Merchant Navy

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Back to Thematic Clips
Medium: Video
Owner: Veterans Affairs Canada and Testaments of Honour
Duration: 10:42
Copyright / Permission to Reproduce

Subjects – in order of appearance:

  • Vickie LaPrairie
  • Jean-Luc Dutil
  • Eugène MacDonald
  • Aurèle Ferlatte
  • André Guindon
  • Wilson Dionne
  • Normand Silver
  • William Kane
  • Madeleine Parent


England had been so badly bombed that there were many shortages, especially of meat, and other things. So our government decided to use, or to commission the merchant ships to send to England whatever they had shortages of.

You need a lot of food, you need a lot of weapons, you need a lot of equipment, etcetera. It was the merchant navy that carries all of that. The merchant navy went to war on September 3, 1939.

I was too young to get into the armed forces. I was 16 years old when I embarked on my first ship. There were no questions asked in the merchant navy; anyone was accepted…

Maybe their eyes weren't strong enough for them to join the army or the services; maybe they had problems with their feet: they could join the merchant navy instead, and some people liked it, and…

Many of the captains had been pilots on the St. Lawrence River. They had the experience. There were also the package freighters we called them, and the crews on these ships went into the merchant navy.

The ships were in convoy. And when I was… I was on duty from midnight to 4 a.m. Sometimes I saw 75 or 80 ships slip away before dawn. And I said a prayer because I knew that Nazi submarines were waiting for them barely 15 miles outside of port.

A convoy can have between 30 and 260 ships. You have to remember, during the war, they shipped 181,643,000 pounds of cargo and equipment. That's the equivalent of 11 merchandise convoys from Halifax to Vancouver. Think about it-a train going from Halifax to Vancouver 11 times!

The convoy was what …ten miles, let's say ten miles wide and there were nine or ten rows of ships. We had to keep as close together as we could so that the war ships could circle around us to try to protect us as much as possible, and the danger was that, in the fog, we could easily bump into each other. The weather was crucial for merchant seamen because we couldn't turn back in a storm, we had to keep going straight ahead. If at some point there was a storm, and we got too close to France… there were submarines based there that sent invitations to sink us. In addition to that, there was also the "black hole"; we had an escort to take us halfway and then for two or three days, seven days sometimes, we had to wait for a British escort to arrive to take us the rest of the way. But between the two we didn't have any protection.

And the pack of submarines knew that at some point between England and Canada there was a gap. The submarines knew it, and that's where we got torpedoed.

Sometimes, submarines would get between the ships and sink them until they ran out of torpedoes. Being torpedoed meant the end, because the water was so cold that in two or three minutes we would have frozen, in one way or another.

We had a lot of our ships sink. Twenty-four Canadian Navy warships were sunk during the war. On top of that, there were many, many merchant marine boats, I don't know the exact number, but a lot more than us.

It's perhaps worse for a guy in the merchant navy that…each time he crosses, he wonders on what trip he's going to get hit, you know…lucky today, gone tomorrow…

At the beginning, many of them, sadly, were sunk. And others came back. They had been …there were holes in the side of those ships, and there were wounded on board. And I know WRENs (WRCNS) who worked in the hospitals and they told us that these poor sailors had been burned or badly injured.

Without the convoys, we couldn't have fought the war. Great Britain didn't have oil. It was defended by its navy, the English navy, which was the biggest navy in the world. No oil, no navy. No navy and Mr. Hitler would have crossed the Channel immediately. That's why Winston Churchill, who was the top man, said that the Battle of the Atlantic was the most important battle of the war.

…the war would have been lost. We were the ones transporting the soldiers, the food, the equipment for the invasion. They treated us like their kid brothers.

And there was a group of sailors who worked on these ships and, until relatively recently, they were not recognized as war veterans, and it was one of the most dangerous jobs there was.

They said the merchant seamen are veterans, but we won't give them the right to go back to school like the others, we won't give them the same benefits, because they have jobs. We want them to stay on the ships. But what they didn't say was that they wanted us to stay on the ships until they had time to privatize them and sell them. The ships we were on, they sold them to the Greeks for crazy prices, and we were kicked off. We were sent back home, but when we got home, we had no jobs. We didn't get preference because all the good jobs had already been given to the other veterans. Most of the men were left without a pension, and when the time came for them to retire, they were taxi drivers, they worked in bars, and they were cleaners on the big tanks… It was tragic, what happened to our merchant seamen. The country treated them like dirt. For fifty years the federal government, whether Conservative or Liberal, the federal government continued to justify itself by saying it had done the best it could. Finally, in 1988, we had a law that said we were veterans. They gave us our medals and said, "You're veterans now, you should be happy." That's all. We said, "No, I think you owe us more than that." Then we held a hunger strike and shamed the federal government and within twelve, fourteen months, we came to an agreement.

Because there were 12,000 merchant mariners. And when we started fighting for recognition, there were only 1,200 of us left. Today… there aren't a lot of us left. If we hadn't started the ball rolling, pressured the government, we would have had nothing.

In the end, we ended up with what I called a token settlement. It didn't replace the right to go back to school and all the things we had missed, but at least we had a token settlement and it gave us an average of twelve thousand dollars, paid out to eight thousand participants, including widows. The end of fifty-six years of injustice. That's what we wanted. We finally had an agreement.

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