Letter from 1942 provides dramatic account of Pollux rescue

Steve Bartlett
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"Lifelines, attached to the Pollux rail, still trailed over the ship's side into the oil and wreckage when Ena Farrell took photos of the wreck on Saturday, February 21 (1942)." Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, 16.06.092. Cassie Brown Collection (Ena Farrell Edwards photo).

A letter from one fisherman to another offers first-hand insight into what rescuers faced when the Pollux and Truxtun ran aground 70 years ago.

"They weren't like human beings at all," Joseph Manning of Lawn wrote about seeing the Pollux's crew for the first time.

"All crude oil and some poor fellows dying and more diving around in the water. It wasn't nice to look at, anyway."

The Truxtun, an American destroyer, and the Pollux, an accompanying supply ship, were wrecked off the Burin Peninsula during a fierce storm on Feb. 18, 1942.

The latter went aground off Lawn Head, while the former ran into the jagged rocks off nearby Chambers Cove.

Two hundred and three people died, while 186 survived.

Those who lived lauded local efforts to save them.

Manning's letter was to Gerard Ryan of nearby Corbin, a community since resettled.

It was composed a month after the disaster and is typewritten in rough but engaging prose.

He tells of leaving home that morning, Ash Wednesday, after hearing about the Pollux's fate.

Reaching the ship presented a challenge of its own.

"It was a terrible climb out over that point, over mountains of hill and through woods, but I think it's the first time in history that horses ever went from Lawn to Lawn Point. It was a hard journey and not knowing if there was a man to be saved or not."

The team of eight from Lawn eventually discovered the Pollux's survivors "under the big head waving and shouting to us."

The rescuers moved to a better location to try to save them, under precarious conditions.

"Everything was in a sheet of glitter and you had to watch your steps."

They rigged a rope and started hauling the sailors up.

"I'm sure that the cliff was 120 feet or more, not counting the bank."

Once two sailors and an officer were up, Manning searched for firewood and ended up using boards "off his slide."

The rescue effort continued through the night and, at two in the morning, they hauled up the captain.

"I just tell you we were some glad. Our arm (was) hauled, our backs broken and starving. ... The hunger we suffered was terrible."

But there were still men to be hauled up.

At one point, Manning says an officer on the ship asked for a "volunteer from his crowd to go and save their comrades."

"It was some hard sights: bare-footed men and no boots on in a winter night. ... It got so bad the officer asked so often for volunteers that I call on all the Newfoundlanders to come finish the job. So at 5 a.m. we had them on the clifts and brought to safety."

He transported some of the men overland to the Iron Springs Mine in St. Lawrence.

Manning writes that St. Lawrence got all the praise and credit for its rescue efforts while the men from Lawn didn't get much.

"We didn't go out there for publicity or honour. We went out there to save lives."

He said he was writing the letter so Ryan would know of their efforts.

"We credits ourselves for helping haul up 137 men that night but (some) died by the fire."

He also notes that while the U.S. government is wealthy, it hasn't got enough money to pay him to put in another night like that - unless, once again, it was to save lives.

Ryan gave the letter to Austin Hawley, his niece's husband, in the early '90s.

"He said, 'I've had this ... and I don't know what to do with it,'" Hawley said this week.

"He knew I was a teacher interested in history, so he said, 'I'm going to give it to you for safe keeping, 'cause you'll know what to do with it.'"

The St. John's resident says he doesn't Manning had an axe to grind, but "was just sort of concerned that they didn't get credit."

Hawley is doubtful another first-hand account of the rescue effort still exists.

He's thinking about giving the letter to the Provincial Archives at The Rooms.

Manning wrote the way he spoke.

For that reason, some of his spelling was changed for this story.

The fisherman would likely have wanted it that way. He ended his letter by stating, "Please excuse writing & Spelling as I am on (sic) Scholar."

Manning might not have been a scholar, but he was undoubtedly a hero.

To read the letter in its entirety, see the online version of this story at www.thetelegram.com.

CLICK HERE to download a copy of the letter.

sbartlett@thetelegram.com Twitter: @SteveBartlett_


Organizations: Iron Springs Mine, The Rooms

Geographic location: U.S., St. John's

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Recent comments

  • Thomas Palchak
    July 08, 2016 - 09:44

    My father, Edward Palchak, of Trafford, PA served on the Navy destroyer USS Wilkes at the time of the disaster off Burin Peninsula. The Wilkes was the flag ship of this particular convoy and also grounded off Lawn Point. The people of Lawn and St. Lawrence were magnificent in their rescue efforts, ultimately saving 185 American sailors from certain death. Cassie Brown's remarkable book, 'Standing Into Danger' was, and is, the definitive account of this wartime disaster. God bless the citizens of Lawn and St. Lawrence. And yes, their heroic efforts should be remembered forever.

  • Hayley Manning
    February 02, 2016 - 05:06

    My name is Hayley and Joseph Manning is my great grandfather. I have proudly completed and presented history projects on the fate USS Pollux during my schooling in Indonesia as well as Singapore. I am a very proud great granddaughter. Thank you so much for writing this review and making the letter available for all to see.

  • Beth Drake
    August 26, 2013 - 20:08

    History of heroism shown by people who were strong and generous is never too old to be spoken of.The men who saved so many lives that night gave their blood ,sweat and tears to save the sailors of the doomed ships with little or no thought to the dangers they faced themselves.Maybe being fishermen and hardworking miners made them feel a kinship with those who would surely have died on that bleak February night in 1942.They deserve respect and rememberance .

  • Tammy Brown
    February 19, 2012 - 18:00

    Wonderful story! and I love the way you ended it Mr. Bartlett...he was indeed a hero, and will always be remembered that way. Scholars come and go (thank heavens!) but heroes are forever. I'm a teacher in Los Angeles, California (formerly from Newfoundland) I will be sharing this article with my students this week!!!

  • Rloc
    February 19, 2012 - 16:06

    What would you have us do Mr. Dooley, forget history altogether? I am a proud member of St. Lawrence and am related to Ms. Violet Pike. Shame on you for thinking this historical event is not important to commemorate every year! Thank God not everyone feels as you do!

  • redrantingtory
    February 19, 2012 - 12:26

    There's always one troll hiding in the wood pile. ie, Donny Dooley. Surely not his real name as I'm sure he is not brave enough to post it. Unlike the people and the incident he criticizes. Why do people feel the need and see fit to be so vile and ignorant? Just because they can or maybe they just haven't grown up? Maybe it's because they have no conscience? Shame on the person known as Donny Dooley. To criticize such an historic event is to be a most selfish ignorant person. Once again I use this infamous quote. " It's better to be not heard and thought a fool than to open ones mouth and remove all doubt. This sir applies in spades to you, whoever you are.

  • Colette Fleming
    February 18, 2012 - 18:34

    Today I was a proud participant at the Memorial of the 70th anniversary of theTruxtun and Pollux Disaster. To hear the survivor, Dr Lainier Phillips, thank our family and friends who went to their rescue was a lifelong tribute to the ones we loved. I am so proud that our history includes the valour of our ancestors who reached out in love to help the servicemen of the United States.

  • seanoairborne
    February 18, 2012 - 16:41

    Donny Dooley....This incident is part and parcel of the great history of a caring and warm people who gave their all to save lives.Why should the people of Newfoundland forget about it?Because you think it has no bearing on present day Newfoundlanders?There are still folks alive that took part in this rescue and it takes a lot of gall to belittle their life saving efforts.In fact there are more than a few Americans that are still breathing and enjoying life today because of the heroic actions of Newfoundlanders.And they're very grateful for what the people of Newfoundland did for them on the that tragic night and will never forget itI.It's part of Newfoundlands heritage and therefore,history to keep this story alive,or did they teach history in the school that you attended?,Forgetting the history of your ancesters and their heroic deeds is like telling the Jewish people to forget about the Holocaust and the murdering Nazis because it happened so long ago.I think you're part of the generation that live for and thrive on Reality TV?And I pity you for that.In fact,I'd be surprised if people of your generation could find the capital of your province on a map.Sadly,I think, that this is what education has come to.Turning out ill-informed dunces!

  • Donny Dooley
    February 18, 2012 - 11:10

    70 years later and we're still talkin' about this? Come on! There must be another way for St. Lawerence to bring a few tourist dollars into the community. Enough already!

  • j
    February 18, 2012 - 07:56

    what and interesting story.....I first heart about the Truxton a few years back and ever since have been intrigued by the stories.

    • F. Bursey
      February 18, 2012 - 09:48

      A very interesting story. I knew a fine gentleman from the Southern Shore, Mr. F. Curran, who talked about this event quite often.