Wednesday, July 22, 2009

HMCS Esquimalt's final survivor

A survivor from HMCS Esquimalt is helped to shore. Canadian Press photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 22, 2009


The roll call of HMCS Esquimalt is down to a final name.

Joseph Wilson, aged 19 when he enlisted, aged 23 when his ship sunk, is the last surviving crew member who was aboard the minesweeper when it was struck by a torpedo.

News of his survival — and of the terrible loss of 44 of his comrades — was released by military censors on May 7, 1945, the day before the end of the war in Europe.

What a terrible shock the deaths must have been to wives and mothers eager for an end to the conflict. Their boys made it so far only to be cruelly lost in a final battle.

Mr. Wilson has been asked many times to recount how an ordinary patrol along the approaches to Halifax Harbour resulted in the destruction of the last Canadian ship lost to enemy action. As if he could ever forget.

More than six decades later, the shock of the attack remains.

“It was so unexpected,” he said.

Every year, even as he grows less physically robust with each turn of the calendar, Mr. Wilson makes the dutiful pilgrimage from his home in Chase, a village at the southern end of Little Shuswap Lake, northeast of Kamloops, to the township that gave its name to the minesweeper. Over time, the list of 27 survivors, all plucked from icy water that claimed friends, has been reduced.

At the start of this year, only three were left.

In late June, Albert Bruce Campbell died, aged 94. Known as Ab from his initials, the able seaman joined the crew of the Esquimalt with a medal for bravery to his credit.

In October, 1943, the crew of the HMCS Kuitan was unable to manoeuvre the patrol boat to rescue two men aboard a drifting oil barge during a storm off the west coast of Vancouver Island. Mr. Campbell volunteered to join Sub-Lieutenant Leonard Idiens in the ship’s smaller boat. Fighting gale winds from the southeast, the pair plucked the marooned seamen from the barge in treacherous waters. Mr. Campbell was awarded the British Empire Medal for gallantry.

He would get a mention in despatches for his actions in the hours following the sinking of the Esquimalt.

“Ab was a fine feller,” Mr. Wilson said. “He was a nice guy. He was like a father figure to the rest of us.”

On July 11, Thomas George Kidd died, aged 84. Mr. Kidd married after the war, raised a family, spent 30 years inspecting grain elevators. He liked to take the children camping and, once they grew up, he liked to take his wife to Hawaii. He did not talk about the war, he did not stay in touch with his shipmates, he did not attend the annual service at the cairn on the grounds of Esquimalt municipal hall. Had he done so, he would have read his name as a survivor and he would have read the names of friends to remain forever young in memory.

“I think he just wanted to forget about it,” said his daughter, Loni Kidd, of Port Hardy. “He just stuck to the family, eh.”

Over time, the HMCS Esquimalt Memorial Association came to believe he had passed away. To learn of his recent death was like losing him a second time.

Now, Mr. Wilson is the lone Esquimalt witness left to tell the story.

He was on duty on the bridge as morning dawned on April 16. Unknown to the crew, the echo of their sonar was detected by a U-boat at periscope depth. With the minesweeper steaming directly at them, the submarine fired an acoustic torpedo, which struck the Canadian ship at the engine room in the stern. In a little more than 200 seconds, the Esquimalt was gone, taking with her 28 men.

It went down so fast not even a mayday had been issued.

Another 43 scrambled off the ship, some clinging to Carley floats.

Mr. Wilson, who had been a meat-cutter in Prince Albert, Sask., slashed both his legs in abandoning ship. The cold sea water cauterized his wounds.

An hour passed. Then another.

Planes flew overhead, mistaking the men for fishermen on small boats.

No one knew the Esquimalt was gone. Or that desperate men awaited rescue.

The sailors prayed and sang songs. The cook, Thomas McIntyre, of Victoria, promised to cook T-bone steaks for everyone once they were ashore.

A third hour passed. A fourth.

They could see the Nova Scotia shore in the distance. The cruelty of their situation seemed unfathomable.

The men immersed in water began to slip away. They died in the arms of their comrade, their bodies lashed to the floats.

In the sixth hour, the men were spotted. HMCS Sarnia picked up 27 survivors. Sixteen who survived the torpedo died from exposure in the chill water. Among them was the cook, who was buried at the Esquimalt (Veterans’) Cemetery, known as God's Acre, nestled between two holes of a golf course.

Ab Campbell was credited with saving several lives in those perilous hours, keeping up spirits through “his cheerfulness and his cool and collected attitude,” as his citation noted.

Time now has claimed all but Mr. Wilson.

He stayed in the navy as a sonar instructor, putting in 25 years before retiring in 1966 as a chief petty officer, first class. He then farmed for another 30 years at Round Hill in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley before moving to British Columbia.

He is taking it easy in the summer heat.

“I’m staying down in the basement reading books,” he said. “War histories. Cowboy stories. Sea stories. I still do a little gardening.”

A handful of Sarnia crew members are still alive, as is Werner Hirschmann, who served aboard U-190 as chief engineer. The circumstance left the submarine crew with little choice but to attack, “like a snake on whose tail you are stepping,” he once told me. He moved to Toronto after the war and has since been made an honourary member of the memorial association. Once a foe, he is now a friend. Like all seamen, they shared a common enemy — the sea.

In April, on the anniversary of the sinking, Mr. Wilson plans to return to Victoria to attend the annual memorial ceremony. If so, he will be 88.

“Made it this year, last year, the year before that, the year before that, and the year before that,” he said.

“If nothing happens, I’ll be there again next year.”


“Memories. Respect. Thoughtfulness.”

Since he can’t forget, he considers it his final duty to bear witness to those relegated to memory.

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