Essays

Memories of an Athabaskan Bride

'Vi' Connolly, circa 1940's.

By 'Vi' Connolly

I would like to take you on a journey that was undertaken by a young woman, who at 19 was a newlywed, working full time and living with her in-laws. That woman is me. It was early in 1942 and I had just said goodbye to my new husband Bill, who had left Hamilton for war. He joined HMCS Athabaskan, a destroyer in the Royal Canadian Navy. This journey unfolds over a period of three and a half years, marked by devastation and isolation; inspiration, faith and most of all, love.

On Sunday, April 30, 1944 I followed my usual routine. I went to church and sang in the choir. When I got home, my mother-in-law told me that I had a phone call from a Mrs. Hayes, whose son, Bill, was also on the Athabaskan. I called Mrs. Hayes and she asked if I'd heard from Bill. I told her of his most recent letter that had arrived the previous week. She said, “I mean more recently.” I told her no, and that's when she burst out, “the ship went down last night!” Needless to say, I couldn't respond, I just collapsed in my mother-law's arms, who, immediately and without hesitation said, “Bill's OK!” Mother's intuition?

The news started the most devastating and frustrating times of my life, and that of our immediate family and friends. Yes, it was war after all and although I knew that tragedy could happen, it didn't lessen the constant ache in my heart.

Although the days that followed were so difficult to manage, it was the nighttime that I completely dreaded. It was impossible for me to fall asleep; visions engulfed me. I knew that Bill was a good swimmer; in fact he was a lifeguard. However, questions still flooded my mind. Was he able to swim to shore? Was he frightened that the enemy would find him? Was he wounded and still in frigid water calling for help? All I could do was to cling to my faith and pray that to God to send my Bill some help.

In the next few days, we learned that HMCS Athabaskan, with a crew of 260, had been torpedoed by a German ship. We also learned that HMCS Haida, the sister ship, had picked up 47 survivors who were named and were on their way home. My husband's name was not one of these so-called 'lucky' men, but Bill Hayes was.

When Bill Hayes returned to Hamilton, I couldn't understand why he didn't come to see me right away. I soon learned that he had seen my Bill's action station, the communications section, blown right off the ship. This piece of information he had carefully chosen not to share with me. Bill did his best to explain that it was almost impossible for him to account for anyone's whereabouts in the water, as it was utter chaos. Of course, I was looking for any thread of hope on which to hang on to during this period of time.

In the weeks that followed, the Germans announced that they had picked up 85 survivors of the Athabaskan and that they had been sent to a POW camp. They also stated that they had no intention of giving out those names. That left a total of 128 unaccounted for. We waited for three long, lonely and tortuous months before the Red Cross was able to convince the Germans to abide by the Geneva Conventions and release the names of the POWs.

HMCS Athabaskan

Unlike today, communication in the early 1940s was scarce to none; there was no home telephone, no TV, no Internet. Our main sources of information were the radio, local newspapers and word of mouth. Eventually I received a telegram from the government telling me that Bill Connolly was “missing”.

As time passed, the Red Cross provided the prisoners with a pre-printed post card. It was signed by my husband and sent to us confirming news that I had been hoping and praying for, that he was alive, albeit a prisoner in a German POW camp.

The news for many other families was not good, “Missing, presumed dead.” I remember thinking how inconceivable and what a sheer sense of hopelessness this message gave to those families. Our hearts bled for them and we could only pray that they would receive the strength and courage to sustain them in their deepest sorrow.

Much later, we learned that 91 bodies had been washed ashore along 150 miles of French coast. The bodies were retrieved and buried in 9 different civilian cemeteries. Some could not be identified and the markers simply read, Known only to God. Today, 37 men are unaccounted for and their bodies remain in the sea.

The news of my Bill's capture reached us by ordinary mail. We had a darling postman on Locke Street, Hamilton. Every time he had a letter from my husband, he would ring the doorbell twice! The morning he recognized Bill's card in his pack, he came directly to our neighbourhood and along the way, he told all of our friends and neighbours the good news.

By the time he reached our house, there were at lest a dozen men and women behind him. Some were waving flags and others were shouting, “He's alive, he's alive!” I was at work that morning, so my mother-in-law had the pleasure of receiving them. When I got word of the news, I told my boss and he enthusiastically let me home early that day to celebrate with my family.

As I took off down the stairs of the plant where I worked, everyone was hammering on their machines, their way of saying, 'hooray.'

Bill Connolly and Vi, 1942

I was happy, but I must recount a short story about three young West Hamilton men named Bill. They all lived and grew up within a few blocks of each other but did not meet until they joined the Athabaskan in England. All three were in the communications branch of the ship. All three fates were different.

As I mentioned, Bill Hayes was the 'luckiest' of these young men of a ship later called 'The Unlucky Lady'. Bill was picked up by sister ship, HMCS Haida. My Bill was picked up by a German ship and became a POW. However, the most ill fated was Bill Stewart. Bill Stewart was a great pal of my Bill and he was reported missing, presumed dead. Sometimes it is hard to celebrate your good fortune while others suffer the most incomprehensible sorrow.

On a personal note, not knowing the fate of my husband took its toll on me. My family doctor suggested that I become more involved with the war effort. When Bill left for war, I was a telephone operator. Upon reading the Hamilton Spectator, I decided to answer an ad for work in a steel mill. There was a need as men were off to war.

I worked in a few places but the last place I worked was the Sawyer Massey Argus Company. I was asked to work on 'Top Secret' radial drill and drilled large holes into the edge of a 5" thick (12.5 cms) round steel base that would fit under a 4" (10 cms) naval gun.

I later learned that these gun mountings were placed under guns on Tribal Class Destroyers like my husband's ship, HMCS Athabaskan! Was this irony or destiny, or both?

It was truly exciting work and I remained there until my husband returned home. It was during this time that I had a photograph taken at the drill and it became a poster to illustrate the hard work that women in Hamilton were doing. It was for a campaign to showcase 'Women in the Workforce'. With thousands of other women in Hamilton and across Canada, we played a part in the war effort.

Although this period of challenge lasted only three and a half years of my 67 years of married life with Bill, at the time it seemed like a lifetime. When I look back, I realize that going through those tumultuous times shaped me and made me the person I am today.

To all of you I say, go forward and enjoy every precious moment of your own life journey.

Vi Connolly