In the line of duty

In late 1945, the talk in households, family gatherings, coffee shops and bars–from one end of Canada to the other–was thick with first-hand accounts of combat, told by those fresh out of the ranks of active duty. And 52 years later, many WWII servicemen, now in their 70’s, still tell their stories. Each is a unique testament to the continuing preservation of wartime memories–`lest we forget’ and repeat ourselves in war’s ultimate tragedies. Fort Frances resident Gordie Matheson, 72, is one such veteran. And though he agreed to recount some of his most vivid memories, he wasn’t about to be singled out above his peers. His story is but one in a very long line, he stressed.
In 1943, Matheson joined the service in Port Arthur and like many other young men caught up in the lure to serve their country, slipped in under the legal age of 18.
Prior to that he had been working here in town as a delivery boy for a grocery store making $80 for a six day week.
“I lied at my age [by] two years. I said I was 19,” he admitted, adding he had his mother’s permission. “[But] other people were going and I got the urge.”
After three months of initial army training, Matheson was moved to Esquimalt, B.C., where he learned to be a gun layer, part of a team trusted with the operation of a warship’s guns.
He would control the horizontal target line aimed at an enemy sub or ship and also had the trigger at the ready once the order was given to fire.
Once an entire ship’s company had been formed in Esquimalt, Matheson (ranked an ‘Able Seaman’) and his comrades were moved to Halifax where they awaited a troop ship bound for Liverpool.
And for the next two years, it was life on the waves of the north Atlantic aboard Canadian destroyer H.M.C.S. Gatineau (1943-45) and frigate H.M.C.S. Charlottetown (1945).
The Gatineau was one of several escort ships which protected massive supply convoys as they traveled back and forth across the ocean from St. John’s, Nfld. to England.
“An average trip with a convoy took 10 days,” said Matheson, with the fleet mainly providing protection against German submarine attacks.
“There were tankers and freighters with supplies, between 60-100 of them,” he added. “We would travel in zigzag formation across the ocean. In those 24 months we probably did 20 to 30 crossings.”
Though the Gatineau was never damaged by enemy fire, Matheson noted that didn’t mean they missed out on the action.
“In September of 1943 we were bringing a convoy back from England. The convoy ahead of us ran into [submarine] trouble and sent a signal back to us for help,” he recalled.
“We put two convoys together to double up on escorts [but] 13 ships were sunk that night.”
Downed ships included British corvettes, a Canadian destroyer, frigates, and oil tankers.
“We didn’t get hit. I think you carry a bit of luck around with you,” he noted.
With undertones of grief still evident after five decades, Matheson recounted another disastrous scene from the same year.
“There are some things you see. An oil tanker traveling behind us was blown in half and men were hanging on debris in the water
“We were the senior ship. We had a full Royal Navy captain and he decided to go back. I thought to myself ‘he has a heart after all and he’s swinging back around to get the men’,” Matheson recalled.
“But that’s not what he was doing. He wanted to try and get the submarine that did it. We just steamed through all those men in the water and all I could do was look over the side and see a big wave of oil put them all under.
“That was shaking.”
But there were pleasant memories. Matheson recalled the two Christmases he spent aboard the Gatineau, with the first in 1943 getting top billing for being a reminder of the fib he had told about his age.
“At Christmas, the youngest man on the ship got to be captain for the day. I had lied about my age and said I was 19 but in truth I was the youngest,” he chuckled. “I missed out on giving everybody orders.”
By the end of the war, Matheson was aboard the H.M.S.C. Charlottetown continuing escort duties to troop ships traveling through the Mediterranean.
And amidst the memories of battle and sea-bound celebrations was the recount of the moment of relief coupled with surprise when the announcement came: World War II had finally ended!
“When we heard the war was over we were on our way into Gibraltar,” he said, noting the radio message sounding the end of the war also included orders to all enemy U-boats to surface and surrender.
“A great big, black German sub came up behind the ship. It had been following us. If the war hadn’t have been over, maybe we’d have got a surprise.
“That’s how things go and that’s where I was when the war was over.”
At the tender age of 21, Matheson was discharged from active duty and returned to Fort Frances.
In 1948, he got on with Canada Customs where he remained until his retirement in 1985.
“I was anxious to get out [of active duty] but I enjoyed it, and now I’m sorry I got out. It would have been a smart move to stay in,” he admitted.
A member of the Royal Canadian Legion Br. 29, Matheson, like his fellow veterans, intends to carry on the tradition of commemoration.
“I will always participate in [Remembrance Day]. It’s something that should be carried on.
“We have good turnouts here, even the younger people come out. That’s the whole idea behind it, to keep remembering so that [war] doesn’t happen again,” he concluded.