original writing November 2009: an imagined remembrance aboard the HMCS Saguenay, WWIINovember 11, 2009
Frederic Earl Ross’s heart was still hammering, his boots were rooted on the bucking deck and his hands were twitching, needed something to do. He looked down and saw he was still holding the crumpled cigarette he’d pulled out as he had headed below deck at the end of his watch.
“Here,” said a man suddenly standing beside him, holding up a lighter and nodding to Fred’s right hand.
The man curled his back to the wind, or the worst of it, and lit his own. Fred leaned in, drew heavily and felt the scorch at the back of his throat. It brought him back to himself, a little.
The man dropped the match and stepped on it, then stopped, shrugged, looked up with a weak smile. The two turned to the blown-apart bow, ablaze with flames almost as tall as they were distant from it at midship, 160 feet back or so. Fred could see the ice that had crusted every rail and line on their destroyer since late November was blown and melted away in a smooth border around the inferno. Ahead and behind them, men were moving, some rushing, some stopping and starting, stopping again.
The back of Fred’s head felt bone cold. The cigarette was a welcome focus. He knew the man beside him, but couldn’t think of his name. Knew him but he wasn’t a friend. Not the kind of friend, anyway, he’d have taken an overnight watch for after getting double-skunked in cribbage the night before.
The water was as black as the night sky, with a medium chop. The light from the flames rose and fell on the water with the roll of the waves. What Fred thought was foam on the waves were really sheets of paper and other shapes he didn’t want to recognize. He looked, instead, to the black far off.
Though he couldn’t see it, the Italian submarine, surfaced, could see the HMCS Saguenay, D-79, in that early morning of December 1, 1940, about 300 miles west of Ireland. Picking the destroyer out of convoy HG-47, it hit the Saguenay twice, the second torpedo producing such a stunning explosion that the Argo, according to its log, assumed the destroyer was scuttled. The next morning, the Argo record noted only flotsam, including sheets of paper. The Argo claimed the victory. The Saguenay, however, somehow hauled itself, bow peeled back and open to the sea, to Barrow in Furness, England. Twenty-one dead. It would be repaired and returned to active duty in May 1941. Frederic Earl Ross would be sent home later that year on a medical discharge, TB taking him out of service just before he would have made the rank of petty officer.
On deck, staring out to sea, Fred was brought to by a change in the rumbling he felt in the deck and a weak but definite pull to starboard. Movement. And he should move, too. He made to take one last drag.
“What are you God-damned doing with those cigarettes? No lights on deck for Christ’s sake!” The officer was heaving, spit crusted at the corners of his mouth, eyes popping.
“But…” said the man next to Fred, halfway between cowed and confused, gesturing with his cigarette to the bow.
“But nothing. Ditch ’em and get to your stations.” In wheeling away to the stern, the officer nearly knocked Fred down, Fred who was already looking away.
When Fred had first seen the officer that night, hours ago, or minutes in this mishmash of time, it was after the second torpedo punched into the ship. The first came as Fred had been sleepily heading to his bunk, midstride through a hatch. The force bounced his shoulder hard on the metal edge. The tumble of thoughts that came next turned Fred twice, the first time back up to deck, to the watch station he’d just left. A second thudding impact sparked only the sickening question of what part of the hull had been hit, panic wheeling him back down toward his bunk, his mates.
Along the passageway, Fred grabbed a door frame for traction against the tide of men now swarming up to their stations. His eye caught movement inside the room.
The officer was weeping like a child, uncapped bottle of Lamb’s Navy in one fist, the liquor cabinet doors swinging open, more bottles smashed at his feet. Their eyes met for only a second.
Fred pushed on but was turned back. The call had been made to seal off the damaged section. Twenty-one dead in total. That the ship stayed afloat was a credit to its commander, LCdr G. R. Miles.
On deck and having avoided locking eyes with the officer for a second time, Fred dropped his cigarette, crushed it and he and the other man moved toward the flames.
With thanks to the National Defence/Canadian Forces’ Canadian Navy Heritage Project and especially to the photo archive. The cache of photos now available has been very much appreciated in helping me to visualize what the life of a WWII sailor might have been like, miles though it still is from the reality.
Like many children and grandchildren of war veterans, I had heard very little of what my grandfather had seen or felt during his service, in his case with the Canadian navy. He spoke only a little near the end of his life. I grew up knowing that he wasn’t a “real soldier”, because, I reasoned, he had not carried a gun or killed anyone. I knew from my mother that he’d been on the HMCS Saguenay when it had been torpedoed, that a close friend had died below deck. When I asked him about it, he described being cussed out for smoking topside when his cigarette ember was a pindot of light compared to the 90-foot flames, and also at feeling betrayed? disgusted? terrified? at coming upon an officer who had completely lost it, gulping liquor when others were purposefully busy or frantically trying to do something, anything in the chaos. I make no judgment. Can anything prepare a person for being torpedoed in the Atlantic? This is what I imagine might have happened, and it is a work in progress. Any comments, corrections welcome, either here in the comments section or by emailing me directly.