The Last Voyage of the S.S. Caribou (October 13/14, 1942)
by Henry K. Gibbons, October, 2006
The sinking of the passenger ferry S. S. Caribou which plied the waters between Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, and North Sydney, Nova Scotia, by the German submarine U-69, The Laughing Cow, must have been the single most devastating sea disaster to visit the southwest coast of the island of Newfoundland since its discovery by Europeans.
Many vessels have been wrecked or sunk, and many more people have been lost in the Port-aux-Basques area over the centuries as a result of storms or miscalculation, but in the case of the S.S. Caribou the sinking was deliberate and many of the dead were from its home port of Port aux Basques, and area. Some local residents were of the opinion that if the ferry had been sailing during the daylight hours more passengers and crew members could have been saved. They have also pointed out that if the correct location of the sinking had been given, more people could have survived the cold waters of the Cabot Strait in the October weather.
The Royal Canadian Navy gave the position of the sinking as 223 degrees 19.2 miles from Channel Head, Port aux Basques. William Hardy of Rose Blanche then living in Port aux Basques, told me in 1998 that the news of the sinking of the S. S. Caribou did not reach Rose Blanche until 6:00 P.M. on the night of the sinking when a local vessel arrived from Port aux Basques, there being no telephone service in Rose Blanche at that time. In answering my question on wind conditions at the time of the sinking he said the wind was westerly at 30 knots. Joseph Sheaves of Port aux Basques also said the wind was westerly and very strong. The Royal Canadian Navy reported that the wind was southwest Force 4, the sea moderate, and visibility 5 miles.
On that October morning, Arthur Lewis George, the Station Agent for the Newfoundland Railway in Port aux Basques, received a telegraph message from Head Office in St. John’s, Newfoundland, informing him that the S.S. Caribou had been torpedoed at 3:10 A.M. Newfoundland Time, twenty miles southwest of Channel Head. He was assigned the task of organizing the search for survivors. Shortly after, Able Seaman Wilson of the Royal Canadian Navy, who along with Sergeant Woodley of the Canadian Army, had arrived on the wharf at Port aux Basques to supervise Army and Navy personnel in transferring from the S. S. Caribou to the Newfoundland Express train and also from the Newfoundland Express to the S. S. Caribou, heard the report of the sinking from Lewis George. Able Seaman Wilson was later to report on his roll in the affair to H. G. Reid, Commodore First Class, RCN Flag Officer, Newfoundland Force, St. John’s, Newfoundland.
After Lewis George received the report of the sinking of the S. S. Caribou, he chartered every available vessel in Port aux Basques, Grand Bay, and Isle aux Morts to commence the search for survivors. He was able to hire a total of nine vessels, three from each community. However, in talking with local residents, they say that many more vessels joined the search for survivors. Lewis George informed the captain of each vessel that the S. S. Caribou had been torpedoed approximately 20 miles southwest of Channel Head, the same general direction reported by the Royal Canadian Navy, and to proceed to that area. Able Seaman Wilson accompanied the first vessel to leave port and he asked Lewis George to instruct the skipper of each search vessel to watch for aircraft that may be aiding in the search, as the pilots could give directions to the searchers of the area of the sinking. The remaining vessels departed the harbour at ten minute intervals and spread out in a fan shaped flotilla. The vessels from Grand Bay and Isle aux Morts left port as they were ready. The sea was very rough, but all vessels had sails up and engines running. The vessels sailed at a speed of 7 knots, with their estimated time of reaching the target area between three and four hours. On their journey, the searchers observed an airplane flying over the search vessels and returning toward Newfoundland on two occasions. On arrival at the target area, they spent considerable time searching for survivors, but with no sightings of people or debris floating on the water. The captain of the first vessel, who was captain of the flotilla, gave orders to return to Port aux Basques. The vessels arrived back in port at 5: 30 P.M. Newfoundland Time.
The result of the search was a hard blow to the people of the town. After hearing of the torpedoing of the S.S. Caribou, and with the attempt by the rescue parties to find survivors, the townspeople had made ready to receive the injured in port - it did not occur to them that the final news would be as grim as the final report.
A hospital was set up in the Newfoundland Customs Office which was located on the wharf where the S.S. Caribou docked. Mr. Hanson of Cape and Company had fifteen stretchers made, the town merchants brought all the warm clothing they had in stock to the wharf, and a train was prepared to receive survivors for transport to Corner Brook General Hospital. The General Hospital, with Chief of Staff Dr. Cochrane, had expected to receive an influx of injured people because Port aux Basques was without a hospital at that time. Dr. Parsons, the local Port aux Basques medical doctor, was standing by with three nurses to render assistance to the survivors when they were brought ashore. At 2:00 P.M. Newfoundland Time, three doctors and two nurses arrived from Stephenville by train to assist Dr. Parsons and the local nurses when the rescue craft arrived back in port. Meanwhile, Captain Bonner and his wife of the Salvation Army Hostel had prepared hot soup and coffee and an evening meal for the crews of the vessels who were involved in the search. The search for survivors was a noble effort by all who were involved, but to no avail.