The Cascadia earthquake of 1700. The wreck of the Aeneas in 1805. The Nanaimo mine explosion of 1887. The Britannia Mountain landslide of 1915. The Halifax explosion of 1917. The ice storm of 1998. The Fort McMurray fire of 2016. The Quebec City mosque shooting of 2017. The Humboldt Broncos bus crash of 2018.
“Lest we forget,” Rudyard Kipling repeats eight times in “Recessional”— and lest we forget, in the dossier of misfortunes, there also stands the USS Pollux and USS Truxtun tragedy of 1942 off the coast of Newfoundland.
In accounts of the disastrous details of the annus horribilis of 1942 — the Japanese assault on the Philippines, England’s surrender of its “impregnable fortress” just off the Malay Peninsula, the heartbreak and horror of Canadian soldiers in the Dieppe Raid — the fates of the Pollux, a practically new general stores issue ship, and the Truxtun, a practically ancient destroyer, are almost always omitted. For Canadians, the wreck involved American craft and thus was somebody else’s calamity — and, besides, Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada. For Americans, it occurred while the shock of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still fresh; when the battles of the Pacific theatre were the preoccupation and seemed to pose the profoundest peril; amid sobering news of the fall of Singapore, which Winston Churchill described as the “worst disaster” and “largest capitulation” in British history; and as reports were floating in about the massive air attack on Darwin, Australia.
As a result — despite the fact the Pollux and the Truxtun were part of a convoy out of the Casco Bay naval base, in Portland, Maine, en route to the Argentia naval station in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, and thus the disaster was thousands of kilometres closer to home than anything going on in the Pacific — the episode was crowded out of American public consciousness. It remains, at best, a foggy image in the national memory, an asterisk in the chronicle of the country’s Second World War, if not a forgotten footnote.
The destruction of the RMS Titanic is recalled because of the allegorical nature of the sinking of the unsinkable and as a result of the impact of Walter Lord’s classic A Night to Remember, from 1955, and of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” in the soundtrack of a 1997 blockbuster. The wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald is recalled because Gordon Lightfoot celebrated its “crew and good captain well seasoned” in his haunting 1976 song. The 1963 disappearance off Cape Cod of the USS Thresher, a nuclear-powered attack submarine with 129 men aboard, spawned a handful of memorials, one of which stands in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the boat was built. But with no Longfellow to mark the passage of ships that, like the doomed schooner Hesperus, “sailed the wintry sea,” the Pollux and the Truxtun have been fast-receding blips in naval history.
Now Bett Fitzpatrick has come along, salvaging the story much the way local mariners and miners saved 186 people after the vessels ran aground near the towns of St. Lawrence and Lawn. And that remarkable rescue — truly a harvest from the sea — is the difference in this shipwreck drama. For in the treacherous, icy February waters near the Burin Peninsula, the tale is as much about survival as it is about death — more, really.
Fitzpatrick, now a retired teacher in Ontario, grew up in Newfoundland surrounded by echoes of the legend, which lapped against her consciousness the way the surf laps against the craggy shore. The memories were everywhere; she was reared among those, including relatives and neighbours, who pulled in the survivors and provided them warmth and succour. For years, the entire episode — history played out almost next door, down the street, in the cove, and on the barrens above the cliffs — nagged at her, in effect resting on her shoulder, continually asking, as Lightfoot did nearly a half-century ago as he contemplated the sinking he memorialized a year after it occurred, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes / when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” Fitzpatrick’s answer is that, in the case of her childhood home at least, it feeds into the valour and daring of the heroes of Chambers Cove — and provides the raw materials for Hard Aground: Untold Stories from the Pollux and Truxtun Disaster, a valiant amalgam of fact and fiction in which Fitzpatrick supplies the dialogue and the people of her village provide the heroism.
There are echoes here of Come from Away, the wildly popular musical about the thirty-eight planes that landed at Gander after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a production that cast an international spotlight on the unalloyed generosity of Newfoundlanders. Transport the trials of the Pollux and the Truxtun onto the stage, and the opening number from that show might apply just as well:
Welcome to the land where the winters tried to kill us and we said, “We will not be killed.”
Welcome to the land where the waters tried to drown us and we said, “We will not be drowned.”
Welcome to the land where we lost our loved ones and we said, “We will still go on.”
Hard Aground opens on February 18, 1942, close to midnight, with the 459-foot Pollux, the formation guide of the convoy, beginning to wander out of Zigzag Plan 26, the switchbacks right and then left designed to evade German U-boats.
It was truly a dark and stormy night, with heavy winds, blankets of snow, a sheet of sleet, a barrage of hail, and a ship bucking on the waves, rolling with the swells, the blue water of the North Atlantic turning the sailors green as they approached Ferryland Head on the west side of the entrance to Placentia Bay. Deprived of fathometer readings to measure ocean depths and plagued by diminishing radio-direction-finder signals to fix the positions of other vessels, the fleet was steaming straight into trouble. “Navigating a perilous coastline in foul weather, with two destroyers God knows how close, or distant,” was a grim challenge. Long before the phrase was concocted by Walter Lord, this was a night to remember.
Sailing between 2,000 and 3,000 yards off the Pollux’s port bow, the men of the Truxtun suddenly found themselves hard aground on that night of fright. They confronted their situation, wedged between two rocks, one crusted with ice, another submerged in breakers. Engines roared in reverse, but the bow of their four-piper swung around onto the sharp edges of the rocks, tearing open the hull and providing the rushing water an easy entryway as the men sought a gangway to safety. Life rafts ricocheted off sharp rock formations, overturned, or escaped empty.
“The Truxtun had brought up in a rocky crook of a cove, a slight curve of cliff hardly more than the blade of a scythe in an otherwise angular coastline. Even in the shelter of the cove, the hard weather was hindersome,” Fitzpatrick writes. She recounts how some sailors, like Seaman 2nd Class Edward Bergeron, were “used to snow and wind.” But this was something else entirely. “The North Atlantic howler, raging in full swagger, veered around, breezed up from the south, skimmed the crests off curly breakers and slung them against the cliffs. A crop of rocks slathered in ice and fuel oil littered the sluice between the Truxtun and the cove.”
What follows is a classic narrative of men fighting the sea and the elements — and then of the survivors, exhausted, struggling amid gale-force winds to find purchase on remorseless rocks, icy gravel, and what Fitzpatrick describes as “a slab of straight-up granite.” Brutal survivor films have been made of far less.
The Come from Away element then crashes through the narrative. Awoken, the people on shore confronted a huddle of humanity that was so bedraggled — one of the survivors so drenched in tar that only his white teeth suggested that he was human, another with eyelashes glued shut — that the scene almost beggared belief. The women of the community loaded food and clothes onto a toboggan, assembled mitts and sweaters, requisitioned washtubs and long johns even as the men dragged survivors — many of them slathered in crude oil — to safety or hoisted them up a cliff in ropes transformed into implements of salvation. A fire fashioned from blankets and doused with kerosene provided a hint of warmth until heated rocks and bricks, wrapped in towels, could be applied to the sailors. Still the winds howled. The snow blew.
The Pollux, stuffed with aerial bombs, aircraft engines, radios, and guns, soon suffered a similar predicament. It rammed the Truxtun and found itself, too, run aground. “The terrible sounds of the ship clanking on the rocks rumbled off the cliff,” Fitzpatrick writes. “Her starboard side, almost parallel to land and broadside to the raging ocean, bore the brunt of the storm. Portside, the bow practically leaned over the rock ledge.” The ship’s navigator, Lieutenant Junior Grade William C. Grindley, noted “the ledge’s outer edge was laced heavily with layered jags of sea ice and collared by a yellow ring: the high-water mark. At full tide, only the very top would be above water.”
For a time, the crewmen of the Pollux managed to avoid the frosty fate of the Truxtun. But then it seemed likely that their ship was going down. If anything, the water raged more violently, the wind blew more menacingly. Within minutes, eighty perished. A new rescue effort was mounted. Injured men fought for their lives by fighting to stay awake in the cold —“drilling directly into every nerve ending”— and amid the crude oil. Some lost that fight. The tide roared in, imperilling more.
By the time the toil was over, and the toll was clear, ninety-three aboard the Pollux were lost, along with 110 from the Truxtun. More than five dozen bodies never were recovered. Many of those who survived campaigned to build a hospital in St. Lawrence, both monument and memorial — and a gesture of thanks.
Another USS Truxtun was christened in 2007. A Navy blanket from the 1942 wreck was framed and mounted on the mess deck of the new guided-missile destroyer, the sixth warship to bear the name (though Fitzpatrick counts just four). The Pentagon apparently wants to keep the reference to Commodore Thomas Truxtun, one of George Washington’s first group of military commanders, afloat. Lest we forget, lest we forget — which, but for Bett Fitzpatrick and the ghosts that haunted her and the stories she hauled from the past, we might have done.