Letter from 1942 provides dramatic account of Pollux rescue

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on February 18, 2012
"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_