Stoker Mahoney and Pill No. 2-183
In this uncensored tale of the war at sea the nation will learn for the first time the harrowing and hilarious connection between Seasickness simply did not exist, the navy medics ruled. Then one stormy day in 1941 . . .
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
JOHN RHODES STURDY
Every once in a while Maclean's pub-
lishes a Flashback of some exciting event in fairly recent Canadian history, and while these usually prove to be pretty gripping stuff, I think a couple of my own undiscovered flashbacks are just as remarkable. For instance, the editors of Maclean’s have never approached me to tell the story of how a corvette named Matapedia eased the suffering of countless thousands of Allied seamen during Work! War 11.
In fact, there are ex-crew members of Matapedia who firmly believe that we were responsible for winning the war. This statement may be questioned at Naval Headquarters in Ottawa, and by the Army and Air Force, and certainly we were never mentioned in the Honors and Awards l.ist, but that’s the way it goes with heroes sometimes. Personally I would have given our Stoker Mahoney (he George Medal, or at least the MBF, and would have been content myself with a Mention, but as it turned out the credit went to others, including a couple of doctor types named Best and Penfield.
They developed Pill No. 2-183.
But we made it possible.
This was no ordinary pill. Officially it was known as the Royal Canadian NavySeasickness Remedy, and when it emerged from the laboratory in 1943 it changed the whole complexion of the war effort at sea. Up until that time the Allied navies had
been winning the Battle of the Atlantic, but against heavy odds. On the one hand there was the enemy lurking below the surface of the sea, and on the other were the heaving stomachs of the Allied seamen. There were times when some doubt existed as to which was the greater menace, and this is recorded in all seriousness.
it’s a fact that there is no more useless sailor than a seasick sailor.
Pill No. 2-183, made available not only to the armed forces of Canada but to those of Britain and the United States as well, settled the stomachs in many a rolling ship at sea, and in pitching landing-craft headed for invasion beaches. It increased fighting efficiency, and no doubt helped bring victory.
The ingredients of Pill 2-183. as it was catalogued, appear pretty frightening to the layman. They are Hyoscinc HBr. Hyoscyamine HBr and Ethyl B-methyl ally! thiobarbituric acid (V-1 2). (It is not suggested that these be mixed at home for a day’s outing in a rowboat.) Put together and taken in pill form they gave certain immunity against the ravages of one of the most ghastly maladies known to mankind.
Giving credit where credit is undoubtedly due, a number of eminent medical men and research scientists were connected with the development of this wonder drug. They included Dr. C. H. Best, co-discoverer of insulin. who during
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He might be too weak to crawl to the ship’s rail but officially nothing was wrong with him”
World War II was a surgeon-captain in the Royal Canadian Navy; Dr. Wilder Penfield. renowned head of the Montreal Neurological Institute, and Dr. R. L. Noble. Also prominent in the discovery of the pill were Doctors E. A. Sellers. William S. Fields, John M. Parker and Bruce Campbell, all of whom were medical officers with the RCN during the war.
The remarkable thing about the development of Pill 2-183 is that these eminent doctors were looking for the remedy to an ailment that, until a short time before, did not officially exist.
Seasickness had been known since the first man strung a couple of logs together, raised a crude sail, and set forth on the sea. All through the centuries, however, the medical profession had maintained a strange and stubborn attitude to the malady. It was there, and yet it wasn't. A man got seasick, but technically he wasn't sick. He might lie moaning in a ship's bunk, or be on deck too weak to crawl to the nearest rail, but actually nothing medically was wrong with him.
This unusual attitude w-as particularly strong in. of all places, the medical branch of the Navy. Possibly in private the navy doctors admitted the existence of something known as seasickness, but publicly they refused to recognize it, at least in its chronic form. "Unclassified” was, I believe, the term sometimes used; an unfortunate condition that would vanish as soon as the victim attained his sea legs. The agonized groans of hundreds of chronically seasick seamen that rolled back across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans appeared to have no effect on the official medical mind.
Until, that is, His Majesty’s Canadian corvette Matapedia made her determined and hitherto unsung stand back in the dark winter of 1941.
Matapedia had been laid down and launched at the Davie shipyards in Lauzon, Quebec. She was one of the early convoy escort vessels built to combat the U-boat menace in the North Atlantic, a vessel constructed to carry engines, depth charges, and a few men—a ship of the type known as a "short fo'c'sle job" (or, more colorfully, by her officers and crew as a "one-funneled—"). This means that she had an open well-deck between the main superstructure and the forecastle where the majority of the cuew lived. The result w'as that the mess decks were constantly wet. and very often inundated, and as the galley was located in the main part of the ship, food had to be carried forward across the open deck. When the seas were rough (and in the winter of this flashback, 1941-42, they were always rough) a large percentage of the food never reached its destination, being swept over the side. To tell the truth, it was no great loss.
The officers, who were five in number, were not much better off. The bridge was our domain, but as Matapedia’s bridge consisted of a bit of pipe rail and some matting strung around a wooden hut that contained the submarine-detection gear, and left a deck so narrow that two men in life-jackets might get permanently wedged if they tried to pass each other, there was little protection from the weather and a constant danger that a heavy sea would push in the railing and
decapitate the officer who w-as unfortunate enough to be standing watch.
Matapedia did not rate a medical officer. We had a sick bay attendant, who, although he was a good enough lad, was definitely not going to end up with
MD or FRCS after his name. None of the Canadian corvettes had doctors, and we had to rely for medical advice on the odd Royal Navy destroyer that would pop up over the horizon, flying flags that would send us scurrying for the Fleet
Signal Book. Usually the hoist turned out to be something like: “I am Senior Officer. Who are you?"
It was not always wise to seek medical advice, as one corvette captain found out. Smack in mid-Atlantic one of his
petty officers decided to go ashore. The man had already chucked his gear over the side of the fast-moving ship and was about to follow when a couple of seamen grabbed him. "Request medical advice,” the corvette captain signaled the-Senior Officer. "Give one ounce of brandy every half-hour,” came back the reply. Within twenty minutes every man aboard the corvette was acting queerly. and signifying his intention to step ashore.
In those days the western base for our corvettes was St. John's, Newfound-
land, and the eastern terminus w.,, a wild and forsaken Icelandic fiord. A round trip took about a month, and time in port, which meant St. John's, was measured in hours.
Stoker Mahoney, the reluctant hero of this flashback, joined Matapedia in December, 1941. Mahoney was not his real name, but if he reads this he will recognize himself, and if the government w'ants to reward him belatedly, that can be arranged.
Mahoney had been trying desperately to get to sea, and this was his first ship.
He was a proud and patriotic man when Matapedia pushed her nose out of the narrow exit of St. John's harbor. Ten minutes later Stoker Mahoney was flat on his back, violently ill.
Of course, he was by no means alone in his agony. By the time the little ship had settled into her familiar corkscrew motion, for w'hich corvettes were infamous, a large percentage of the crew and most of the officers were feeling unwell. (Another new arrival that trip was Sublieutenant Harold J. Brynjolfson. now, in civilian life, branch manager of the
Sun Life Assurance Company in Halifax. Later on in the war Brynjolfson took command of a corvette, but his first appearance aboard Matapedia will never be forgotten. It was midwinter and we were bound for this bleak fiord in Iceland. Sub-Lieutenant Brynjolfson reported smartly on the quarterdeck with a huge bag of golf clubs slung over his shoulder. "Optimistic type, aren't you, Mr. Brynjolfson?" the captain commented.)
While most of the officers and crew recovered after the initial bout of seasickness, it soon became apparent that Stoker Mahoney had all the symptoms of a chronic case. The chief engine-room artificer, who was the chief engineer of the ship, reported to the bridge and told the captain that the new hand was useless at his job and had been sent to his hammock and told to remain there.
The captain concurred with the engineer’s decision. The captain was almost unique aboard Matapedia; he was a sailor by profession. (As Superintendent Ronald J. Herman. OBE, he is now chief of the marine division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.) With ninety-five percent of his officers and crew straight from civilian life, the captain had his problems, and at the time Stoker Mahoney was probably the least of them.
As the voyage progressed, however, and the sick stoker failed to rally, he became cause for serious alarm. 1 remember that I went to see him on one occasion. He was lying in his cart, or hammock, and his grey face had a cadaverous look. He had lost considerable weight at this point, and he was not a large man at any time, so that he presented a really frightening appearance. Moreover he was well beyond the active nausea stage, and had given up interest in everything, including life.
A corvette expects . . .
Sixteen and a half days after leaving St. John's found Matapedia in Iceland, tied up alongside a large British depot ship which catered to the needs of the escort vessels in between convoys. In addition to maintenance personnel she carried several medical officers, and it was with relief that we delivered Stoker Mahoney into their hands. It was our mistaken assumption that the doctors would take one horrified look at Mahoney and order him into the depot ship's sick bay for a long cure, and that we'd seen the last of him.
Our feelings of pity for the poor fellow' were necessarily tempered by realism. A corvette was a small and compact unit, and if any one man was unable to pull his w'eight over a reasonable period of time, be endangered the safety of the entire ship's company.
I was delegated by our captain to go aboard the depot ship and obtain the medical report on Mahoney. After the usual service delay I was granted an audience with a medical officer who held the rank of commander, and who first wanted to know if the name Matapedia meant that we were Free French-Canadian.
1 gave him a cold eye.
"We had another of your chaps. Dauphin. in here last week," the commander said. He pronounced HMCS Dauphin (Manitoba) the French way. "Well. now. 1 suppose you're here about this stoker. Mahoney. There's nothing wrong with him."
“He's a seasick case,” I said finally.
"Nonsense. Lots of chappies get seasick." the surgeon-commander said. “He'll joggle out of it in a few days."
"You don't understand, sir." I per-
sisted. "Mahoney is a chronic case. Before he joggles out of it he'll be dead.”
"That's rather a ghastly way to look at it," the commander said. “Now look here. Sub. I've examined the chap thoroughly, and except for being a trille undernourished, he's really in top-hole shape for a stoker. Heart and lungs absolutely first-class. I simply can't take him off your complement without a valid reason. I have that request from your captain, but it can’t be done.”
I attempted to make my point, and Mahoney’s, by raising my voice, which was not quite the thing for a sub-lieutenant (temporary) to do in front of a commander (permanent). The reaction from the surgeon-commander was totally unexpected. He grabbed my arm. rushed me into the depot ship's wardroom and bought me a drink. (I heard later the reason for this strange behavior: it appears that he was completely terrified of Canadians.)
We had no alternative, then, but to accept Stoker Mahoney back aboard, and when we sailed from Iceland the poolman was with us, sicker than ever.
“Never mind,” our navigator commented. when we discussed the matter in the wardroom, “it’s probably better this way. Our own doctors will know what to do for Mahoney. If necessary they can send him home.”
We were headed for Newfoundland again, but off the coast of Iceland we ran into an eighty-mile-an-hour gale that smashed our bridge and almost stove in the wheelhouse, and v'hen we finallyreached the Atlantic coast with the remnants of our convoy, we were ordered to Halifax for repairs.
In a way this was a break, for it meant that some of the crew could get home on leave. But from the captain down to the most junior ordinary seaman there was really only one thought aboard Matapedia; to get to Halifax before Stoker Mahoney died.
We knew he was dying, if not directly from seasickness, then from starvation and weakness. The voyage to Halifax was a race, and we won it. Once the ship was tied up to the jetty and motionless, Mahoney was able to take some nourishment and keep it down, and as soon as it was humanly possible we got him off to the base medical office, trusting that this would be the first step in his journey to some dry and land-locked naval division in Saskatchewan.
Two hours later he was back. He came aboard looking wan and crestfallen, to be met by the astonished officer of the watch.
“What are you doing here, Mahoney?” the OOW demanded.
"I was told to report back aboard, sir,” the unhappy stoker said. "I got to rejoin my ship, they said.”
"Didn’t you see the MO?”
"Yes, sir. And he said there was nothing wrong with me.”
This news was passed along promptly to the captain, who took it grimly. The captain was a fairly easygoing man, but he came from Lunenburg and he could be tough. Now, with eyes smoldering, he went ashore to take up the Mahoney case personally. But, like many a seagoing captain, he soon found himself up against the stubborn and impregnable shoreside machine. The medical officer had found Stoker Mahoney physically sound, and therefore nothing could be done about the man. He could not be declared unfit for sea duty, and until a draft came through for him in the normal course of events he would have to serve out his time aboard Matapedia.
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It was obvious that Mahoney could not survive another spell at sea. A conference was called in the wardroom to discuss the situation, and several possible
courses of action were presented and promptly discarded as being unfeasible. Then the junior sub lieutenant made a suggestion. "Why don't we get Mahoney to deliberately commit a crime?” he proposed. “You know, like striking an officer? He'd get cells for it, of course, but after all he'd be ashore."
This received serious consideration, but the captain finally vetoed it. "Mahoney would serve his time in cells,” the captain said, “and then as sure as God made little apples, he'd be drafted right back to us. This is the Navy, remember.”
“Actually,” 1 said, “this thing is bigger than Mahoney. It touches on the entire war effort. 1 don't think we can stop now. We've got to carry this thing right through to the end.”
Our campaign, known as "Operation Mahoney," started at a very low level (if I remember correctly, with a staff lieutenant in Operations) according to prescribed drill, and progressed up the ladder through the various echelons of the Executive Branch. In some instances we received a sympathetic hearing, but everyone declared that his hands were
tied. If the Medical Branch refused to accept chronic seasickness as a fact, then it was hopeless, because no one could dictate to the Medical Branch; unless, of course, one were an admiral.
"All right, bejasus," our captain said, using a Newfoundland term, “we'll ruddy w'ell see the admiral."
Our interview with Rear - Admiral George C. Jones, Commanding Officer, Atlantic Coast (Halifax), look some arranging. but eventually we were successful and appeared in his office. I like to think that this was a glorious moment
in the history of the Allied forces in World War II.
The admiral listened sympathetically to our presentation of the Mahoney case. From my back seat, where my one gold stripe was not too conspicuous, 1 chose the opportunity to enlarge on the theme, ft was unfortunate. I said, that the RCN was a navy of small ships which did not rate medical officers on their complement. Now here were all these young medical men rushing to the colors, anxious to wear the proud navy blue, and except for a few appointed to destroyers
or sent on loan to the British, denied the cherished opportunity of seeing the broad Atlantic from the deck of a warship.
Even though he winced once or twice at the impassioned words, the admiral listened. It is quite possible that he had taken lunch that day at Admiralty House, an ancient mansion which occupies its own grounds in the upper reaches of Halifax dockyard, and was the senior wardroom mess of the Atlantic Command at that time. At lunchtime it was generally filled to capacity by medical
officers and those of the navy’s Special Branch, which included public relations officers. As these Special Branch boys wore green between their gold stripes, and the Medical Branch was distinguished in the same manner by red. Admiralty House had come to be known among the sea-going officers—who shunned the place—as the Port and Starboard Club.
At any rate Admiral Jones seemed to be aware that there was a large number of medical officers in Halifax at the moment. He confirmed this by calling in his chief of staff, who advised him that a new draft of surgeon-lieutenants had recently arrived from Toronto.
"Very good.” the Admiral said. "What is the weather forecast for tomorrow?"
"Strong easterly winds, sir.”
"Right," the admiral said. "Arrange for a ship to take all available medical officers on manoeuvres tomorrow', as of 0600.”
The admiral looked at the delegation from Matapedia. "Nothing like a little sea time to clear aw'ay the cobwebs." he remarked.
The ship picked to take the medical party to sea was a Bangor class minesweeper which, if anything, was even more uncomfortable than a corvette and considerably less roomy. She cleared the harbor at 0600, crowded to the gunwales with young men. and some not so young, wearing the red and gold of the Medical Branch. Late that evening she returned.
I went to see the first lieutenant of the Bangor the following morning. About all he could tell me about the cruise was that it was “a ruddy shambles.” And then he added; "You know, there was such a crush of those medical officers trying to get to the rail, that we had to organize them in parties. We'd call out. First Seasick Party, ho! Advance three steps to the rail—all together now'! First Seasick Party about face. Second Seasick Party, fall in.’ ”
The picture, if possibly exaggerated, was vivid.
Meanwhile we had worked fast. Before the medical office w'as open that morning. Stoker Mahoney was parked on the steps, carrying his papers and the ship’s file on his case. He was first in line when some rather subdued medical officers, still looking a little green in the face, reported for duty. Within a halfhour Mahoney was back aboard ship to get his gear, his face wreathed in smiles. He showed us the folder containing his papers, and across it was stamped the words. "Unfit For Sea Duty," and underneath, in shaky ink— "Chronic Seasickness.”
This was triumph. Weak moment or not. the Medical Branch had committed itself. Now' there was no turning back. Aboard Matapedia there was a victory celebration that night. By perseverence. and with the help of Stoker Mahoney, a sympathetic admiral and a Bangor minesweeper, not to mention the good old Atlantic Ocean, we had put seasickness on the medical map.
We make no boastful claims about the subsequent course of events. Suffice to say, that when the medical profession accepts the fact that a condition exists, it usually loses no time in seeking a cure for it. Being faced with seasickness, the progression seems logical enough. And so finally out of the laboratories emerged that mixture of Hyoscine HBr. Hyoscyamine HBr and Ethyl B-methyl allyl thiobarbituric acid that became the famous Pill No. 2-183.
Let the honors fall where they may. We of Matapedia will be content with this small postscript,