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Last Survivor of Esquimalt

Post Mortem welcomes occasional submissions by other obit reporters and experts. Vancouver-based obit writer Tom Hawthorn writes:

The deaths of two Canadian seamen in recent weeks leaves Joseph Wilson as the last living survivor of the sinking of the Esquimalt.

The minesweeper was on patrol in the approaches to Halifax harbor off the Atlantic coast in the last days of the Second World War. Unknown to the crew, the ship's sonar pinged off a German submarine observing from periscope depth.

With the minesweeper bearing down, the commander of U-boat 190 fired an acoustic torpedo. It struck Esquimalt at the engine room in the stern.

It was 6:30 a.m. on April 16, 1945. The last Canadian ship to be lost to enemy fire disappeared from the surface in less than four minutes, taking with her 28 men. The minesweeper sank so quickly the radio operator was unable to transmit a mayday.

Another 43 men scrambled into the ocean, a few floats their only aid in the still but chilly sea.

The sailors waited for rescue, some almost fully immersed in the water as they clung to the side of a float. The Nova Scotia shore was within sight. Planes flew overhead, mistaking the floats for fishing boats. An hour passed. Then another. And a third.

The sailors prayed and sang songs to keep up spirits. The cook, Thomas McIntyre promised to prepare a T-bone steak dinner for all once they got their feet on land.

Men began to succumb to the elements.

After six hours, another minesweeper arrived on the scene, plucking 27 survivors from the sea. Sixteen others, including the cook, had died in the arms of their comrades.

The news of the sinking was held until May 7, a day before the end of the war in Europe. For wives and mothers, it must have been especially cruel to get the terrible news so late in the conflict.

Over the years, the British Columbia municipality of Esquimalt, home to Canada's Pacific fleet, near Victoria, held an annual memorial on the April 16 anniversary.

By last year's service, only three survivors remained.

On June 22, retired able seaman Ab Campbell died, aged 94. He earned a British Empire Medal for bravery earlier in the war, while his conduct in the water following the torpedo attack got him a mention in despatches.

The death of crewman Thomas Kidd on July 11 leaves 87-year-old Joe Wilson, of the British Columbia village of Chase, to testify about the terror of that terrible day. Suffering from several ailments, the retired farmer and one-time naval sonar instructor pledges to attend next year's memorial service.


"Memories. Respect. Thoughtfulness."

Since he can't forget, he considers it his final duty to bear witness to those relegated to memory.

The loss of the Esquimalt also has a twist. The German submarine crew was taken as prisoners at the end of the war. One of them, chief engineer Werner Hirschmann, liked Canada so much that he later resettled in Toronto. The Esquimalt's memorial association made him an honorary member. He and Wilson, former foes, are now friends, sharing, like all sailors, a common enemy in the unforgiving sea.

By Adam Bernstein  |  July 30, 2009; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Military  
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Next: The Daily Goodbye


Hell of a story. Pretty evocative, moving stuff. Makes me feel like a witness. Nicely done.

Joseph A. Shmuck

Posted by: joeshmuck | July 30, 2009 11:17 PM | Report abuse

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