Voyage Down To Labrador
By William A. Ogletree

 

 

Per my travel orders, I reported to the Navy Liaison Office at MIT. After a brief interview, I was given the choice of assignments as Technician-in-Charge to install and operate top-secret gear in Greenland, Labrador, or Newfoundland. I chose Labrador, having learned that the secret base, Advance Base Buck, would become a Loran double-slave station and therefore present the greatest technical challenge.

To the best of my knowledge, new orders were never written, but I was told to anticipate and provide for the needs of 12 men in isolation for a period of two years. I received a book of approved requisition forms from the Boston Navy Yard and a batch of purchase requisitions for buying supplies not available from the Navy. A list of all food, needed to sustain 12 men for a period of two years in the Arctic, detailed to the cups of water, came from Washington. Captain Tom Hamilton, Supply Officer at the Boston Navy Yard was very cooperative and suggested a list of gear he would take to the Arctic. It included special clothing, skis, toboggans, snowshoes, Fox double-barrel shotguns, hunting rifles, sport pistols, fly-fishing gear and other equipment a sportsman would find useful. He encouraged me to use some of the purchase requisitions to buy the items from Boston and New York stores.

Men began reporting for assignment as they were released from various training classes. Radiomen 1st class Carl Newton and Leslie Mears took responsibility for checking every item on our manifest to make sure it was received. RM2c Bob Wirt, Walter Stewart, and John Nesmith saw to the safe delivery of every item to the packaging area and then to a locked storage area. Machinist Mate 1st class Girhard Howen, a Norwegian with 8 years of Bering Sea experience, fretted about not having real engines to work on, but he tried to get the tools and spare parts he might need to keep the Wisconsin gasoline engines we had to accept for driving our AC generators. Carlos Larsen, a Dane and private chef to the Chairman of Chase National Bank, was recruited by the Coast Guard as Ship’s Cook 1st class and assigned to my group. He proved his worth the first day.

Larsen interrupted my conversation with CAPT Hamilton: “Two t’ousand pounds of vienna sausage! T’ree t’ousand pounds of beans! Twenty-five hunnert pounds of chili con carne! I’m not going. Twelve men having to eat t’is food will kill de cook!” He waved the papers before the CAPT and slapped them with his left hand for emphasis as he spoke.

Trying to get this “boot” out of the CAPT’s face, I said, “Cookie, what substitutes do you suggest?”

“Smoked hams, canned hams, bacon slabs, corned beef, powdered milk, ice-cream mix, and a hunnert other t’ings I can name. Whoever made up dis list, never had to feed the same twelve men every day.”

CAPT Hamilton asked, “Who prepared this food list?”

“Dieticians in Washington, sir.”

“I don’t think they know your mission. I would take this man’s advice. Everything in the Yard is available to you, and see to it that he has purchase requisitions for foods he needs from commercial sources. If there is anything he can’t find, let me know.”

Every man of us was required to undergo thorough psychological and physical examinations, because we would be living and working together in isolation under Arctic weather conditions, without any medical care. Two otherwise qualified assignees did not meet the stringent requirements and were not accepted. Three RM3c, Michael Carroll, Frank Turano, and George Swanson, passed the screening and joined my group. Two important men came in late and were not examined. Both developed serious problems.

Larsen prepared his own list and procured the foodstuff. Finding Klim Powdered Milk and Klim Ice Cream Mix seemed impossible. When he rejected all other brands, I asked him why he insisted on Klim. “It’s the best. Besides, I own ten t’ousand shares of Klim stock.” The company shipped abundant supplies to him at the Boston Navy Yard.

Our supplies were packaged in wooden boxes, typically 200 pounds per box. The boxes were stored at the Navy Yard until loaded onto the Army Transport SS Seminole, formerly a passenger ship and still manned by a civilian crew.

We boarded the Seminole November 23, 1942, but had to remain in port for two days, due to bad weather. On the third day we stood out, but soon became fogbound and returned to Boston. A 450-man Construction Battalion came on board. On the fourth day, we proceeded toward New York to join a convoy, but south of Cape Cod Canal we were ordered back to Boston.

Finally, on November 30, the Seminole reached Long Island Sound but, instead of going to sea, headed toward New York, through East River to Bayonne, New Jersey. At midnight, we were ordered off the ship and went by open truck to Ellis Island, arriving in the early morning hours on December 1st. As we were traveling under sealed orders, I had to refuse to answer a lot of prying questions asked by the Coast Guard Executive Officer. He used his authority to make life unpleasant for us and would not permit us Liberty to go ashore. I then used my MIT channel to contact Navy Hq. at Washington. The same day, orders came from the Vice-Chief of Naval Operations that stopped the interrogations gave us private quarters, and off-island shore Liberty every night.

On Saturday, December 12th, verbal orders came. “Proceed to Bayonne, NJ, and board naval vessel AF-9 for transport to your port of disembarkation.” As our open-truck conveyance came to a stop near the ship, I said, “My God! It’s the Yukon.”

The USS Yukon was the navy supply ship which lay disabled in the Irish Sea in January, 1942, until found by the USCGC ALEXANDER HAMILTON and towed over 600 miles in stormy seas, toward Iceland. The British tug Friskey relieved the Cutter of the tow at 1300 hours on January 29, 1942. The German submarine U-132 torpedoed the Cutter at 1313. John Nesmith and I were Radiomen aboard the Cutter and we saw the Yukon disappear over the horizon toward Reykjavik, Iceland, under her own power. He and I were among the men whose lifeboats were destroyed by the torpedo explosion, so we remained on the sinking Cutter over two hours, until we were rescued by the U.S. destroyer Gwin.

The prospects of going to sea on the Yukon did not please us. I made the fact that we were ALEXANDER HAMILTON survivors known to LCDR H. G. Williams, Executive Officer, then he assigned us plush duties, on the bridge and in the radio room.

The second day out, we encountered a gale and most of my men were seasick. Off Halifax, the Yukon joined a convoy of about 80 ships. At one point, about half of the ships separated from the convoy but the Yukon continued with it toward Iceland. We were going past Newfoundland when two Canadian Corvettes arrived and escorted the Yukon to St Johns harbor. We arrived in darkness Monday morning, December 21st.

Girhard Howen was sick and had a fever of 102°. We took him to the U.S. Army hospital, then found quarters for ourselves in the Army barracks at Fort Pepperell. The Yukon offloaded our cargo onto lighters and went to sea, escorted by a Canadian corvette.

That afternoon I went with Mr. Keel, our Commanding Officer, to find out when the Navy would take us to Battle Harbor, Labrador. We learned they had no icebreaker available and could not undertake the trip before Spring, meaning May at the earliest. We then visited the Army Air Transport Command, where we got help. The Col. could have our equipment, supplies, and personnel parachuted in the vicinity of Battle Harbor, but he could not land us on the ice and snow because the terrain was unknown. He then suggested that we advertise for a Newfoundland ship to deliver men and cargo to the Labrador coast. We had to keep secret our mission, so he prepared an ad from his office. It was run in the St John’s Evening Telegraph and broadcast on the Gerald Doyle News Hour.

The response was disappointing. He received only one reply. It was from a 25-year-old man named Guy Earle, of Carbonear. He claimed to have a schooner that could deliver 13 men and 128 tons of cargo “down on the Labrador.” The Col. invited Guy Earle to his office where we met him on Wednesday, December 23, and told him our destination. He said that he would take us there, “If it’s possible, a-tall.

That afternoon, Guy returned with his lawyer and the draft of a Charter. He would take us aboard the schooner Thomas S. Gorton as near to Battle Harbor as he deemed safe. He reserved the right to discharge cargo and passengers if he deemed it necessary to save his vessel. His fee would be $495 per day. If his vessel became icebound and remained so until Spring, the fee would be $495 until he returned to St Johns. The schooner was en route to St Johns and could be loaded and ready to sail in one day.

I asked, “Where is it written that you will take us to Battle Harbor ‘if it is possible, a tall?’”

The boyish-looking man replied, “Sire, if I don’t deliver ye to Battle Harbor, ye’ll know it ain’t possible.” He and his lawyer shared a big laugh over his “cute answer.”

We went outside the office for a private discussion. The Col. said, “It’s a long shot.” Mr. Keel said we had no other choice. I agreed and said that more delay would not give us milder winter weather. We went back into the office and Mr. Keel signed the Charter.

After a big mid-day Christmas dinner at the Fort, we went to the dock to board the 106-foot schooner Thomas S Gorton. Our large hotel-style, cast-iron cook stove and 55-gallon barrels of gasoline covered the deck, with no tie-downs visible.

I looked for the Plimsoll mark on the side of the black vessel and could see none. I thought it was underwater, as the vessel looked to be grossly overloaded. I also shared the sailor’s usual superstition against Friday sailing dates, and Mr. Keel had my unspoken concurrence when he stepped from the vessel to the dock and announced, “We’ll not sail today, or ever, till more food is brought aboard.” On Christmas Day, ship’s chandlers were not open.

Only a few stores opened on Saturday, December 26th. Guy had brought aboard two crates of oranges and bags of flour and beans before we arrived. Mr. Keel remained unhappy. He stepped onto the dock and refused to leave until more food was brought aboard. Guy Earle spoke to his men, “Cast off the lines and prepare to get underway. We’re sailing on time, in keeping with m’ Charter.”

Then he spoke to Mr. Keel: “Sire, I represent the owner of this vessel, ‘n what I say, goes. We’re not bound for the end of the world. If we need it, we’ll get food in outports along the coast. If ye be coming with us, step aboard, Sire.”

Mr. Keel came aboard and we sailed from St Johns. The Master of the schooner was aboard. He was an older man, Solomon Abbot, called “Skipper Sol.” I did not understand why the Master yielded control to the young Guy Earle, even if he was the owner’s son.

I knew nothing about the Thomas S Gorton, but learned that it was nearly 40-years-old and had raced other schooners from the Grand Banks fishing grounds. In 1934, she finished third. The famous schooner Blue Nose, which I did know about, finished third.

Once clear of the harbor, we encountered a moderate sea and I spoke my concern to Guy about the gasoline drums, shifting about on deck. “Don’t worry Sire. My men will take care of it.”

Two crewmen hauled buckets of water from the sea and threw the water over the drums. They repeated the operation until the bottoms were locked to the deck by ice. I said to Guy, “We’d have those drums lashed down and deckhands out there chipping away any ice that forms topside. Aren’t you afraid of making the vessel top heavy?”

“Sire, we ain’t rich like the U.S. Navy. We use what we have. A few buckets o’water won’t make much difference to the trim of this vessel. Don’t worry. Afore we arrive Battle Harbor, ye’ll know that ‘Newfies’ are good seamen.”

We began encountering snow squalls and fresh winds, but Guy left the mainsail hoisted and rode out the tempests. By nightfall we had rounded Cape St. Francis and the snow squalls increased. Guy ordered the sails struck and we ran under power of the sputtering diesel on a new course, WSW. Mr. Keel came aft to the wheelhouse and asked, “Where are we heading?”

Guy explained, “Sire, I think we’re in for what ye’d call a Nor’easter with a big lot of snow. We’re going to take shelter in a safe port till the storm blows over.”

It was about 0200 when Guy called my attention to a flickering light off our starboard bow. “M’father is after lighting a beacon fire for us on the head of land. We’ll go into Carbonear Harbor and tie up at the pier till this storm ends. It’ll turn into a real blizzard, most likely, and nobody a’tall knows the hours or days it takes a storm to blow over.”

We docked in Carbonear at 0315 on December 27th. Guy introduced us to his father, Mr. Arthur Earle, who invited us to go up the hill to his house for a mug-up. I volunteered to stay aboard.

The next morning, Guy’s father and mother kept an open breakfast table for us. Most of my men went to either the Catholic or Anglican Church of choice that Sunday. Outside the Anglican Church some men approached us. One of them asked, “Ye be the men what’s bound for Loran Point?”

We were astonished! We never heard the acronym Loran until we were leaving the MIT Radiation Lab. An instructor had each man come up and he whispered the word “Loran” into his ear, a Top Secret word itself, should not be spoken except to men with proper clearances. He wrote on the blackboard then erased, “long range aid to navigation,” and mentally we made the connection. Now, here was a Newfie, talking about Loran Point. I asked him, “What can you tell us about Loran Point?”

He took a stick and drew a map on the surface of the snow, showing us where two buildings had been constructed and where three antenna poles stood. He said the proper name was False Harbor Point, but that during the previous summer, the McNamara Construction Co. had renamed it Loran Point.

We met many friendly residents about town, but Frank Turano said he was chased by three goats and did not ask if they were friendly. Later that day, he earned the name “Forty Fathoms” when he and Walter Stewart went rowing in a dory, broke an oar while trying to row to safety in a high wind and were blown onto the breakwater. Local men went to their rescue and brought them safely ashore. The gusty northeast wind kept getting stronger.

Sleeping accommodations on the schooner were limited, so Mr. Keel moved us ashore on December 28. Six of us went to the Goff Hostel and seven went to the West Side Hotel.

Although frequent snow squalls and high winds continued, Mr. Keel fretted about our delay. Guy Earle said that no one was in charge of the weather and that we were lucky to be in a safe harbor at a time like this. Mr. Earle’s house and Guy’s house stayed open to us. Beside his parents, we met Guy’s sisters and his wife Mildred, who looked like a teenager, but was the mother of a baby and two other children. All over Carbonear, people opened their homes to us and, on December 30, a dance was held at St. Patricks in our honor. On December 31, we all had dinner at the Earles’ house.

When the sun came out and the winds abated that afternoon, Mr. Keel demanded that we get underway at once. Guy said that he would wait “. . . to see what the morrow brings. It may be just a respite in the storm, sire.”

Early on New Year’s Day, 1943, we rounded Grates Point to the north, then sailed WNW through Trinity Bay, and tied up at Port Union Dock for the night. We’d made good progress. When underway with a fair wind, we ran under sail. There being no aids to navigation, other than stone cairns on the highest hills along the coast, Guy tried to schedule safe coves for anchorage at night, knowing we might have to wait a day or two for fair weather before again venturing to sea.

We passed Cape Bonavista and were crossing Bonavista Bay under sail, with the lee rail often awash, when a squall struck. The crew tried to lower the foresail, but it only slacked and the sheet jammed in the sheave at the mast.

The wind billowed the sail and caused the boom to whip about over the deck, forcing the crew to stand clear. Guy told me to take the helm hard-to-port till we headed into the wind, then he dashed from the wheelhouse and climbed the starboard stays running to the foremast. When the wind whipped the sail toward him, he swung out from the rigging and threw his legs over the top of the sail. With his back to the deck, he let go of the stay and with the sail locked in the bend of his knees, he fell, bringing down the sail. Nobody could move fast enough to keep him from crashing headfirst onto the deck, but he suddenly somersaulted free and cat-like, landed upright on his feet. We all joined in applauding his acrobatic performance.

We ran a NW course under diesel power to Pool's Island, where we dropped anchor. On January 3rd, we ran under sail with fair winds and continued sailing through the night. On January 4th, the winds blew hard, so we anchored between Fogo and Farewell Islands for the night. There, we saw our first brilliant display of Northern Lights.

On January 5th, Guy decided against stopping in Hooping Harbor and was sailing NNE about one mile offshore when a heavy snowstorm struck. We hauled down the sails and ran under diesel power. We could not see the lookout on the bow when Guy called out to him, “Red, come back to the wheelhouse and get warm. You can’t see a thing, a-tall.”

“Skipper Sol, you take the helm. Steady as she goes. I’m going forward.” Then Guy disappeared in the blowing snow. After a while, he called out, “Sol, take her three points to port!” Then he returned to the wheelhouse.

Skipper Sol asked, “Where be ye going?”

“Heading straight down Conch Bight,” Guy said, pointing at the chart, then he added, “Red, go to the bow. Use the leadline and call out the depth nears eight fat’oms. Listen too for the sea breaking onto the land and sing out b’y, if we’re getting too close.

After a while, Red sang out, “Nine fat’oms and shoaling up.”

Guy ordered the anchor lowered on forty fathoms of line. It took hold and the schooner came about. Skipper Sol went forward then came aft and said that we were dragging anchor. Guy told him to drop the spare anchor and said that we’d keep the engine running.

After the snowstorm passed, the wind continued strong, blowing straight down the Bight. I asked Guy what kind of a town was Conch.

“Just an outport, Sire. A village you’d call it—has a post office and a general store. This time of year the men work seal nets. You can buy good sealskin boots here, if you’re in the market for them.”

“Is there a doctor here?”

“Not even a nurse station, sire. The general store may carry a few medicines.”

I was interested in buying medicine. After we left Carbonear, Mr. Keel told me about his plan to “’climatize’ these Yahoos.”

I said that the men were being acclimated, gradually. We had so few bunks, some men slept two to a bunk and rotated night-day sleeps. When not asleep, they had to come topside, for there was no toilet on board. The crewmen would squat on the fantail and relieve themselves directly into the sea. For us, they provided a bucket. A line tied to its bail permitted us to toss it overboard and get water in it. Upon finishing, the user would dump water and all overboard, then drag the bucket in the sea to make it clean for the next man. I told Mr. Keel, “Besides the necessities, the men always stay topside until the cold drives them below.”

He explained, “That’s what bothers me. They ain’t getting climatized to the cold. They go below as soon as they feel the chill. They’ve got to get acclimatized.”

He showed me a duty list assigning two-hour starboard and bow submarine lookout watches, around the clock. My name was not on his list, but I objected. “Why the lookouts? We don’t have guns, or even a transmitter to report a sub-sighting. Besides the men will get overly cold, standing on deck for two hours in the clothes they wear. We’ve stowed most of our foul-weather gear in the hold with the cargo.

Mr. Keel’s mind was made up, and I blamed the submarine watch for colds that several men had by the time we reached Conch Bight.

Five of us, Guy, King, Skipper Sol, Frank Turano, and I went ashore in the dory. Frank and I wore caps with aviator-type goggles. As we went ahead, we met a man whose eyebrows and eyelashes sparkled with ice crystals. He was carrying sticks of wood, but when he saw us, he dropped them and called out, “Oh by the Lordy Jesus Christ! Where’d ye come from a-tall? An airyplane?”

We found the general store. Four men sat around a warm cast-iron stove. I asked the shopkeeper if he had any medicine for colds. He said, “Yes, sire, but it’s only for livyers.

I said, “Even if it just treats the liver, I would like to buy some.”

Guy began laughing, “No, Sire. He’s not saying it’s liver medicine. He says ‘live-heres’—it’s for folks what live here.”

The answer was the same on everything in the store—he has keeping it for the livyers and would not sell even an aspirin to me.

We next went over to the post office where the lady postmistress was busy sending a message by landline Morse code on a small battery-powered wireless set. When she finished and turned off the set, I reached over and tapped out a message on the dead key, “IS THERE ANY FOOD OR MEDICINE IN CONCH THAT I CAN BUY? I PAY IN MONEY OR YANKEE CIGARETTES.”

She tapped back, “I CAN GIVE YOU A TIN OF ASPIRIN. A MAN GOT 14 SEALS TODAY. DO YOU WANT TO BUY SEAL MEAT?”

At that point Guy said, “What are you ticky-ticking with the lass? You can’t shack up here, b’y. Mr. Keel will make me sail tonight if you ain’t in the dory when we return.”

The postmistress sent a boy to fetch the man who had the seals. He returned with him and I traded 9 packs of cigarettes for 6 seal carcasses. We took one with us and he agreed to bring the other five to the schooner.

For $2 the postmistress would send a telegram to Boston. I addressed it to my fiancè, Connie Dewees: “REMEMBERING YOU ALWAYS STOP ENJOYING COLD WEATHER IN GOOD HEALTH.” I gave the postmistress a pack of cigarettes for the box of aspirins, although she asked for no pay.

When we returned to the dory, the tide had gone out and the surf was breaking some distance from the snow-covered shore where we had left the dory. Guy said, “She’s after breaking over the bellicotter.”

“What’s a bellicotter, and how do you spell it? I asked.

“I don’t think its got a spelling, Sire. Just an old Newfie word used for the ice wall that builds up on shore at water’s edge, where the sea pounds over it. With the high wind, the sea is up and now breaks over the ice wall out there at low tide. The trick is to be there in the dory when the smallest wave is coming in, else we’ll be spilled out. Wait till I say the word, then give the oars all ye’ve got.”

We did as Guy said, shoved off when the biggest wave broke over the bellicotter and rode over the ice wall on a small wave that followed. That day, I gained a new respect for the dory, and was surprised at how well thole pins worked, having never used anything to support oars but oarlocks.

On the schooner, the cook cut up the seal carcass with a handsaw and cooked the slices in a large frying pan on the coal stove in the fo’c’stle. The meat was black and tasted like fishy liver, but we ate it. Just as Guy said, “It’s easy to love the taste, if ye’re hungry.”

All that night the wind and sea beat down on the schooner, which dragged anchors so that we were less than a quarter-mile from shore at the bottom of the Bight. Guy said that we would wait for the wind to slack off before leaving, but we got underway, and re-anchored nearly a mile offshore. Mr. Keel wanted to keep going but Guy explained that we were seeing more slob ice and if strong winds drove the schooner close to shore, the slob ice could “shelve-up. When that happens, it can sink any ship a-tall, even a battleship.”

Six men went ashore in the dory the next morning, even though the sea was rough in the bight. When they returned, we had difficulty bringing them on board. Walter Stewart stood up to grasp the railing of the schooner just as the dory plunged down in a trough of the sea, leaving him dangling. We rushed to grab him, but Guy stood up in the dory, grasped his legs and tossed him onto the schooner.

While we waited for the on-shore wind to slacken, I got into a discussion with Guy and asked him how he had navigated into Conch Bight so accurately in the blinding snowstorm. “It’s a secret, Sire, but I’ll tell you how to do it. There be breaks in a snowstorm. I knew about where we were by dead reckoning, but not exactly. In the bow, with m’ back to the wind, I keep looking up for the headland. Every now and again I catch glimpses of the peaks and crags ashore. Finally, a moment of break came in the snow and I see a rock cairn of a shape that’s only found on the peak at the south entrance to Conch Bight. That’s when I told Skipper Sol to change course.

Mr. Keel had brought along a Ship’s Log Book, which he kept locked in his briefcase when he was not writing in it. “What the Hell do he find to write about? Every day he asks me, ‘What’s our noon position and how many miles did we make good in the past 24 hours?’ but it don’t take him all day and night to write that, Sire.”

I didn’t tell Guy that Mr. Keel wrote down everything, including criticisms of my own men, the crew and especially Guy Earle, who had hurt Mr. Keel’s feelings when he threatened to leave him standing on the dock in St Johns the day after Christmas. I felt that we had been well-served by Guy and his crew and that Mr. Keel had been too critical of them, but I was not going to tell that to Guy. After all, Mr. Keel was my C.O. and if he wanted to, he could write trivial things in his log. Once when Nesmith was sick, I got him interested in drinking some canned tomato juice. I saw Mr. Keel write in his log: “Nesmith felt like tomato juice. Gave same.”

“Guy, don’t worry about Mr. Keel’s log book. He’s probably the only one who’ll ever read it. Now tell me something—you Newfoundlanders appear to be strong-minded people, proud to have the King of England over you, and the fact you live in England’s oldest colony, what do you think of the King?”

“Well Sire, you don’t understand the old saying, “The King is dead, long live the King. The King’s the King, you know. He can do no wrong. Fact is, he can do nothing now but be respected. Has his own Church and he can do nothing that earns disrespect. Take the case of recent King Edward—a great King—trained for it all his life, he did. He abdicated so that the King would not be criticized, but since he’s no longer King, he’s criticized a-plenty. Even as Prince of Wales, he was Admiral of the British Fleet. Now he’s Third Mate on an American Tramp.” With a wry smile he added, “That’s a Newfie joke.”

On January 7th, we departed Conch Bight, hoping to reach St Anthony that day, our last port in Newfoundland. As he often did, Skipper Sol stood on the foredeck, wearing a heavy black overcoat that was kept closed with wooden pegs for buttons. He would swing his arms and beat his hands against his body, front and back, to keep warm. As I had done many times, I asked him if he thought we’d “make Battle Harbor.”

His reply was always the same, “No mison. Neara bitta Battle Harbor yillsee tisyear. Slobice smaking intebites.” I finally got the meaning: “No my son. Never a bit of Battle Harbor you’ll see this year. Slob ice is making in the bights.”

This seasoned skipper spoke openly about the impossibility of our mission. All the while, he worked hard and faced our failure and unknown fate courageously. Guy sailed on without showing any doubt about succeeding.

Guy was only four years older than I was. At first I assumed that he was acting skipper only because his father owned the schooner. In fact, he told me that Skipper Sol was aboard because he had master’s papers. It was much later when I learned that Guy also had papers, having become the youngest Newfoundland master at 17.

One day I borrowed Guy’s small calibre pistol, which he kept in the wheelhouse. We were passing a sea pigeon some 50 feet abeam. As I took aim, Guy called out, “That bird’s plenty safe,” just in time to see it killed by my shot.

“So ye’re a marksman with the pistol, Sire, but how’re ye going to get the bird? Rule of the North is that we eats what we shoots.”

“Sorry, I did not know the rule. Besides, it was a lucky shot. My dad gave me a double-barrel shotgun when I was 12, just as his father had done for him. I sold it and bought a .22 rifle and later got an old .22 and made a pistol of it with a 10-inch barrel. Old man Cub Brooks, a negro who worked on our farm, taught me to hunt. I became a good shot by using my single-shot guns just like I’d throw a rock. I shot crows flying and rabbits running, never thinking about how to shoot targets on the range by squeezing off the trigger. Now I can hit targets, but I’m no longer a good hunter.“

“Let’s see you do some target shooting. Here, Red, take this stick to the bow and hold it out for Wo to shoot.” The de-barked stick was about one-inch in diameter and six inches long. I thought Guy was joking, but when Red stood in the bow with his left arm outstretched, holding the stick, Guy stood about 60 feet aft and fired a shot that caused the stick to fall to the deck, pierced by the pistol bullet about two inches from the end. I did not compete.

As we neared St Anthony, the slob ice covered the inlet and solid ice covered most of the harbor. We made headway slowly through the slob and finally tied up against the landlocked ice. Our first task was to take five of my men to the Grenfell Mission Hospital. Walter Steward had an allergy to bedbug bites and his face had swollen so that his eyes were closed and he could not see. Larsen was sick. Howen had not recovered from pneumonia. We took them and two other men with sore throats to hospital for treatment.

On January 8th, we walked about St Anthony, did a little shopping and met some residents who invited us to dinner in their homes. Mr. Keel said that one man had to remain onboard, armed at all times to safeguard our cargo. I volunteered for the night duty, because the other able-bodied men wanted to be ashore in the evening hours. Two of them claimed to have had quality shack time in warm beds.

On January 9th, Guy Earle woke me at 0400. “Sire, it’s blowing a gale from the east today. If ever we’re to cross the Strait of Belle Isles to the Labrador, today’s the day.”

I woke my men aboard and we made our way to hospital where we wakened our shipmates and helped them get dressed. Two men were too weak to walk, so we borrowed stretchers and carried them to the schooner. The nurses sent word to Dr Curtis, the hospital’s chief physician. He soon arrived on board the schooner and told us, “If you take these men now, you are taking them to their deaths!”

Mr. Keel explained that we had no choice. Our orders were to arrive at Battle Harbor as soon as possible. Dr Curtis then suggested that two men return to hospital with him and get medicines and directions for their use, so that we could continue treatment of the sick men.

Before the men returned, villagers came out on the ice to wish us Godspeed. Their faces betrayed a great fear for us. Silence settled over the vessel as we watched them in the dawn’s dim light. First a few, then almost all of them walked over the ice, up the hill and into the church.

After clearing the harbor ice, Guy had the foresail hoisted, the jib set, and the diesel running at cruising speed as we made headway among scattered ice floes.

As we rounded Cape Bauld, the crew began hourly turns as barrelman atop the mast, on the lookout for leads in the ice field, which extended as far as the eye could see. All day, the schooner moved haltingly in a north north-westerly direction, past Belle Isles and through the strait, steering for leads of open water espied by the barrelman on the mast.

Often a large floe would block our way, but the wind, mountainous waves, and force of the schooner pressing onward would cause the flow to break or turn slowly and let the vessel slide by, into the tumult of smaller floes.

At nightfall the schooner’s progress was blocked by landlocked ice that covered Caribou Bay, but we had achieved what no other vessel had ever done in mid-winter—we had sailed from Newfoundland “down north to the Labrador.”

Guy Earle, Frank Turano, and I walked over the ice to a small cabin we had seen on the island in the bay. Inside, I struck a match and saw five ookalik (arctic hares) hanging from the rafters. “Dout the light!” Guy commanded.

We carried the ookalik back to the schooner, where the cook cleaned them and put them to boil in a large pot on the coal stove in the fo’c’stle. We all looked forward to a change in diet from sealmeat and beans. Just as the first shift was sitting down to eat, a young Labrador settler came aboard, whose name was Doug Bradley. He said he had gone gunning for ducks on the island. The first day, ice formed in the Tickle, too thick to row through and too thin to walk over to his home on Little Caribou Island. High seas later broke up the ice, so that he could neither walk on the slob, nor row his boat through it. He had been snaring hares for food. “Now, somebody’s after taking m’only food.”

Guy gave the young man a $5 bill and invited him to eat dinner and spend the night on the schooner.

At about 0330, I woke up to the sound of pounding feet and went topside. Guy told me to lend a hand. The wind had shifted, breaking off a large segment of bay ice to which we were moored, and we were being carried seaward by it. “Go help m’ men cut the grappling hooks free, or we’ve been to Labrador and left already!”

We cut ice around the two large grappling hooks, got them free and back on board. Guy said that the wind would clear the slob out of the bay and coves and, if we could hold our position, we’d soon have open water to the shoreline. At first light, we saw that we had been blown into Caribou Run, where we were caught in a river of ice, carrying us seaward. Guy had a man mount the barrel atop the mast. He reported that the flow of “slob” ice[1] appeared to be thinning in the distance and open water extended out from Cape St Charles to the south.

Guy told Skipper Sol, “Head south, toward Cape Charles, then go north along the solid ice. When the slob ice thins out, we’ll head north to Battle Harbour.

We made slow headway when we edged northward in the opening the wind created between the shore and the slob ice. The ice field was packed solid around Battle Island and we were forced to stay to seaward in navigable water. That course led us toward Indian Cove.

Gus Bradley, the leading settler there and father of Doug, rowed his dory out and came aboard. Guy was preparing to start unloading cargo onto the solid ice but Gus advised against it. “Wait till the morrow, Sire. Most likely the wind will be blowing a gale from the west and if so, I’ll pilot ye around Great Caribou Island to False Harbor Cove. It’s just down the cliff from the station and the best place for discharging the cargo.”

Other dories soon came out and Mr. Keel decided that he would take most of our men ashore, where they could go overland 3 miles by kamatik (dog sled) to the empty barracks that had been built for us the prior summer by McNamara Construction Co. That’s how the first Coast Guardsmen arrived at Advance Base Buck on January 10, 1943.

True to Gus’ prediction, a strong wind blew from the west and he was able to pilot the schooner to False Harbor Cove, where we moored to landlocked ice that covered half of the cove. We rigged a cargo net to the boom and lowered the net into the hold, where I and two other Coast Guardsmen tried to select boxes in the order needed ashore, load them into the net, have them hoisted, swung outboard and lowered to the ice. The boxes were later loaded onto kamatiks and hauled down the cove, around the rocky crags and uphill to the barracks.

There were too many stops—waiting for the kamatiks, the boom cargo unloading, etc. Guy had his men lean one of the hatch covers over the side, so that it made a ramp from the schooner to the ice. The boxes were then slid down it and stacked on the ice, to be hauled away by kamatiks.

My two men and I stacked boxes to make a stairway from the bilge to the deck, and two men carried up each 200-pound box. Being the third man, I began bringing up a box by myself. Soon we were waiting for men on deck to move the boxes and clear the way, so my men went topside to do that. I was still going strong hours later, sweating through my shirt and trousers. I began seeing settlers’ faces on deck, looking at the American man who was discharging all the cargo from the hold.[2]

Keel signed papers that certified the safe delivery of men and cargo to Battle Harbor. He gave them to Guy, along with official letters to be mailed, addressed to CG Headquarters and the First Naval District CG Office.

On the envelopes he had stamped a return address below, which compromised all items of secrecy [underlined portions] about the station’s location and mission. The FPO Box 228 was cancelled and a mail clerk somewhere could justifiably conclude that the unit was destroyed by enemy action. Consequently all mail, personal and official, was appropriately marked and returned to senders. Even Boston Radio insisted on trying to communicate with NJN by calling on 2670 kcs, as though we were just up the Charles River.

At long last, with official mail being bounced and families complaining to the Red Cross, CG Hqtrs., et al, somebody finally put the letters in mail bags, held them until some authority assigned a new FPO Box number to CG Unit 35, notified senders, and dropped the bags of accumulated mail on Battle Harbor 11 months after we arrived.

Commanding Officer, Advance Base Buck

Coast Guard Unit 35, Radio Station NJN

LORAN Site #3, Battle Harbour, Labrador

c/o Fleet Post Office Box 228, NY NY USA

The Thomas S Gorton left the Labrador coast in twilight and re-crossed the Strait of Belle Isles with a fair wind of near gale force. It was the latest date for a ship’s crossing in history, a record which may still stand.[3] At about midnight, the schooner sailed into St Anthony Harbor where the villagers rang the church bell and celebrated the crew’s safe return with a party till daylight.

Thanks never expressed were due to Guy Earle, who dared try to do what more experienced skippers knew was not possible. He matched bravery with masterful control of the schooner Thomas S Gorton to land 13 men and 128 tons of cargo safely down on the Labrador, January 11, 1943, when it was hardly possible a-tall.

Our new Commanding Officer, Harry H Harrison, arrived on the first Newfoundland freighter to Battle Harbor in the spring of 1943 and Mr. Keel returned to the States, where the USCG rewarded him with a 3-step promotion, from Warrant Officer to Lieutenant. Guy Earle’s feat accrued to his credit, as did the work of my technicians in providing precision electronic position-finding to Allied ships and planes navigating the Great Circle Routes in the North Atlantic between America and England during World War II. We had overcome great obstacles to make the Battle Harbor Loran double-slave station operational on March 1, 1943.


[1] ‘Newfie’ slang for ice floes, but denotes sea coverage in pans of various sizes. Guy mentioned the way it ‘shelves’, meaning, when a pan hits a stationary object, it stops, and sea actions cause other pans to slide on top until a mass is built up, under, and above water.

[2] The feat that day of discharging the schooner’s cargo became a legend which served me well. In a land where physical strength was important, no Labradorman ever contested mine.

[3] The wood schooner’s two-way crossing is even more remarkable considering the fate of the CGC NATSEK, due to come through the Strait about the same time of our crossing. It disappeared with all hands lost, even though the Cutter’s steel hull had been reinforced for service in Greenland waters.

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