Many years ago, when I was a young teenager, my father began telling me about his experiences as a merchant sailor in World War II, during the height of the Battle of the Atlantic. At the time, there was absolutely no way that I could relate to or even understand the concept of what he was trying to tell me. Being the truly patient and wonderful man that he is, he made sure I did.
In the spring of 1942, the Cable Ship (C/S) John W. Mackay sailed from Halifax under orders from the British Admiralty to seize 450 miles of enemy undersea cable. This became a crucial
mission because British cable manufacturers were being bombed out, all other undersea cable was either damaged or destroyed, and no other allied power had adequate production capability.
After proceeding to a location near the Cape Verde Islands, C/S John W. Mackay began the incredibly dangerous task of slowly recovering the cable that linked Italy and Brazil from the sea floor. The Atlantic at that time was teaming with German U-boats, hunting in their infamous “Wolf Packs.” The period of high success rates in sinking merchant and allied ships was referred to by U-boat crews as “the happy time.” 1 Finding the cable and bringing it up to the ship was the easy part; the challenge was coiling it by hand into the ship’s holding tanks. The ship was vulnerable because the deck lighting was constantly on, and as a result of the cabling operation there was constant noise.
“We were scared and began sleeping on deck, as well as storing small rations into the life boats.”
Fortunately, the Mackay was successful in her task, and the man who would become my father had a safe return. While that story ends well for my father, not all of his memories are as happy. While heading back to Canada aboard to the SS Wayfarer on 19 August 1944, his best friend John “Jack” Ebsary was killed, along with most of the crew, when the ship was sunk by the German U-862.
Christmas 1999, a few days before I began my career in the Royal Canadian Navy, my father presented me with a framed picture of the ship, C/S John W. Mackay. On the back, there was a small type written note which reads “Fate decided that I should survive the Battle of the Atlantic and become your Father.” I now have two sons of my own and the youngest I named, Jackson, in honour of my father’s lost friend.
It is worth noting that Canada’s WWII merchant sailors were not officially recognized for their service by the Canadian government until recently. I believe that this is my driving reason for ensuring that his story is told.
By Master Seaman/ Matelot Chef Philippe Burton
View Philippe Burton’s father’s profile, Alexander Burton here to learn of his first-hand experience.
More specifically “First Happy Time” (1940-41) and “Second Happy Time” (January – August 1942).↩