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No Heroes on Those Ships
by Alex Lister

Alex Lister (born 1925 in Winnipeg, now residing in Vancouver):

There were no heroes on those ships.

I joined the Canadian Navy in December of 1941, when I was sixteen, lying about my age. I told them I was seventeen because I didn't want to get dipped back as a boy seaman. They made five dollars a month. An able seaman made between eighteen and twenty dollars a month. What can I tell you-I joined the Navy to upgrade my standard of living.

I was on five different ships over four years. First, on a minesweeper on the west coast. Later on a destroyer called the Kootenay. Along with another destroyer and four corvettes, we would escort merchant ships we picked up at Boston, New York, Halifax. These ships were carrying war materials. Tanks. Sometimes we travelled in convoys of over 100 merchant ships. A fast convoy took ten days to cross the Atlantic, a slow one, fourteen. One of our routes took us to Murmansk, Russia. We never got off the docks there, but I remember women unloading the ship. Big strong women. I can tell you, without the Russians we would have lost the war.

We ran out of everything fresh very shortly. We used to pick the boll weevils out of the bread. I never saw an egg; we were the guinea pigs for powdered eggs, which tasted like gravel, and spam, which a dog would have backed off from.

If the order went out that a submarine was nearby, the destroyer would take it on. An oil slick suggested you'd hit the thing, but the Germans would send up garbage, even bodies, to fool the skippers.

The elements were worse than the war. You were always cold and you were always wet. Seamen were responsible for a four-hour watch, with the green ones coming over, and no protection from the elements. The icicles were hanging from your nose when you weren't looking through the buttonhole of your coat.

I remember meeting some American guys at Gander who said I should put in for Passover leave. My captain asked me what that was because, of course, there was no such thing in the Canadian Navy. When I told him, he said, "Don't you think a person like you should be at sea and doing as much as you can?" I didn't know what he meant at the time. But clearly, he knew what was going on in Europe. 


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