George Mercer sits on the sofa in his Bay Roberts home, peering out his living room window at the steady flow of traffic making its way along the Conception Bay Highway.
His modest home is located in the heart of the town’s commercial centre, and from his perch, he sees it all. He’s watched as a multimillion-dollar sewer infrastructure project has taken place over the past two years. And he’s been witness to the many changes along what’s been dubbed the town’s “Golden Mile.”
It’s certainly not the undeveloped and unsophisticated town he remembers when he returned from the Second World War in the 1940s, or the ill-equipped and underserviced town he led as mayor beginning in 1973.
“It’s a fine town, don’t you think?” he states during a recent interview.
The 91-year-old is in high spirits on this day, happy to share memories of a full life that started on Barracks Road in Bay Roberts. With Phyllis, his wife of 67 years, and son, Neil, sitting nearby, Mercer speaks of close calls during his service with the Royal Navy, his efforts to earn a livelihood and raise a family after being discharged from the service and a distinguished record of community involvement.
Mercer and his childhood friend, John Harris of Bay Roberts East, enlisted in the Royal Navy in February 1940. The Second World War was heating up, with the Germans tightening their grip on much of Europe, and causing havoc among Allied shipping in the North Atlantic.
Before long, Mercer found himself serving aboard a minesweeper, small vessels tasked with the dangerous job of detecting and removing sea mines.
Mercer and Harris were assigned to different vessels, but both were posted to Portsmouth, England. Mercer recalls releasing the lines for several minesweepers and watching them sail out to sea.
Not long after, he felt a strong concussion. The wooden minesweeper that Harris was serving aboard had struck a mine and practically disintegrated. Mercer still recalls the thousands of dead fish floating on the surface when his vessel arrived at the chaotic scene.
“I broke down,” Mercer says.
After six months on minesweeping duty, Mercer was assigned to the HMS Rodney, a Royal Navy battleship.
He recalls steaming toward Halifax in spring 1941 when the ship was ordered to sail with great haste for the Denmark Strait. The German battleship Bismarck had been spotted, and she was to be sunk at all costs.
The Bismarck had already sunk the HMS Hood, the pride of the British navy, killing all but three of her more than 1,400 crewmembers.
It wasn’t long before Mercer and his shipmates helped make history. The Rodney played a major role in the sinking of the Bismarck.
Mercer served in the ship’s magazine, feeding ammunition to the big guns. He remembers an overwhelming feeling of shock at the loss of the Hood.
“She was the pride of the navy,” Mercer recall. “We were very lucky.”
Mercer remembers seeing the Bismarck, far on the horizon.
He remembers that many of his shipmates were crying, and many sailors “lost it.”
“I was too young to know the difference,” he says.
Mercer was later transferred to a submarine supply ship, but his wartime service was coming to an end. The chaos and death was taking a toll, and Mercer was deemed medically unfit for service.
He came back to Bay Roberts with nothing and started driving a truck for a local company, and later purchased his own, using it to deliver logs, lumber and other things to St. John’s.
He was married to Phyllis (French) in March 1944, and the couple built a house on land once owned by Phyllis’s father. He later opened an auto repair garage next to his house, and started selling vehicles for Royal Garage. The business, which also had two gas pumps, operated until he retired, after which his son Neil took over.
Along the way, Mercer gave back to his community. He was a leader in both the Royal Canadian Legion and the Bay Roberts Lions Club, and also entered municipal politics in the 1970s, serving as mayor from ‘73 -81.
Mercer is one of a dwindling number of Second World War veterans, and is thought to be the only one residing in Bay Roberts.
There was a significant amount of investment made into infrastructure and equipment during his time as mayor, including water and sewer and vehicles such as snowplows and other heavy equipment.
“I was never in a place like that before,” he says of his time as mayor. “I managed to get some things done. We had a fine council.”
About a year ago, there were roughly 175,000 veterans still alive in Canada, but some reports say up to 500 are dying each week, so that number is now much lower.