Special to the Westerly
This is a Christmas story that took place 76 years ago on Christmas Eve 1944.
It’s a tale that connects Clayoquot with Ucluelet and it tells of heroic deeds and sacrifices on the embattled Atlantic Ocean.
In 1939, Canada joined Allied Forces to fight against Germany’s fascist expansion. While the war was fought in may arenas, the Canadian Navy was particularly active on the Atlantic. Their role was to protect convoys of merchant ships delivering food, fuel and armaments to England.
Accompanied by warships, these convoys were led by marine sweepers. Their mission was to detect both submarines and military mines that would explode on contact, holing ships at the waterline.
In 1941, the Prince Rupert Shipyard launched an 181 ft. Bangor Class minesweeper. Destined for the Atlantic, the ship joined the Allied Atlantic fleet in 1942. The ship was named HMCS Clayoquot and she was captained by Alexander Craig Campbell who was 32 years old. Campbell commanded 83 men in search of German submarines known as ‘Grey Wolves.’
On Oct. 14, 1944, one ‘Grey Wolf’ submarine U-806 left Germany on a 4,400 voyage across the Atlantic to the Canadian coast. She was captained by 28 year old Klaus Hornbostel, who commanded 34 men. Hornbostle’s mission was to actively hunt Allied convoys. She was to intercept and engage, thereby cutting off critical Allied supply lines.
On Christmas Eve, 1944, the minesweeper Clayoquot sailed into the cross-hairs of U-806. Hornbostel launched a subsurface torpedo that struck the stern of the Clayoquot at the waterline. She sank into the dark icy Atlantic in just 10 minutes. The crew scrambled to abandon ship, but the lifeboats jammed in their release rigging. A 22 year old able seamen Robert Nordlund and another shipmate hacked the rigging lines with axes to successfully release life boats on the rapidly sinking vessel. Both seamen were later decorated for bravery. Short of lifeboats, dozens of sailors jumped into the black frigid water. And, as they watched the Clayoquot sink, they sang ‘O come all ye faithful.’ Eight sailors died and the remaining 78 were rescued by convoy vessels.
While the Clayoquot sank, sailors were on leave in New York Harbour. Among these was a very young man named Ken Wadden He served aboard what I believe to be a Canadian Corvette sub-chaser. News of the torpedo attack cut short the Christmas Eve leave. The sub chasers were scrambled to search and destroy the submarine. U-806 was never found.
By war’s end, 72,200 Allied naval and merchant seamen were dead. 3,500 merchant ships and 175 allied warships were sunk in the Atlantic in their attempt to supply England. Those who survived went home. Able seamen Robert Nordlund returned to Vancouver to attend school before becoming a successful commercial artist. Notably, he helped raise and support two children who were not related to him. Those children were my sister and I.
Ken Wadden moved to Ucluelet to work in the logging industry until retirement. He was a loving father, husband and grandfather. Ken was also our neighbour. He was a decent generous man who showered our children with loving attention and endless small kindnesses.
As young men, Robert Nordlund and Ken Wadden relinquished their personal freedom and at immense risk fought to preserve our humanity and liberty.
Today, there are those working directly on the COVID-19 frontline or behind the scenes providing critical services and supplies as did those convoys in WWII.
We are implored to follow guidelines and do our part in the cause of our greater humanity. Who knows, the mask you wear might just give a WWII veteran another year or two. They earned and deserve it.
Merry Christmas and Healthy New Year most especially to all those who sacrifice for our welfare and safety.