"We were attacked by subs 38 times in two weeks . .. Somehow we got to port . . . Then we started after them again"
IT WASN’T large, this wardroom on a Canadian minesweeper. It couldn’t have been more than 20 feet in length. Along one wall was a leather-covered lounge and nearby a square dining table with a deck of cards splashed across the tablecloth. The skipper, Lieut. Fred Naftel, a man with sandy hair and a quick grin, toyed with a spoon while his black coffee cooled. He was half sprawled across the lounge and he stirred his coffee abstractedly with an outstretched right hand.
Across the table, the executive officer, Lieut. Mac Leeming, idly pulled at the label on a bottle. Although seated, he was obviously a big man and his blond short-clipped hair was thinning. Two other officers stretched lazily back in their chairs at opposite ends of the table, while a third poked through a combination bookshelf and cupboard at the far side of the wardroom. I sat on the edge of the lounge, just out of range of the skipper’s dangling right foot. Above my head a gentle breeze from one of the room’s two portholes flipped at a pale green curtain and then pushed its way through the slight haze of smoke which curled up slowly from the cigarettes.
A short time before, the minesweeper had nudged without the slightest jar against the anchored bulk of a tanker in an Atlantic port and had snuggled down for the night. For several days the little escort ship had been patrolling the port side cf a convoy, zigzagging its course, bouncing and rolling through the choppy North Atlantic as it snooped inexorably for submarines. Now, anchored in port, it awaited the dawn that would find oil thumping into its belly, readying it for another crack at the broad Atlantic and anything that might be lurking there.
Outside, night had fallen and, slicing its way slowly through the mist that enveloped the ship, another sheep dog from another convoy moved up alongside the minesweeper and was secured. It was a corvette in port for the night to await morning refueling. Amidships a light showed for a second as a tall young lieutenant
Royal Canadian Navy Photos
Upper Left: Atlantic weather can be just as treacherous as the enemy.
Lower Left: Canadian corvette cuts past freighter on its hunt for U-boats.
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followed by another officer emerged onto the deck from the corvette’s ¡ wardroom below. Gingerly they stepped across to the minesweeper and there was another stab of light in I the night as they entered the ward: room.
I “Hello, Fred,” said the tall young j man, ducking instinctively as he came through the low hatch of our room.
“Gordie!” beamed Lieut. Naftel, jumping from the couch. “I thought you were across.”
“Just got in. Look, have you any beer? We’ve been out quite a few days and haven’t any. We’ll make a ! swap if you like. What do you need?”
I “Sure, we’ll fix you up. Sit down.
I You know these fellows?” And the j skipper turned to his officers. “This is Gordie Holder,” he went on, his ready grin breaking across his face again. “He’s a group A.S. officer off 1 the (and he named the ship). They just tied up alongside.”
“And this old guy over here with the bald head is AÍ Hunter,” interjected Lieut. Holder pointing toward j his companion. Sub.lieut. Hunter looked around the room and a grin ! lighted his full friendly face. “Leave my curls out of this,” he smiled. His head was fringed with red hair i and though he wasn’t more than 25 his head shone. He didn’t mind the ribbing. “After what I’ve been through,” he smiled, “it’s a wonder I I’ve this much.”
The introductions went around and they came to me.
“Oh,” said Lieut. Holder, “news-
paper type, eh? We take a dim view of newspapermen, you know. We won’t be quoted.” He was 23 and looked it. His face had a boyish glow. I told him he could talk because everything went to the censor.
Before saying anything he stretched his long legs in front of him and locked his fingers behind his head. He looked up past the wardroom’s ceiling into his thoughts.
WE SAILEDfromthe other side,” he said at length. “We’re on what they call mid-Atlantic patrol. We run from here to the other side and back again. Your ship—this one —is on the Western local. It doesn’t go across but instead takes the convoys from us and pilots them on down the Western Atlantic. Mostly we travel in groups, the same escort ships making the same runs. They call me the Group A.S. Officer, which means I’m the top antisubmarine officer in our group.”
“At 23?” I said.
“Yes, at 23. I come from Saint John, N.B., and I’ve been in the Navy more than three years now. I’ve taken quite a number of asdic (antisubmarine detection) courses, so that makes me a veteran.”
He grinned again and ran his hand through his brown hair which was shaggy around the edges—there are no barber shops in mid-Atlantic. Lieut. Naftel, lounging back on the couch once more, asked about the trip.
“Not bad this time, only rough,” said Holder. “We hit bad weather the first day out. The bridge was washed away and the Old Man had quite a time for awhile. He didn’t sleep much this trip.
“We were pounded quite a bit. The bridge was washed clear away and the weather stayed bad most of the way.”
“Any subs?” asked Lieut. Mac Deeming, still poking at the label on his beer bottle.
“Not this time. It wasn’t very good going over, though. We spotted four subs and I think we sank two of them. We hung around awhile but there wasn’t any evidence on the surface. They sent up some oil but oil slicks aren’t enough evidence. One of the Jerries had our name on a torpedo but it passed under the stern and just skidded past the bow of a U. S. destroyer alongside. The torpedo kept right on going, missed everything and sank.”
Skipper Naftel sat up. “With j enough escort ships you could lick ! those U-boats. You could blast ’em ! clean out of the ocean. The Coastal Command bombers are doing a grand job but weather slows them up sometimes. With lots of escort ships we could chase those subs for days if necessary and not worry about the convoy. The way it is now, we chase ’em for awhile then figure maybe we’re being decoyed and we have to i hurry back to the convoy.”
“We’ll get ’em, Fred,” big, blond Lieut. Leeming said. “We’ll get the ships and when we do we’ll blast the subs right out of the ocean.”
“I’d like to talk about this some more.” broke in young Lieut. Holder,
“but if you guys will pardon me j I’ll open my mail. I haven’t had a j letter from home for better than six ! weeks.”
Curious About Toronto
AL HUNTER tookup the eonversaL tion and asked me where I was from. I told him Toronto and he j asked questions about his old home town, just as every other seagoing | man I’d met from Toronto had done. He wanted to know about Sunnyside j and the ball club and he asked about a few of the night clubs, recalling as he did the last time he’d been there. He bent down over a large package which he had brought with him.
“These are records,” he explained. “My girl works at a music publishing company in Toronto and she sends ’em.” He turned on an automatic gramophone which the boys had rigged up and played the records. They were some of the current ¡ favorites being hummed by everybody in Canada.
“I don’t know these songs,” said AÍ, looking up quickly. “I’ve never heard any of them before. That’s what a guy misses at sea, though. We miss the latest songs and the latest shows and the latest jokes.”
He continued to play his records and read the names of them aloud and then I asked him about the j trips. He didn’t pay much attention. He asked me what trips and I told him what I wanted to hear. He looked up from the records and turned his red-fringed head toward his shipmate. “He wants to know about those trips, Gordie,” he said.
“I heard him,” said Gordie, looking up from one of his letters. “I heard what he said. Well, why don’t you tell him? Why not tell him those trips across aren’t good? Tell him about the trip when we brought in 69 survivors from two sinkings only 24 hours apart. Or about the other corvette which brought in 153 survivors on the same trip. Go ahead, AÍ, tell him.”
AÍ wrapped up his records. He had freckles on the backs of his hands and a few across his nose, too; still others had found their way onto his head. I suppose freckles are typical of redheads but I kept looking at them just the same.
“That trip took us two weeks,” said Ah He had stretched his legs out on the floor and was leaning against the base of the automatic gramophone. “We were attacked 38 times in two weeks. The fourth day out we came upon a Norwegian tanker which was in our convoy. She had been torpedoed and was listing. It was about 9 p.m. and between then and 4 a.m. the subs threw three more torpedoes into her.
“A rescue ship tried to fish survivors out of the sea but the subs sank her too when she slowed to pick up the victims. They were bobbing and floating in the water and you could see their little red floating lights. We learned later there were survivors from five ships on the rescue ship which sank.
“We circled around until morning but there was nothing we could do until then; we were afraid to stop I because we’d have made an ideal
] target if we had. In the morning, we started picking up survivors. A lot of them were dead. The water was cold beyond description. We picked up over 50 and another corvette was picking them up too.
WE STARTED oil again—a day behind our convoy by now— and we came upon a burning U. S. tanker. It had been torpedoed but not sunk. It’s bow was awash but we saw 13 men on the quarter deck. The sea was rough and the men were afraid to leave the ship. We signalled them we were going to blow up the I tanker. There was no sense leaving lier there‘burning. So they finally decided to jump. It took us four hours to pick up the 13 guys because the water was covered with oil and the sea certainly was rough. It was a difficult job picking them up and after awhile they couldn’t help us much because sea water saps the strength unbelievably. If they hadn’t been wearing Mae Wests they’d have sunk. The ship pitched a lot and that made it harder. We’d just get near a man when he’d be tossed 20 feet by a wave. After four hours we had them all. One died of exposure before we reached port but the rest were all right.
“We buried the one fellow at sea. We had been through a lot, were still going through a lot, so I’m afraid we I didn’t accord him much of a cere! mony. But we got a couple of planks ; thrown together and there was some canvas aboard and someone found an extra flag. That was his coffin. There was a ceremony on deck. A few passages were read from the Bible and then we slid him over the side. It was a grim setting all around but I think we did the best we could under the circumstances. Then we threw a couple of depth charges at the burning tanker. One of them went under her and the other landed squarely on the bridge. She didn’t float long.
“So we had 69 survivors on this ship which ordinarily accommodates about 75 men. The other corvette, as Gordie told you, had 153. I don’t know how they made it because all we had the last day out was one boiled potato and one teaspoon of salmon per man. We were attacked i —I guess blitzed is the word—all the way. But we got to port unscathed. We were in port for 46 hours and then we started out again.”
It was quiet in the wardroom. Skipper Naftel and his big blond First Lieutenant Leeming and the young, pipe-smoking Holder sat and looked at AÍ. They were thinking about what Al had been talking about.
“What’s your reaction?” I asked AÍ.
“Reaction?” He paused thoughtfully. “Have you ever been in a motor accident? Do you remember how at the time it wasn’t bad but J afterward it was very bad? Well, it’s like that. Only it isn’t like that just once. It’s like that most of the time. Any guy who denies it is crazy.”
“I guess that’s right,” agreed Lieut. Holder. “Day after day we
come down here to eat and we’ll sit around the table and there won’t be a word spoken. And then the ‘action stations’ will go and we’ll be up there on deck again.”
“That’s why, you see,” said Lieut. Hunter again, “we get such a kick out of our mail when we hit port. That’s why we like these records my girl sends me. That’s why I talk slightly screwy when I meet a guy from my home town.”
“The trouble is,” said Lieut. Holder, “we’re talking too much and not letting Fred or Mac in on this conversation.”
Ice Threatened Disaster
WE DON’T have action like that,” Skipper Naftel from the minesweeper pointed out.
“But you have the weather,” AÍ reminded him. “You have those awful Western winters. I’ll take the subs ahead of the winters around here.”
“The ice makes it bad,” Lieut. Naftel agreed. He wasn’t grinning his usual grin now. He looked at his first lieutenant, Mac Leeming, and they exchanged significant glances. They seemed to be thinking of the same thing.
“It was six months or more ago that we had it worst,” Lieut. Naftel said. “It was in the winter and we ran into a gale that turned the sea into a crazy thing. It pitched us around and the sea smacked down on us. Mac and I stood up there on the bridge all night and we could see that every time the waves went over us they were leaving ice behind them. We were rolling badly, too.” “We were rolling 52 degrees,” interjected Lieut. Leeming. “Sometimes it seemed that you could just reach out from the bridge and put your hand in the water . . . except you didn’t want to do that because the temperature was down around 25 degrees or so and the air temperature was much lower than that.” “Around 4 a.m. was the worst,” continued Skipper Naftel. “By that time ice coated the ship completely. It was piled up all over in great mounds and it had hidden the bridge completely. Mac and I were up there together and I guess it must have been around four o’clock when we shook hands and figured our race had been run. The ice had driven the ship deeply into the water and we were agreed we couldn’t make port.” “I’m not quite sure yet how we did make port,” said Mac. “The skipper and I had never seen it so bad before and I guess we didn’t realize what a sturdy little fighting ship we had. She just plodded ahead, carrying her load, bobbing and jumping like a cork. But she made it. The gale abated, the sea grew calmer and we were able to send the boys out with picks and hatchets to slam off some of the ice. Actually, I don’t suppose it mattered much. But it gave them something to do and took their minds off our predicament.”
“I’ll take the subs,” said AÍ Hunter.
“Make mine beer,” grinned Lieut. Leeming. “We’ll likely be pulling out of this place tomorrow and who knows when I’ll see another one.”