Joe Pearcey of St. John’s was 18 when he boarded the SS Fort Amherst to ship troops from Halifax to New York and Bermuda during the Second World War.
Now 87, Pearcey was one of a handful of veterans from the Merchant Navy in Newfoundland and Labrador who attended a ceremony held Wednesday at the Merchant Navy Memorial on the grounds of the Marine Institute in St. John’s.
“Not only here, but down at Branch 56 (of the Royal Canadian Legion) … they’re all passing away,” said Pearcey.
But there remain some like Pearcey who are able to keep the memory alive of what pressures were faced by seamen involved in the war effort many decades ago.
Capt. Jack Strong noted there were many Merchant Navy veterans unable to attend Wednesday’s ceremony to mark the 16th anniversary of the memorial’s unveiling due to age, distance and illness.
“As you can see, we’re getting smaller in numbers, but we’re still pleased to arrange these ceremonies,” said the fellow Merchant Navy veteran.
The Merchant Navy Memorial bears the names of 332 seamen and one woman from Newfoundland and Labrador who died during the Second World War. They were among 60,000 Allied merchant mariners who died in service.
An article on the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website notes the exact number of casualties from this province is difficult to determine, given that the Merchant Navy did not maintain consistent records for recruits and casualties.
“When I was so young, I didn’t realize any of the danger, although we did have danger off the Narrows of St. John’s,” said Pearcey, who worked for Dicks and Co. before and after the war and was later employed at the Grace Hospital.
Pearcey’s ship travelled as part of a convoy involving approximately 400 ships.
“When I landed in the states, they had neon lights and traffic lights, taxis going by and all that,” recalls Pearcey, who said there was nothing of that sort in Newfoundland. “I thought I was on another planet.”
He can recall one instance within his convoy where other vessels were fired upon. He said the danger for vessels travelling with supplies to Europe was much greater.
For many years, the war effort contributions of the Merchant Navy were overlooked. It wasn’t until 1992 that Merchant Navy members became formally recognized as veterans, and Sept. 3 is now recognized as Merchant Navy Veterans Day in Canada.
“For those going over to England and Europe, it must be a really tough thing, because they weren’t recognized,” said Pearcey. “The reason for it — the Royal Navy, the air force, they were all recruited, fighting armies. They went through the training. The Merchant Navy (members) were paid a salary. They were never recognized as veterans.”