EXCERPTS FROM: MY LIFE STORY
A Memoire and photographs by Lieutenant Commander John C. Wilson
Before joining the Navy I was interested in photography and learned to develop my own film and continued this on the HMCS Rosthern when we were not being torpedoed! An officer took an interest in my photography and together we developed pictures in the bathtub using a process to make them ‘shiny’.
The Atlantic is bitterly cold during the winter and we would often have problems with the ship icing up. One time when we were approaching Newfoundland, the ship iced up so badly the captain ordered all hands up on deck with bats or anything able to knock the ice off. With the weight of the ice the ship could be in danger of capsizing. Ships really are at the mercy of the weather but it takes extra effort on everyone’s part to do what was necessary to stay afloat.
Some times a ship would be designated to pick up survivors which was another horrible task. On one occasion we were sent to pick up survivors from a ship which had been torpedoed earlier. We were just south of Iceland and it was bitter cold out. We spotted one life boat which had only one survivor - a 15 year old Scottish kid. He was barely alive. He had a whistle in his mouth but couldn’t blow it. We picked him up and took him onboard so he was pretty happy about that. He was the only survivor from that ship.
On another occasion we picked up quite a few survivors – some were hoisted aboard, some living and some already dead. We would all work on survivors trying to bring them back by giving artificial respiration but it appeared no chance so we had to bury them at sea. Another time we picked up 80 survivors which really overloaded us as our complement totalled approximately 85. The guys we picked up were so grateful they would do all our chores and when we would go on watch a survivor would take over the hammock. Actually we were two or three days out of Newfoundland and we ran out of food and had to live on hard tack - a dry hard biscuit.
In Londonderry the bread we took on board was brown and thick. It was pretty good for a couple of days but then the mould would start to show. We just cut around it though and by the time we got close to Newfoundland we’d have about a square inch bread slightly flavoured with mould. Since there was no central dining room we would eat all our meals in our own mess and each one of us would take turns drawing the meal in a big pan from the galley. The galley was midship – and our mess deck was forward. There was an empty space on the upper deck between the galley and the break in the forcastle (pronounced fo’c’s’le for short) – a space of approximately 80 feet. With a pan of food in hand you would try to judge the sea and the ships roll in response and make a dash for the safety of the fo’c’s’le. One time in really rough weather I made the dash for safety and half way there a wave caught me and literally threw me and the food all across the deck. I wound up straddling a station and almost went over the side. I was soaking wet, bruised and sore and without food for my mates below. The old saying applies “shit happens”. It was a close call though and if I’d gone overboard that would have been the end of me in that weather.
During my two years on the Rosthern we experienced a lot of action and had some narrow escapes from torpedoes. Fortunately, the draft of the Corvette was shallow and was hard to hit. One time we watched a torpedo go down the side of the ship. The Captain knew a torpedo was coming and altered the ship toward to give him a smaller target. Another time, I was at my station on the rear gun turret manning the phone. There was an experienced asdic officer on board with us and while we were carrying out an attack on the sub the sub was firing back at us. The asdic officer heard it and knew it was coming toward us. The Captain called me on the phone and told us that a torpedo was approaching and to stand by. It was a stormy night, bitterly cold and we were all pretty speechless waiting to see if we were going to get it. Fortunately it missed us and the bridge reported that the torpedo passed right under us. The Captain called back and asked us how we were doing. The Officer with me: Red Horner said “tell the Captain we were standing knee deep in shit Sir”.
Listen to his story from the Memory Project here.