It Happened in October
The following narrative was written by a survivor of the Sydney to Port aux Basques passenger ferry SS Caribou, which sunk in the early hours of 14 October 1942 after being hit by a German torpedo. The text originally appeared in H. Thornhill’s It Happened in October: The Tragic Sinking of the SS Caribou.
A SAD AND BITTER TALE RELATED BY MR. J. LUNDRIGAN
Shortly after we left port, there arose a strong south westerly wind. I was seated in the main passenger saloon along with other passengers and the stewardess, Miss Fitzpatrick, who passed the remark about not expecting to get much rest tonight as there were several small children on board.
As there were quite a number of passengers, some of the men willingly gave up their berths to women passengers and went to the saloon where they slept on the lounges, sat around and talked or, like myself, walked the deck occasionally.
Finding it difficult to sleep, my sailor companion, Wilfred Pool, of Humber Mouth Road and I walked the deck chatting, little realizing that it was our last friendly chat together and little did Wilfred think that before the rising of another sun he would be called into the great unknown.
Around three o'clock in the morning a deep quietness seemed to settle over the ship. I removed my coat and feeling a need of rest, I laid on one of the lounges in the saloon. There were quite a number there besides myself, including Mr. Patrick Walsh of Corner Brook and Wilfred Pool, whom I mentioned previously. These two men were the last I had conversation with before the ship was torpedoed.
I had fallen into a deep slumber for about an hour when I was aroused by a terrific crash. The ship was practically falling to pieces, glass was flying everywhere, everything movable crashed about our heads. The lights went out, water began to rush down the stairways, the noise of escaping steam and the onrush of steam made it darker. Passengers did not know where the life boats were, some of them couldn't even reach deck. They ran into each other, fell over furniture, suitcases and soldiers' kits.
Through all this, some managed to reach the deck. Cries of those facing death in the darkness seemed to come from all sections of the ship which was now listing badly to the port side.
The life boats on the starboard side were broken to splinters by the explosion. I hurried from the saloon and made my way along the port side to the stairway and deck. When I reached the open I noticed that the ship's spars were standing but were leaning very much to starboard.
I could hear the waves beating against the submerged section of the deck. Having located my life belt earlier in the night, I then made an effort to reach same. With great difficulty, stumbling over fallen objects, I reached there just in time as others were calling for the life boat crew who were possibly dead along with some of the other crew. Suddenly, someone cut the forward lines that were holding the lifeboat in the davits of the ship and it fell bow first into the water. The stern lines were also cut and the boat fell flat into the ocean.
Men began jumping over the rail toward the boat. I brought across a boom of some kind to which I held with both hands and climbing along it with hands and feet I reached the ship's rail and jumped in the place where I could hear voices below me.
I was the last to leave the ship on that side. I could hear voices in another boat ahead of us. A man, later I learned he was a doctor, gave instructions to put out the oars and hurry away from the ship's side before they were carried down in the suction of the ship. These instructions were carried out and the boat moved off.
At that moment, we heard a terrible commotion just ahead of us and people were shouting that their boat was sinking. Before we were many yards, the water around us was filled with people. We helped out the distressed in the water by giving them rope to cling to as our boat was already filled and was beginning to take a lot of water.
A man was heard asking to pick him up and then another man asked if we could take him in the boat. His weight might prove to be too great but we hauled him aboard and he proved to be a God send. He discovered that the reason for so much water was that the plugs were out. After they were found and put in place, pairs of men took the buckets belonging to the lifeboat and began to bail, taking turns.
It was a relief to know that our boat was sound although we were all suffering intensely from the cold. Many of us had lost much of what scanty clothing we had been able to seize before leaving the doomed ship.
The man who had saved our lives was Alex Bateman of Port-Aux-Basques and after a conference early in the morning, it was decided to give Mr. Bateman charge of the boat. Anyone disobeying orders would be severely dealt with as we all agreed that he was the one person who, knowing the location of the Caribou when she went down and his experience of the coast, he might be able to take us to land. The boat was driving fast before the gale but Mr. Bateman kept steering in the direction of Newfoundland.
When dawn broke, we made a flag from a piece of sail and tore up the four blankets on board to make some kind of clothing to save the men from freezing. By then, we had drifted far from the scene of the wreck and still far from safety, Bateman put the men on rations of water, biscuit and chocolate.
About after daylight, one of our men sighted a tiny speck on the water and came to the conclusion that it was a ship.
A plane was also seen but it did not come near. Then two hours later it was seen again and this time the occupants of the plane sighted the boat and circled over us. Coming down lower, they began to drop smoke flares in a straight line.
Far to another point at nine thirty we were picked up by a rescue ship.
Survivors said that the submarine came to the surface just as the Caribou was going down and that it was seen only a short distance from our boat but submerged in a minute or so. A terrific explosion occurred on board the Caribou just before she sank and also many minor explosions as the ship caught fire, but a few minutes before the last plunge, the Caribou broke in two.
I am positive there was no change in the ship's course after being struck but to ram the submarine was impossible as the engines were not working. The ship was practically broken in two from the moment the torpedo passed through from one side to the other. This sent all the top decks in the air, falling as wreckage around the ship. As far as I can estimate, it was not less than three to five minutes before the Caribou went down. During that time, people clung to wreckage and rafts while cries for help were heard from all sides.
I am of the opinion that only two boats were left unshattered by the explosion, the one that put out ahead of us and the one we were in. Some of the rafts were turned over and some were broken.
The escort ship was quickly on the scene. It dropped a number of depth charges and later rescued us about 9:30 a.m. To the survivors of the disaster questions of, “Why was this not done?” or “Why was that not done?” might be asked, but I want to remind the reader that everything was confused. Rushing from sleep into the darkness and into the stormy ocean gave no time for thought in those few minutes before the ship disappeared. The shock and lack of time must be taken into consideration before making any decision whatever the result of the inquiry.
This is a true picture, to the best of my knowledge, given of that trying and bitter experience which occurred in the sinking of the Caribou on the morning of October 14, 1942.
WILLIAM J. LUNDRIGAN,