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36 - Saved From The Seas

36 - Saved From The Seas



from The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories published, by Maple Leaf Mills Limited, in 1961

During the latter half of the war, my work as a teacher took me to a small seacoast town some miles south of St. John's, Newfoundland. The town was located in the 'blackout area', and our nearness to a Canadian Naval Base made everyone aware of necessary wartime precautions and restrictions. Many times my pupils would tell me of rumours of "submarines outside" or of Catalina Flying Boats on a dawn to dusk patrol. More than once, too, the grim reality of war was brought home to us by the sight of spent survivors rescued from rafts and of wreckage drifted into coves and beaches.

One morning a group of boys related excitedly that they had found an artificial leg floating in the water complete with blue sock and suspender. It did not appear to have been in the water very long. They had handed it over to the local Policeman.

But where was its owner? And how had this leg become detached from his body and reached shore in such good condition? It was known that convoys on the 'triangle run' had been attacked lately in local waters and we concluded that this was one more grim reminder that the fight to save the lifeline to Britian was being fought at our very doors.

In the meantime the find was the topic of conversation for days. The boys even invited me to come and see it on my way from school. It was an unusual looking limb with hinged joints at the knee and ankle. It must have made walking much easier and been of real value to its owner. As the weeks passed into months the limb hung on a peg in the policeman's shed. No trace of its one time wearer had been found.

The autumn of 1944 found me teaching in St. John's. I was a member of a group of ladies who in addition to knitting for our boys overseas and entertaining troops at our service hostels, visited the Merchant Navy hospitals to bring a little comfort to survivors who were sometimes hospitalized far from home and friends. Among the men I visited was a young merchant seaman with a very friendly smile and happy outlook on life. He had been badly injured when his ship was sunk by enemy action the previous spring.

One afternoon he told me of an incident which happened the night his ship was attacked. the story is best narrated in his own words:

"Night had fall (sic)," he began, "great gusts of wind drove the waves mountains high, and with the darkness came the sudden attack.

"The 'tinfish' struck our ship flat. She was a large old tanker carrying vital oil supplies in addition to a deck cargo of heavy timber. The ship righted quickly for a moment after being struck, but as she began taking water there was a sudden lurch which tossed everyone aboard and shifted some of the heavy deck cargo. A second heavy lurch hurled me back the way I had come. Bruised and bleeding from the battering, dimly conscious, I felt my last moment had come.

"By crawling slowly along the runway I managed to get near the wheel house. I found the ship's mate trying to keep the crippled freighter to her course. He could not take his hands from the wheel even for a moment so he shouted to me to take what shelter I could near the wheel house in case the worst should happen. He told me the torpedo and the heavy seas had worked havoc with the ship's lifeboats.

"The ship was listing heavily and I heard voices from the other side of the deck. As I tried to make my way along in the darkness I thought I heard a low moan and a call for help from the direction of the shifted timbers. I could see the uninjured crew members trying to launch the one lifeboat left intact. But where was the captain? He must have been swept overboard as the stricken tanker pitched and rolled in the heavy seas; otherwise he would be in command of the desperate situation in which we now found ourselves.

"The lifeboat was cleared and four badly injured men were lowered safely over the tanker's side. The mate left the wheel and gave orders for all to take to the lifeboats. Suddenly he remembered there was only one boat so he asked for a few volunteers to stay behind to help him launch a raft. this was equipped with emergency rations and life jackets, and mercifully, had been left intact. I chose to wait for the raft. As it was being made ready for launching I heard that mysterious call for help again. This time I was certain it was a familiar voice, so I crawled along in the direction of the fallen timbers fearing at any moment they might shift again and I would be pinned underneath. As I neared the spot there was no mistaking the "Ahoy there". It was the captain! He had been pinned by the shifting timbers as he hastened to the main deck after the attack and had lain there stunned and semi-conscious. With consciousness returning, he called again: 'My head was knocked against the foc'sle-head but it's not hurt too badly, but hurry and unship my left leg; it's caught beneath the timbers and its pinning me down. If I can get the leg clear I think I can make my way out of here.'

"Unship his leg! What on earth did the captain mean? Was he delirious from the blow he had received? There was no time to conjecture as I asked what he meant.

"Unship my left leg", he shouted, "it's an artificial one."

"I crawled under the timbers then and managed to unfasten the limb which came just below the hip. With my help the captain managed to reach the raft. He was helped aboard by the happy mate and crew members, all of whom had given him up for lost. After about eight hours' buffeting in the heavy seas we were sighted by a plane of the 'dawn patrol' and not many hours later a rescue ship appeared and brought us to hospital here."

Thus ended the young seaman's narrative. Naturally I wondered if there could be a connection with the artificial leg the boys found near the shore.

"What became of the captain" I asked. "Did he reach shore safely? Did he recover? How long was he hospitalized?" My young friend, who must have thought me unusually curious, could give me no information on the captain's condition or whereabouts. He thought that the captain, a naval veteran of World War I, must have been taken to an American military hospital after his rescue. My young friend was in the Merchant Navy hospital.

I could not help wondering about the captain whom I had never seen. I wondered if he had recovered, if he had been fitted with a new leg to replace the one which the young seaman had 'unshipped' on the night of the torpedo attack. A few weeks later my curiosity was satisfied. An item in the local newspaper provided the sequal to my story.

It told of a visit to the Military Hospital by a roving reporter who had talked with the veteran sea captain. The captain talked of the torpedoing of his ship and the loss of his artificial leg. The saddest feature of his loss, he said, was that he had been waiting so long for a new limb to be fitted when he could have been sailing the seas again. The old man boasted, too, that none of this officers or crew was ever aware that he had an artificial leg so perfect was the imitation of knee and ankle joints in the leg which had ben lost. Now the best he could hope for was a consequent halt in his step with a less supple limb.

The news item which had such a fascination for me also claimed the attention of the out-of-town policeman. Acting on impulse he drove to the hospital and requested to see the captain. The surprise of the captain at his visit was only exceeded by his joy at seeing again the limb he had thought to have lost forever, many months before. On hearing how it had been salvaged by a group of schoolboys he asked the policeman to assure them of his undying gratitude.

"Now I shall be able to tread the decks again as nimbly as before," he exclaimed with delight, "thanks to the observant lads in your neighbourhood and the good care you took of their 'find'."

My story should conclude here, were it not for the fact that lst December a business trip took me to the United States. While travelling by C.P.R. train, I noticed in the compartment opposite me a young ship's officer staring at me rather quizzically.

Finally he came over to me and asked me if I remembered him - a pupil of the 1942-1944 years. When he told me his name, I recalled him readily. We chatted reminiscently about our wartime living. He told me, to, of his college career and of how he had chosen the calling of the sea, which had always held a certain fascination for him. Imagine my great surprise when I learned that during his first year at sea he had served as a junior officer on an oil tanker plying between New York and the Caribbean and his captain was none other than the veteran seaman whose leg he had seen floating on the waters almost a decade before.

On learning that his young officer was from Newfoundland, the captain one day recalled his torpedoing in its coastal waters and his timely rescue, minus his artificial limb. "Did the leg sport a blue sock complete with suspender?" asked the astonished officer, "and did you ever hear of it again?" "I certainly did", replied the captain gazing thoughtfully at his listener, "For I am wearing it at this very moment, thanks to a group of observant youngsters who rescued it from the waves and took it to a kindly policeman." It was the captain's turn to be astonished then as he learned that the office had been one of the group of youngsters to whom he had just referred.

The captain now lives in retirement in New Jersey. Whenever his ship is in port anywhere near where he resides, my ex-pupil always finds time to visit with this veteran of the seas, for he feels a real friendship for the genial man whose leg he once rescued from the ocean.



Back to: The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories Menu

This page transcribed by James Butler, 2000
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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