Seventy years ago this morning, the people of Port aux Basques were still coming to terms with an event that shocked the Commonwealth.
© Photo courtesy Payl Taverner
Captain Benjamin Taverner stands on the deck of the S.S. Caribou in this undated photo. Captain Taverner was one of 137 souls lost when the ferry he commanded was torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat in the Cabot Strait in the early morning hours of Oct. 14, 1942.
The S.S. Caribou, a modern car ferry that ran between Port aux Basques and North Sydney, had been torpedoed during the early morning hours of Oct. 14, 1942.
But on the 70th anniversary, those who truly do remember the ship and its crew are few and far between.
Bob Rose, 87, is one of the few. He now lives in Lewisporte, but grew up in Port aux Basques.
He was in the merchant marine in 1942, working on the Baccalieu. That ship ran to ports around Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
They went together from Port aux Basques to North Sydney on the Caribou’s final full crossing of the Cabot Strait. The Baccalieu was bound for Halifax after a stop in North Sydney.
“It’s a wonder I wasn’t on it, to tell you the truth,” said Mr. Rose of the Caribou. “If there had been any room on her, I would’ve been on her instead of the Baccalieu.”
Then 17, he had been working for the railroad for about $25 a month. He wanted to go to sea, and the job on the Baccileau was available.
Mr. Rose still remembers pulling out of port in North Sydney on Oct. 13.
“I waved goodbye to Stan Taverner the last day he was alive,” said Mr. Rose. “He was the chief mate (First Officer).”
He was also the son of Captain Benjamin (Ben) Taverner, who went down with the ship along with another son, Harold.
Mr. Rose said there were many father-son pairs on the ship.
“I knew just about every one of them. There was three or four of my school pals and their fathers.”
He rhymes them off as if it was yesterday.
“Captain Ben Taverner, his two sons. There’s George Gale and his son.
Albert Strickland and his son. I could go on and on with that. I knew them all.”
He figures about 40 victims had direct ties to Port aux Basques.
Mr. Rose was still on his way to Halifax when he first got the news from the telegraph operator on the Baccileau.
“He told us the Caribou was gone, and we laughed at him. I thought he was trying to fool us. We didn’t pay much attention to it at the time.”
Arthur Barrett was on the cusp of adulthood when the tragedy took place. He was 18 and working to build the air base in Stephenville on Oct 14, 1942.
His brother John Barrett was returning home to Curling, Newfoundland on the Caribou that night on after a short honeymoon with his new bride Marjorie. They had been married about a week before, in Toronto.
John was in the RCAF, and had received his pilot wings. He was to go oversees to fight the war. Instead the war came to him.
Mr. Barrett was waiting for the train at Stephenville crossing the morning after the sinking.
“I waited ages at Stephenville Crossing but the train never arrived and nobody was volunteering any information as to why,” he said. “The first thing I knew, an engine with one car pulled into the station with some doctors and nurses from Corner Brook, heading for Port aux Basques. It was only then that I found out about the Caribou.”
The regular westbound express wasn’t far behind. Mr. Barrett met up with his father on that train and they went together to Port aux Basques.
“We spent several days in Port aux Basques, hoping against hope that my brother had been saved. We learned that his wife Marjorie had been picked up and taken to a hospital in Sydney.”
Mr. Barrett spent several days visiting the makeshift morgue that housed the bodies which were recovered. He knew his brother had a scar on his side from an appendectomy, so he checked corpses for the scar.
The search was in vain. His brother’s body was never recovered.
Mr. Barrett’s mother, Ena Constance Barrett, was a well-known Newfoundland poet. Her work can be found today in many anthologies. Mr. Barrett still gets choked up a bit as he reads the poem she wrote for her son (see sidebar).
Most who remain saw the events through the eyes of children.
Bob Bragg was 14 at the time of the tragedy.
He remembers hearing the news that morning and skipping school with his friends to climb Coast Guard Hill and look out on the water. Rumour had it the flames were visible, but that clearly wasn’t true, at least not that morning.
Mr. Bragg said bodies were brought to the old Bowater pier a long red shed used by the paper company to ship out its products in the winter months.
It stood where the Marine Atlantic terminal is today. Mr. Bragg said few were allowed down to that site, but as children he watched from the hill above.
He said one large funeral was held several days later for all the victims. Bodies which were recovered were laid out in their homes.
He remembers horse-drawn hearses collecting the bodies for the funeral.
“They started in the east end of Channel, picking up the bodies there, and they worked their way along,” said Mr. Bragg. “As I recall they had four or five hearses.”
The toll was staggering for a community as small as Port aux Basques - 137 in total lost their lives, including 31 crewmembers and 10 children. At least two people pulled from the water alive succumbed to their injuries on the journey to hospital. Only 34 bodies were recovered from the water.
The torpedo had been fired by U-69. There was controversy regarding the actions of the HMCS Grandmere, which was the ferry’s military escort that night. It reportedly searched for the U-boat instead of trying to help survivors.
The U-boat would meet its fate just months later. On Feb. 17, 1943 it was rammed and sunk by the destroyer HMS Fame.
“Remember the Caribou and Her Gallant Crew”
That is the message on a framed poster that now hangs in the Royal Canadian Legion Channel Branch 11 in Port aux Basques, and in many homes around the southwest coast.
The poster has a photo of each crewmember who died that night.
The Caribou Memorial stands near the Trans-Canada Highway in Port aux Basques, along with cenotaphs from the two world wars. In 2009 the plaque was updated to include the name of an infant who had been left off the original memorial.
Men such as Mr. Rose are left to tell the story. He has been active with the Royal Canadian Legion for over 60 years, and he often talks about wartime service to school children around Remembrance Day.
He thinks Newfoundland’s role in the war is especially important, and he knows first hand the toll that was paid by his friends and family.
His brother was badly burned in the Knights of Columbus Fire in St. John’s a case of suspected arson by the enemy less than two months after the Caribou sinking. He knows of another man who died in that fire.
“It was a very important spot, I guess.” He said. “Newfoundland saw far more of the war than anywhere else on this side of the ocean.”