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SS Caribou ran from North Sydney, N.S., to Newfoundland; more than 200 died when it went down
A Newfoundland shipwreck society may soon go looking for the wreckage of one of Newfoundland’s most devastating civilian casualties during the Second World War.
Neil Burgess, president of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland and Labrador (SPSNL), said if the society can secure funding, it may be able to go looking for the remains of the SS Caribou in just a few years.
“It would be wonderful to locate the SS Caribou in the Cabot Strait. It would be an amazing project. It was one of the most tragic U-boat attacks of World War II in Canadian waters,” he said.
The SS Caribou was a passenger ferry that ran from North Sydney, N.S., to Newfoundland. On Oct. 14, 1942, it was hit by a Nazi torpedo off the coast of Port aux Basques. Of the 237 passengers on board, 137 died, many of them civilian women and children.
SPSNL is a non-profit corporation that aims “to advance the awareness, documentation, and stewardship of shipwrecks throughout (Newfoundland),” according to its website.
SPSNL is currently working on a project creating a website on the history of four ore carriers that were sunk by German U-Boats near Bell Island during the Second World War.
Burgess said after this project is completed in the next two months, SPSNL will possibly start looking for funding to go looking for the SS Caribou, although he said it would be a “big undertaking” due to the time and money it takes looking for shipwrecks.
Burgess said SPSNL has received funding in the past from local communities to do research on shipwrecks that aren’t far from shore. SPSNL works with these communities to create storyboards explaining the shipwreck’s history, which are then installed on shorelines.
But since the SS Caribou was sunk 37 kilometres off of Port aux Basques and its exact location is unknown, Burgess said searching for the wreck would be more complex compared to other wrecks.
“We haven’t gone exploring for ships whose locations are unknown yet. That would be taking our efforts to the next level of complication and funding to do that," he explained.
"If we went searching for it, it would take days, if not weeks, to find it. We’d have to go with a survey boat with sonar and search the sea bottom to try and locate the wreck. It takes a lot of searching to find a wreck in deep water.”
Although Burgess doesn’t know how deep the wreckage is, he believes that it’s deep enough that diving would be too dangerous. Instead, SPSNL would have to use a remotely-operated underwater vehicle to investigate the wreckage.
Once located, the next step would be to confirm the wreckage is actually the SS Caribou by examining its structure and the names on its bow and stern and comparing it to photos taken of the ship before it sunk.
What could remain?
Like most torpedoed vessels SPSNL has examined, Burgess said he would expect to see a “fairly intact shipwreck with a big hole in the side from where the torpedo struck.”
Burgess also thinks the wreck would be very well preserved due to sinking in deep, freezing waters.
Burgess said while most human remains, including bones, would have decomposed soon after the sinking, personal items such as shoes and toothbrushes, as well as the ship’s remains and equipment, would probably still be intact.
As SPSNL abides by a code of conduct, the society does not remove any artifacts from shipwrecks without government approval. Artifacts retrieved from shipwrecks are then considered property of the Crown and go to museums to be properly conserved.
After discovering and investigating the wreck, Burgess said the appropriate authorities would then be alerted, such as Transport Canada and Parks Canada. Parks Canada has the only professional team of underwater archeologists in the country, which is responsible for regulating and protecting shipwrecks across Canada.
Survivors share thoughts
While Burgess hopes to one day explore the remains of the SS Caribou, survivors and family members of those who died in the sinking have mixed feelings about locating the almost 80-year-old wreck.
Percy Moores, a sailor with the British navy at the time, was on leave and headed home to Moores Cove, N.L., when the 19-year-old was thrown out of bed early in the morning by the impact of the torpedo.
Moore survived the sinking by making it onto an inflatable liferaft.
While Moore acknowledges the sinking was “a dramatic thing at the time,” it “didn’t have too much effect” on his life.
Now 96, Moore can hardly remember the sinking, but said looking for the wreckage is “alright” with him.
“The stuff I kept isn’t no good anymore,” he said.
But for Bill Bryne, who was only seven months old at the time of the sinking, the SS Caribou brings forth more painful memories.
Bryne’s father, William, 34, was a civilian passenger on the ship who never made it back home to Fortune Bay, N.L.
William was a fisherman working on schooner in Lunenburg, N.S., and the sole breadwinner for his wife and five children.
William's death propelled the family into poverty, and Bryne’s mother, Sarah, had to take on several odd jobs to support her children. Making matters worse, Sarah’s compensation package from the War Claims department was taken away when the Newfoundland government discovered she had been drawing welfare.
“(The sinking) affected my life big time. It wasn’t easy,” Bryne, now 77, solemnly recalls.
“I don’t feel we were treated fairly, especially my mother. She was on her own and tryna’ make a cent here and there. It was hard on the whole family.”
And, he says, the S.S. Caribou should remain in its watery resting place.
“I think they should leave it. Leave well enough alone,” Bryne said of the potential exploration.
“I don’t know why they’d wanna go all the way down there after all this time. If that boat was torpedoed, I’d say it was blown apart.”
While not everyone may agree with SPSNL’s work, Burgess said it’s important that wrecks like the SS Caribou are discovered and explored as it brings awareness to Newfoundland’s nautical and wartime history before it fades from memory.
“When we’re able to relocate a shipwreck and take images of it, it gives us an opportunity in the media to make people, younger generations, aware of the event and how important it was for Canadians back in the Second World War when it occurred," he said.
Notable People on the S.S. Caribou:
- Leonard Shiers - 15-month-old Shiers was the only one of 11 children to survive the sinking.
- The ship’s master, Benjamin Tavernor, died in the attack, as did his two sons, Harold and Stanley. Tavernor’s sons were both officers on the ship. Marine Atlantic’s former ferry MV Taverner was named in the Tavernor’s honor, although the spelling is slightly off.
- Margaret Brooke - A nurse and Royal Canadian Navy officer, Brooke attempted to save her nursing colleague, Sub-Lieutenant Agnes Wilkie, from drowning, although Wilkie later perished. Brooke was later named a Member of the Order of the British Empire during the Second World War for a heroic act, the only nursing sister to ever earn such a distinction.
- Hedley Lake - one of the few survivors alive today, 24-year-old Lake was in the Royal Navy and on his way home from Alexandria, Egypt, when he survived the sinking. The 101-year-old veteran resides in Fortune, N.L.