Canadian merchant navy veterans Thornley Christiansen (left) and Robert Hughes raise a flag Monday at city hall, recognizing the contributions of the merchant navy to the country's Second World War efforts.
Thornley Christiansen said after the Second World War, those who served in Canada’s merchant navy have largely been forgotten.
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But without them, Christiansen said on Monday, the Allies would have had a much tougher time defeating the Germans and Japanese.
“We actually won the war,” Christiansen said following a Labour Day city hall ceremony, where Mayor Keith Hobbs helped raise a flag to honour those who served in the merchant navy, launching a Sept. 3 tradition in Thunder Bay.
“No soldier or his guns or his tanks could have gotten to England without us merchant navy people taking them across the Atlantic.”
The merchant navy seamen and women faced the same dangers as Canada’s navy fleet. German submarines targeted them and Mother Nature did her best to make life miserable. Throughout the course of the war, more than 25,000 merchant navy ships crossed the ocean between North America and Great Britain, with 72 ships lost in battle.
In total, about 1,600 merchant navy sailors lost their lives, the ultimate sacrifice for one’s country.
Christiansen said there was no glamour in what they tried to do.
“In my particular case it was hell,” the 87-year-old veteran said, noting he stayed on the northern route to visit his future wife, a Bristol, England native. “The North Atlantic’s a very cold place and the ships didn’t have any central heating to speak of. Submarines lurked everywhere. So we went as far north as we could.
“That’s where the worst weather was, because submarines had difficulty operating there. We never did get any real comfort.”
He’s not sure why the merchant navy’s contribution to the war effort has largely been forgotten as the memories of the Second World War slowly begin to fade from the Canadian consciousness.
“We’re not as glamorous as people in the service. We didn’t have the flashy uniforms and we didn’t have the money. They didn’t pay us. My original salary, when I went to sea in 1942, was $32 a month. And I couldn’t entertain too many young ladies at $32 a month,” he said, his sense of humour still intact.
Robert Hughes, a lifelong Port Arthur resident, agreed, saying the merchant navy has never really gotten the recognition for its contribution to the war.
Now 91, Hughes on Monday said most people looked at the merchant sailors as civilians, not realizing sailors were not able to come and go as they pleased.
Their merits were quickly recognized as the fighting escalated on the Atlantic, said Hughes, who joined the army in 1937, the navy in 1940 and said joined the merchant navy a little later when asked to join an excursion to French Guyana, where a group of convicts were being freed from Devil’s Island to join France’s war effort.
“That was my first experience with the merchant navy. I got onto other ships after that. The main reason for me getting into the merchant navy was they needed someone on the ships to train the merchant crew in the use of guns they might have had,” Hughes said.
“That’s what I did. I trained them and I looked after the defence of the ships. At the beginning of the war, most submarines could come to the surface and fire at a merchant ship without too much problems, because they weren’t armed.”
Arming the merchant ships made the German tactic a little more difficult.
“From then on it was nearly all torpedo work, but if they used up their store of torpedoes, they had to go all the way back to France and load up again.”
Hughes said he’s glad the merchant navy veterans are finally being honoured in Thunder Bay, joining a country-wide tradition.
Follow Leith Dunick on Twitter: @LeithDunick