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Seaborne dangers and delights


Most of us would think twice (more than twice) before jumping in among 500 barrels of gasoline with a menacing fire flickering nearby.

And most of us have heard about acts of bravery and courage in the face of clear danger. We have heard of people jumping forward to do what needs to be done — not thinking a jot about their own safety. And we have heard how, afterwards, if we call such people “heroes” they will strongly deny the term.

Sixty years ago in Twillingate there occurred an event that had immediate danger, potential catastrophe and heroes. A fire broke out aboard a cargo vessel dockside in the community. The ship was carrying gasoline. Lots of it.

In the typical correspondent’s laid-back approach to news reporting (at the time, if not now) the following report from The Evening Telegram of Sept. 8, 1955 starts with the ending but builds to the frightening scenario:

“Twillingaters who had battled grass fires started by a burning vessel throughout the night breathed a sigh of relief and organized a ‘thank you’ ceremony for Captain Douglas Manuel and the crew of the Shirley Louise who saved their town from fire. A cheque for $100 was presented with a note saying  ‘it is difficult to imagine what the damage might have been to property or even human lives had the vessel been left at the wharf or allowed to drift ashore at another point.’

“Four men boarded the burning vessel after gasoline drums on deck had started to explode in mid-harbour. They were Christopher Sturge of the Winifred Lee, Captain Lester Andrews and mate, Leo Kean also of the Winifred Lee, and Captain Douglas Manuel of the Shirley Louise. They boarded the burning ship and worked frantically at the chains for several minutes before the anchors could be let go.

“The ship was drifting ashore at the time but her drift was immediately checked. The four men hastened back on board the Shirley Louise. There followed a monstrous explosion as the fire reached the gasoline in the hold. Burning debris was blown ashore by the wind and started several grass fires. Residents kept a close watch on their homes through the night and until dawn.”

The $100 given to the four men had been taken up among the people of the community and there were some words expressed by the presenters to the effect that it was, of course, only as a small token of the gratitude felt in Twillingate for the men’s speedy and selfless action.

The tone of this correspondent’s report was such that there seems to have been a prior reference  to the fire aboard the Winifred Lee. It may have been a note in the paper a little earlier — the full import of what the men had done not coming out until later.

On Sept. 9, the newspaper  published an editorial headed “Tribute to Heroism.” The editorial not only saluted the men’s bravery but also provided additional detail. In part the editorial said:

“The men who towed the burning Winifred Lee from the docks at Twillingate, boarded her twice when lines broke and finally anchored her while 500 barrels of gasoline exploded around their ears deserve not only the gratitude but the unabashed admiration of Newfoundlanders everywhere. They exhibited a degree of cool courage which we have come to expect from our seamen but which nevertheless is an object of admiration when it is called into play. Their action certainly saved the settlement from damage and perhaps what some correspondents described as possible disaster.”

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‘A work of majestic beauty’

“A sailing ship under full sail in a spanking breeze is a work of majestic beauty. Every man on board from Captain to mess boy takes a personal pride in it and the ship becomes a part of his own being. A newly-painted ship with its sails trimmed, its brass polished, scrubbed decks and its rope neatly coiled with its code of signals flying has been the supreme delight of every marine artist as a subject for his brush. Who is there amongst us who cannot say they love these pictures!

“Those of us who have seen these grand old ships leaving port retain happy memories of courageous men taking in the hawsers, manning the capstan bars and hoisting the anchor, lustily singing a sea chanty accompanied by the music from a concertina or a fiddle  … often they have sailed out of the Narrows without the assistance of a tug.

“The vessels’ destination was usually to ports in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cuba, Jamaica and Brazil. As a clerk in the vice-consulate of Brazil from 1894 to 1898 I made out their Consular papers and met the Captains of the ships who came to the office to make their declarations.”   

— Extract from an article in The Newfoundland Quarterly, autumn 1950, by George R. Williams, M.B.E. (born in St. John’s 1877). He received the Brazilian National Order for his consular service. For 56 years Williams was associated with Rothwell & Bowring Ltd., a fishery supply firm formed here in 1887. His home, known as Florence Grove, was located on Pine Bud Avenue, St. John’s.

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A war-time public relations movie

I was amazed at some of the camera theatrics in the old black-and-white movie “Action in the North Atlantic,” and also amazed to find myself sitting on the edge of my den seat when it played last weekend on TCM.

The movie was a public relations piece issued in the middle of the war. It was essentially two hours of cheering for the American Liberty Ships which battled the odds to deliver supplies to stricken allies.

Some of the scenes (such as the assembly of a convoy on this side) seem to have been real footage. Then there was the scene where key ships’ officers were briefed by means of a large numbered grid as to their planned ships’ positions when the convoy moved eastwards in unison.

In this movie, the destination was not revealed until the convoy was well away — it was Murmansk.  The underwater scenes when the convoy found itself in a wolfpack of Nazi subs was graphic, although likely done in miniature in someone’s bathtub; the map of Iceland with the grid of numbers passing below it was spot-on convincing; there was an awesome view from the cockpit of the German biplane as it positioned itself to strafe a Liberty Ship.

The sharp, slicing bow of the Liberty Ship as it rushed angrily towards a surfaced Nazi sub caused me to spring up from my seat and seek refuge in the kitchen.

The ship, operated by Humphrey Bogart and Raymond Massey, eventually reached Murmansk (surprised?) but seriously chastened. Surely, the safest vessel to be aboard would have been one carrying Humphrey Bogart. The ship crawled into Murmansk to the background voice of Franklin Delano Roosevelt citing a psalm to the Liberty Ships program.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email psparkes@thetelegram.com

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