Veteran John Fraser was a childhood hero for future doctor

Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

North Shore man served in the navy during Second World War

In the early summer of 1943 the people of Long Beach, Conception Bay North were treated to the spectacle of an Allied warplane dropping depth charges into the nearby waters in its hunt for a German submarine.

Dr. William O'Flaherty

In the early summer of 1943 the people of Long Beach, Conception Bay North were treated to the spectacle of an Allied warplane dropping depth charges into the nearby waters in its hunt for a German submarine.

The plane made several passes over the area, each time flying low, its exploding missiles sending spumes of water high into the air.

The year before, in the fall of 1942, the Second World War hit home quite forcefully to the people of Conception Bay.

In September and again in November of that year German submarines torpedoed and sank four iron ore carriers lying at anchor in the waters near Bell Island. At that time, Bell Island was home to one of the most important mining operations in the world.

On a war footing

That enemy attack, along with the sinking of the railway ferry, the Caribou, in the Cabot Strait the same year resulted in the loss of over 200 lives and told us all in a violent manner that we were on a war footing on the home front.

I sometimes fear, as I write about my vivid memories of the early and middle 1940s, the years of the Second World War, that readers will question my recollections, and silently accuse me of exaggeration and excessive filling in of details of that time period, as it was perceived in our daily lives.

Probably what is most important in the mind of a boy of six, going on seven, going on eight was the fact that I didn’t realize, then, that the world was tethering on the edge of an abyss. That if England had surrendered and the war had spread to mainland North America that our way of life would have been altered in a way never before contemplated or imagined.

A child’s view of conflict

So, then, in 1943, when I looked across Conception Bay, out to the tip of Cape St. Francis and saw multiple convoy ships going out to sea, one behind the other out to the northeast in a seemingly never-ending stream, and in the night heard the hours-long drone of turboprop planes heading out to sea in the same direction — it seemed unusual, but not all that important or earth-shattering in a small boy’s mind.

These convoys left St. John’s and Halifax loaded with tanks and artillery and food for starving England, the armaments to go north from Scapa Flow all the way across the top of Scandinavia to the Russian forces in Murmansk, to enable them to open up the Eastern Front.

And waiting, out there, were the Nazi submarines, in a life and death struggle.

John Fraser, from the North Shore of Conception Bay, very early on, joined the Canadian miliary. His was a fishing family and he was the type of individual whom Winston Churchill called “The best small boatsmen in the world” when he, Churchill, was referring to Newfoundlanders.

He became a crewmember on a corvette — one of the Flower Corvettes, a part of the Canadian navy. At that time, Canada deployed one of the largest navies in the world.

Built for speed

The corvettes, and their cousins, the frigates, were the cowboys of the navy, designed to ride shotgun protecting these massive convoys that travelled across the Atlantic, bringing their lifeblood to a nearly destroyed Europe.

Equipped with speed, armaments, depth charges and maneuverability not possessed by the lumbering members of the convoys, the corvettes and frigates guided the heavily loaded ships across the North Atlantic, and, often, rescued the torpedoed sailors out of the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

And, once there, in the safety of London, or Liverpool, or the North of Scotland, after a day or two rest, headed back to guide yet another convoy.

And back and forth, over and over, all during the war they carried on.

Silent and steel-jawed

I well remember going to church, and sitting in the pew a little distance away from John Fraser’s family, and seeing him, over there to the left, in his navy uniform, on furlough for a short period.

I remember how I admired him, there, silent and steel-jawed, there, until the next church day, when he was gone, back to the sea again.

After the war, years down the road, he became my patient, as did his family, and we talked about that time, when he went away to war.

He rarely spoke about the trips east, across the “pond,” as he called it, when his corvette was racing and tracking submarines. He was reluctant to describe a lot of what he had seen. But in the telling about the less stressful trips back home, across to eastern North America, he would “open up” and talk about the occasional “good times” on those return trips when they were reasonably safe from submarine attack.

A fine feed

Here is one conversation we had, one winter’s day, when I was in the area and “dropped in” to say hello.

“John, were there trawlers out there on the Grand Banks … you know …  fishing?”

“Nah, b’y, not a one; scared they were I s’pose; frightened to death o’ the subs.”

“Did you ever feel like stoppin’ the corvette an’ lowerin’ down a jigger for a nice feed o’ cod.”

He stopped for a minute, hesitated, as if there was something he was reluctant to talk about.

“’Tis no odds,” he finally said, “me old skipper is long gone. Long gone.

“We stopped a long ways offshore. I’d say it was the Flemish Cap, off there on the Banks and the skipper said, ‘Boys, I’m from Bonavista Bay an’ I haven’t had a good meal o’ fish since I left home, an’ this is one day I’m goin’ to eat until I bust.’

“An’ over the arse end of ‘er we dropped a depth charge, an’ took off like a bat outta’ hell. The water is shoal out there and the thing would blow if it hit bottom — so we wanted to get the hell out of there.

“When we went back a few minutes later, well, sir, there were codfish everywhere, all over the salt water, the first fish killed there for a very long time. We ate fish, that night, cooked by the skipper, no slouch in the galley, and he giving the cook a break.”

A humble man

John was my patient for a long number of years: he had survived the war by the grace of God and whatever else determines these things.

He lived his life as a humble man, and appeared a bit surprised, whenever I told him that our way of life today was because of his contribution and that of people like him.    

John wore no halo and had his faults, but we are here today because ordinary people answered, and went when the call came.

He was one of my childhood heroes.

 

— Dr. William O'Flaherty is author of a best-selling memoir entitled "Tomcats and House Calls: Memoir of a Country Doctor." He worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.

Organizations: Tomcats and House Calls

Geographic location: Conception Bay, North Shore, Long Beach Bell Island England North America North Atlantic Scandinavia Murmansk Canada Europe London Liverpool Scotland Bonavista Bay Newfoundland New Brunswick Western Bay Northern Bay Moncton

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments

Recent comments

  • Luke Walsh
    January 16, 2014 - 16:41

    I don't know Dr. O'Flaherty, but that some nitwits would rate this article a 1 star, is beyond me. Reality hurt some people's feelings?

    • Alicia "Celeste" Loughrey
      January 17, 2014 - 23:14

      Luke, you just have to keep on voting for the five stars to show. Even if you give hit the fifth star, it only shows one star at first (it has to work its way up to the fifth star) so let's keep on voting. Great job Dr. O'Flaherty :)