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Heroes Remember

It was in the evening and suddenly we were ordered off the deck. And if anything was going on at all, the nurses had to clear the or anybody who was not occupied or on duty had to get off the deck. So the order came, “Clear the decks!” We know that meant us, we knew that. So we got off the deck and we went down to our thing and we picked up our life belts and put on our tin hats, I think that was the routine. And there was a man talking, I presume the officer in charge of this group of whatever we were and he said, “Now, just”, he said, “There's enemy aircraft approaching, that's the reason we've cleared the decks so just don't be worried, I'll tell you what to do.” Now he didn't have much time to tell us anything, there was a “Wop” a big bang; all the lights went out and this great ship made a lurch and we felt the bump and everything and we thought something has happened you know, with no lights on and again this man deserved the VC but I don't suppose he got it. He said, “Don't worry now, I'll tell you exactly what to do.” He said, “We've been hit and they are attacking us with aerial torpedos.” They dropped the torpedo and then let it follow the boat. And he said, “We're hit, our engines are gone, our lights are gone and the ship is filling a bit.” But he said, “We're still afloat, don't worry!” So we sat there thinking, “My God, you know, is he just fooling us.” So after a while he said, “Now,” he said, “I think we've reached the stage where you must go to lifeboat stations.” “Now,” he said, “You can get up the stairs, there will be a man at the bottom and the top of every staircase and when you see his light you go straight in and he'll tell you where to go,” and we went up the stairs this way. That was alright, we were used to doing it but not in the dark and the boat gave a terrible lurch, you know and I thought my gosh, is it going to turn over? That was the worst fright I think I had all during the war, the most awful feeling, you know, to feel that the darn thing was going to turn over. Anyway, we kept on climbing and this man came on again and he said, “That's alright now, I know you felt the boat lurch but the holes are filling and we're closing the watertight doors.” So he said, “It'll all settle down after a while.” But we had to get off so he must have thought it was going to sink so he said, “Abandon ship!” That was the next order. So when you get to your lifeboats, be ready, be prepared to abandon ship. So when the boat was nearly full, not quite full they lowered it because they had to leave some room for people being picked up somewhere down in the water, not nurses but the other troops, there were lots more troops on board besides the nurses.

Ms. Whittaker discusses the events prior to, during, and immediately after the aerial torpedoing of the SS Santa Helena. She gives a detailed account of how the ship's crew kept passengers calm while moving them to lifeboat stations, for which she offers them high praise.

Geraldine Whittaker

Geraldine Whittaker was born on March 12, 1915 in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. Her father was the local doctor, and she would accompany him on his rounds. Ms. Whittaker decided to become a nurse after graduating from school, entering the nursing program at Montreal General Hospital. In 1937, after three years of training, she decided to enlist in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. After war was declared, Ms. Whittaker went to England where she served in hospitals at Farnborough and Horley. She was deployed to North Africa, but her ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea. Rescued personnel were landed in Naples, Italy. Ms. Whittaker served in a hospital in nearby Caserta for eight months. She volunteered for service in France, was transferred there, and later served in Belgium and Holland. After her return to Newfoundland, Ms. Whittaker continued her nursing career.

Meta Data
Veterans Affairs Canada
Person Interviewed:
Geraldine Whittaker
War, Conflict or Mission:
Second World War
Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps

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