We must do better than that.”
And three days went by. Then came another night.
It was a cold February night, and the town banked its fires and went to bed. Beyond its ken to seaward, a darkened ship was steaming up the coast to join a convoy for England. She carried a crew of sixty-five— mostly English, with a number of Scots, Welsh, Irish, and two Canadians. And a cat named Mush. The last-quarter moon had not yet risen and the night was very dark.
At eleven-thirty one of the gunners thought he saw a phosphorescent trail go past the stern. Enemy submarines were operating off the coast, but it was thought that they were working well out from shore, and the gunner’s phenomenon was put down to the movement of a porpoise or some other big fish. It was a torpedo, and it had missed the ship by not more than eight feet.
Shortly before midnight, when the next watch was stirring below, sleepily preparing to go on duty at the stroke of eight bells, a pair of torpedoes struck the ship on the starboard side. The two explosions came together and sounded like one. One tore a great hole in Number Five hold and blew the hatches off, beams and all. The other hit opposite the bulkhead between number four hold and the engine room, flooding both. The ship began to sink at once, and fast.
At the captain’s order the men went to their lifeboat stations. They moved quickly—they had to—but there was no panic. As Chips, the wee Scots carpenter, emerged from his deckhouse aft, he closed the door very carefully behind him. “He’s a very tidy man, Chips,” said the bo’sun afterward.
The four main lifeboats were kept swung out on their davits, ready for quick launching, two on each side of the ship. On the starboard side the captain’s boat had been smashed to smithereens. The other, the second mate’s boat, was intact, but its tackles were damaged and when the men began to lower it one end dropped down to the sea. The engines were still turning over slowly, and the ship kept headway; the boat trailed, with its bow under water. The mate’s boat, and the third mate’s, on the port side, were intact.
The dynamo had failed, and the men had to work by the light of pocket torches The second engineer went below to shut off steam and see if anyone survived down there. He stepped confidently through the familiar doorway in the dark. But the familiar top grating was not there. The engine-room gratings and ladders had been blown into a dangling twisted wreck. It was a straight drop of fifty-eight feet to the engine-room plates. What saved the second engineer was the fact that the engine room was already half full of water.
He switched on his torch and swam round and round that gloomy iron coffin. He found the engineer of the watch floating, but terribly dead. One of the oilers was floating, face down. He turned the man over. He was dead also. There was no sign of the others. The ship was going down fast, and presently the swimming man found himself within reach of the dangling wreck of the ladder, and he pulled himself up and regained the deck.
In the meantime the skipper looked at the wreck of his lifeboat. He looked at the mate’s boat— crammed with men. He called to the bo’sun and a seaman to help him launch the jolly boat. This boat sat in chocks in a small nook of the bridge deck. With its gear and emergency stores it weighed nearly two tons, and it had to be raised six inches to clear the chocks. The three men, strain as they might, could not budge it. There was no time to call men out of the other boats to help. Quietly, the captain told the others to find places in one of the other boats— and he walked back to the wheelhouse.
The chief radio operator told his two juniors to go to the boats. He stayed to the end, trying to get out a signal on the emergency apparatus which might bring rescue to his shipmates before they froze to death. He lost his life. So did the gallant Welsh skipper. Some men had been killed by the blast, others were trapped below. In all eleven men, living and dead, went down with the ship.
The chief steward risked his life at the last minute, groping about his quarters for Mush, the cat. He got her on his shoulder and walked out to the boat. It was floating level with the rail—the ship had sunk that far. But as he stepped into the lifeboat the cat, alarmed by the strange affair, leaped back to the sinking deck in the darkness. So Mush died also.
The ship sank on an even keel. “She went down like a lady,” the mate said proudly. But she was a sorely wounded lady, and she groaned and gasped as she went. Said one of the Welsh seamen, with the Celtic imagination, “It was as if she wassaying to us, ‘I’ve got to go, lads, but I’ll try to make it as easy for you as I can.’ ”
She vanished, a dark shape in the night, melting into the sea, and they heard the boilers go. That was just ten minutes after she was hit.
IT WAS icy cold, there in the boats.
It had been snowing not long before, but now the air was empty
and there was a bleak breeze from the southeast. There was a heavy sea running and the boats tossed up and down. Nearly all the men were bareheaded, and most were less than half clad. One man wore nothing but an oil slicker and his boots. The mate wore his bridge coat and sea boots over pyjamas. Enemy submarines have machine-gunned men in lifeboats in this most merciless of wars; and this one could not have been far away. Yet these faithful men rowed among the bobbing raffle for an hour, searching the rough water with their torch beams, hoping to pick up the captain and the others.
At last they headed for the land. A strange light winked at them out of the dark, and they shut off their torch beams and crept away westward.
The three boats became separated in the dark. The men took turns at the oars, to keep their blood from freezing. After a time they made out a glimmer ahead—the sky reflection of a land light—and made toward it. When daylight came they found themselves close in with a rocky snow-covered shore, and some sort of inlet stretching into the land.
The second mate had managed to launch his boat, but it was half-full of water, and there was nothing to bail it with. There were five men with him, and they hoisted a tarpaulin on a pair of oars and bore away before the wind toward the east head of the bay. The surf was breaking high there, but he had to chance it. His halfnaked men were nearly perished. The boat struck a rock, but the men clung. The next sea took them in to the shore. They had to stumble nearly a mile to a farmhouse, some in socks, some barefooted. Two of them had boots.
The twenty-three-year-old third mate had nineteen men in his boat and he steered for the west head of the inlet. He was a young curlyhaired Scot from Ayrshire, and he guessed that the set of current out of the bay would make hard rowing for his weary men. He watched his chance and worked the boat into a gap in the rocky shore, and fishermen and their women and children came running down through the snow to help them.
The mate was a slim wiry fellow from Cardiff. He was twenty-nine years old, and he had twenty-nine men in his boat—too many for the proper working of the oars. He looked at the sea breaking on the shore and knew that his men, stiff and cramped together, would have no chance if the boat capsized in landing. He held on up the inlet. By this time they were meeting the full set of the current. The half-frozen men pulled doggedly at their four oars—all they had room to work; but they made no progress. They were exhausted. One man lay over the gunwale, careless whether he lived or died. “Put that man on an oar and make him work,” snapped the young mate. “Keep him moving. This is no time to die—in sight of shore.”
BUT NOW a message had reached the town. Three lifeboats. That might mean any number of men up
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to a hundred. It was eight o’clock of a grey winter morning. Again the telephones rang, and the messengers scurried. A motor boat went racing out to tow the boats in. Again men went to their emergency posts. Again the women hurried through the snow to the school, with their blankets and linen and things. Away went the scholars’ seats and desks. In came the beds, the mattresses and the rest. A first-aid crew, with their equipment, waited on the wharf. Nearby waited cars and ambulances. Other cars and ambulances, with a doctor, and first-aid teams, sped out the narrow shore roads to bring in the men who had landed on the east and west heads.
At nine o’clock the hospital was ready, fully-staffed, with medical supplies and plenty of hot water. Doctors were on hand, with their anaesthetic apparatus, sterilizers, Xray and the rest. Restaurants sent up dozens of sandwiches and gallons of hot soup. A store sent up extra plates, cups and spoons. The I.O.D.E. ladies opened their clubroom, heated water for coffee, and prepared to feed the men who might not need hospital care.
The cars and ambulances arrived, and a stream of grey-faced shivering men poured into the school. Those who had boots insisted on walking in, and they did, stiff-legged, stumbling, but with their heads up defiantly, as if the eyes of the enemy were on them still. The others were carried in. In the wards their sodden clothing was swiftly removed, and they were tucked into the blankets with hotwater bottles and fed hot coffee and soup. The doctors were busy. Fortunately there were no serious injuries. One man had a broken wrist, another a mangled hand, caught in a davit block as they lowered his boat. One man had an injured leg, and all had cuts and bruises. An elderly seaman, a veteran of the Altmark affair, was very weak from shock and exposure. There were several frozen feet, but nothing that careful nursing could not cure. Everyone thanked God for that.
The town A.R.P. superintendent’s telephone rang. A woman’s voice, from the village two miles up the river:
“We heard about the ship survivors down there, and we have our own first-aid post set up—eight beds— and fully staffed, with soup and coffee hot and ready.”
“We can handle everything, thanks,” said the superintendent.
“We thought you could,” said the quiet voice. “But we just wanted you to know that we’re on the job if you need us.”
The young mate remained on his sea-booted feet. He borrowed a notebook and pencil and insisted on going the rounds, taking names and next-of-kin. He asked that a boat be sent out to look again for the skipper and the others—and a boat was sent. He asked about the lifeboats
—were they being looked after? They were valuable and could be used again.
He had steered his boat through the cold of a February night for eight hours on end, and spent another cold hour in the tow up the harbor— and he could think of nothing but his skipper, and his men, and the boats. A good man.
They were all good men, a credit to their race, as the town can testify on its own score; for after discharge from the hospital they were taken into the homes, and a finer, more decent crowd of men was never seen.
The town took them to its heart. The town laundry gathered up their clothing, dried and dry-cleaned everything, and delivered it back to the hospital in record time —without charge. But that was only one thing. Clothing poured in from everywhere; and cigarettes, pipes, tobacco, fruit, candy, books, papers, magazines. The director of the A.R.P. spent a harassed day fending off eager offers of hospitality, and explaining that he simply hadn’t enough shipwrecked men to go round.
Three days later most of the crew were able to leave by train for Halifax. To get another ship! The town came down to the station to see them off, and loaded their railway car with sandwiches, soft drinks, cake, candy, cigarettes— enough to last fifty men a month. The men lined up on the platform for souvenir photographs, and as the train began to move the mate shook the last of many hands and said simply, “We shall never forget your people and your town.”
The town gave them three cheers, and the seamen gave three in return, hanging out of the windows and leaning over the receding observation platform, smiling and making vigorous thumbs-up and V-signs.
The town went home, then. As they moved away from the platform, the A.R.P. director buttonholed his committee. “I’m calling a meeting. This affair has shown some flaws in our set-up, because we hadn’t expected a thing like this. We must have a boat ready at all times to bring men into the harbor, and a firstaid crew to go out with it. And we must have this, and we must get that ...”
The women said, “It took us an hour to set up the hospital. That was good—but not good enough. We can do better.”
And they will. They may be doing it even now, at this moment, while you read these lines. For war has come to the East coast, and the watchword for all men and women there is “Ready!”
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