St. Clair Harvie Patterson has fond memories of being an aspiring sailor in the bustling shipbuilding town of Hantsport during the mid-1940s.
Back when Riverview Road was his father’s farm, a 16-year-old Patterson, the eldest of six siblings, stumbled upon a recruiter while strolling along a footpath that hugged the Kings County line.
“I was walking back to school after dinner and I met a chap that was a couple years older and he was on the gypsum boats,” the 86-year-old recalled during an interview at his Hantsport home.
At the time, a lot of the bigger boys Patterson’s age had altered their birth certificates to enlist in the Navy and defend their country in the Second World War. Given his small stature, Patterson says, that wasn’t an option for him — regardless of how badly he wanted to serve.
“This was a sailor town. It was a shipbuilding town,” he said, adding that the desire to sail across the open sea was in his blood.
“My grandfather went to sea all his life and his grandfather before him, so I said to my mother ‘I might as well go to sea, too.’”
The recruiter was sent to round up a crew for a ship docked at shore. Patterson saw the man’s offer as an opportunity to get his sea legs before enlisting.
“I couldn’t concentrate on anything [in school]; I just had to get out there.”
Patterson, an admirer of the legacy left by shipbuilders Ezra Churchill and J.B. North, pitched the recruiter’s proposal to his father at the dinner table that evening.
“He looked at me and said, ‘There’s too many people sitting around the table as it is at meal time, and you’re not doing anything in school.’”
Patterson worked on a gypsum boat for six months in 1941 then moved on to join a three-man crew on a tug boat working as a deckhand in the busy Halifax Harbour.
“That was a real experience in Halifax Harbour. Everywhere you looked there was a ship going here, here, here, here and here,” Patterson said.
“[There were] hundreds of ships coming and going in the Halifax Harbour on any given day.”
Life aboard the K113
Working on the gypsum ships and a tow boat prepared Patterson for service aboard a corvette convoy escort as an officer steward in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve.
“The K113 was my home for three years,” said Patterson, noting that he served in the Second World War between 1943 and 1945.
“It had a lucky number — the only ship in the Canadian Navy with a 13 attached to it. Thirteen was always my lucky number.”
Patterson was responsible for ensuring the 85 men serving on a ship built for 60 were, at the very least, well fed as they braved dangerous waters in a vessel that was intended to be used for coastal protection, not ocean crossings.
“I had the best job on the ship… in the food department. We ate the best,” he joked.
No one ate particularly well if the weather was bad during their regular runs from Newfoundland to Londonderry, Northern Ireland, across what Patterson describes as ‘the old black North Atlantic.’
“The North Atlantic in the winter time is not a friendly place,” he said.
The K113’s crew had plenty of hefty helpings of Pusser’s Stew when the rocky waves made cooking anything else nearly impossible.
Pusser, Patterson explained, is a military term for everything common, time after time.
“If the weather was bad for long periods of time… you had the same old thing all the time.”
The stew, made with bits of meat and whatever else was available on the ship, was cooked in heavy metal pots that could be tied to the stove on stormy seas.
“We had good food, but when the weather was rough there weren’t too many people eating… even some of the most seasoned people… still got sea sick,” he said.
“My sea sickness was cured from being on the gypsum boat. Some of the fellas, they had a terrible time. New fellas would come aboard and some of them snapped out of it after a few days, and others never got over it.”
Patterson says advanced training in Cornwallis, following basic in Toronto, required new recruits to serve on a docked ship to get a feel for the motion of the ocean before they were drafted.
“They had an old ship tied up at… the dock in Cornwallis and you served a week on that. It got you used to it, but a ship sitting at the dock is not a ship at sea,” Patterson said.
“When we took basic training the emphasis was on survival. A dead man’s no good on a ship.”
Man your stations
Each man had an action station to report to on the crowded K113 if an enemy submarine was spotted near the convoy. There was no time to bundle up, or use for anxiety, when the action alarm bells rang.
“Your first action was to (report) to your action station and make sure you had a life jacket on. When we were at sea, you very rarely went anywhere without a life jacket. We used to sleep with them. I used mine for a pillow and put one arm through one of the straps so if I had to get up in a hurry it would come with me,” Patterson said.
“If there was a submarine sighted anywhere within the convoy all the ships had to be alerted to man their stations.”
Patterson slept in the communications mess with radar operators, signal men and coders. His action station was near a depth charge thrower on the port side of the well deck.
The long days were periodically broken up by calls for duty about once or twice a run.
“Day ran into night, and night ran into day. When you were at sea the ship was alive all the time.”
Unlike many of the corvettes that escorted convoys to their destinations, the K113 braved wartime waters without being torpedoed.
“We never lost a man,” Patterson beamed.
“We were always at the right place, at the right time. There was a few scrimmages once and awhile, but the ship always had the stern sweep of the convoy.”
A very happy birthday
“The war stopped on my birthday; May 8, 1945.”
A 20-year-old Patterson was heading to Halifax when news broke that the war had ended.
“I had a draft to a destroyer they were bringing out to go to the Pacific and when we arrived in Halifax the war had stopped that day,” he recalled.
“We got off and lined up on the station platform and the fella come along and he said, ‘Everybody here that’s in this group from Nova Scotia, go home. There’s no war, the war’s gone. Stopped.’”
The men were told they would be sent for if their service was needed.
“We had quite a party,” he recalled.
Patterson had been away from home for as long as two years at a time while he was in the Navy. He returned home to work as a carpenter and labourer until he retired in 1985 at the age of 60.
Like many sailors, he says he had a girlfriend at every port when he was fighting the good fight, but he’s been with his wife, Eudora, the mother of his seven children, for 65 years.
Patterson self-published Hantsport Shipbuilding, a tribute to the days when the work of Ezra Churchill and J.B. North had a major impact on the town, in May 2008.
Although he’s been retired for many years, there’s no sign of Patterson — a local legion president, collector, frame builder, researcher and author — slowing down anytime soon.
If there’s one lesson he learned on the K113 that still comes in handy today, it’s how to keep busy.
“A lot of people used to get bored, but people with no imagination get bored,” Patterson said with a contented grin.
“I’m never bored.”