The fight to preserve desecrated war graves
Published Saturday, November 7, 2009 6:56PM EST
High atop the cliffs, overlooking Conception Bay, Newfoundland stand the guns. Pointed out to sea, silent and watchful, recalling a dangerous time.
It was World War Two and these mighty shore batteries stood watch against a fleet of German U-Boats that prowled the North Atlantic. Submarines that, for one day and one night of mayhem and horror in the fall of 1942, rampaged against a fleet of merchant ships in this now placid bay.
And beneath the lapping waves lie the dead. Entombed in the wreckage of freighters that sank too quickly after being torpedoed. Watery graves of young men lost during a time of war.
Bell Island, the site of the attacks, was the only North American location to be directly attacked by German Forces during WWII.
For decades it had been a thriving mining community. Its primary resource was iron ore which was shipped to the blast furnaces to be turned into steel, used to make tanks, ships and weapons to fight the Nazis. As a result, Bell Island became a natural target for German submarines.
On September 5, 1942, German U-boat U-513 silently slipped into Conception Bay, sighted the freighters loaded with ore from Bell Island and fired its torpedoes. The first ship to go down was the SS Saganaga. Minutes later, more torpedoes struck the SS Lord Strathcona.
"All you see is a big explosion, you know. Looked like she was hit mid-ship. you know, that would be right dead centre I would say ...," said Patrick Mansfield, who was, back then, working on a nearby freighter.
As the Saganaga and the Lord Strathcona quickly settled to the bottom, they carried with them crewmen who couldn't get out.
Local historian Bill Flaherty recalls the shore guns taking aim. "They got permission, they armed their guns. They positioned themselves to fire but there was no sight of the U-boat."
The German sub had successfully pulled off the first attack on North America and made its escape.
Two months later on November 2, 1942, another German U-boat, U-518, slipped into the bay and torpedoed the SS Rose Castle.
Gordon Hardy was an 18-year-old sailor on board the ship that night, who managed to escape. "I got up on the railing and I just jumped or dove, whichever, and the torpedo come through the other side" recalled Hardy.
Hardy barely managed to escape with his life. He was one of the lucky ones. "The ships were fully loaded with iron ore. The Rose Castle actually went down in like 30 to 90 seconds. Boom, straight down."
Moments later another torpedo slammed into a Free-French freighter, PLM27, which went down in seconds. Once again the shore batteries tried to find the attacker, but the German U-boat slipped away into the mists of the North Atlantic.
Nearly 70 years later the sounds of that night still haunt Hardy. "I could hear people all around me in the dark screeching and hollering to God and the Virgin Mary."
A total of 70 men lost their lives in the Bell Island attacks. A few bodies were recovered but most of those killed went down with their ships that, to this day, rest at the bottom of Conception Bay. The wrecks are in pristine condition, likely because they have been sheltered by the bay and preserved by the cold North Atlantic waters.
At low tide you can see, beneath the water, one of the ships resting upright. Dive beneath the sea and this graveyard unfolds in a vista of rusting hulks, huge blast-holes visible in their sides. Silent guns stand on the decks.
Rick Stanley works as an underwater tour guide but to the people in and around Conception Bay he's better known as the unofficial guardian of the Bell Island shipwrecks. Stanley is the owner and operator of Ocean Quest -- a travel resort which offers thrill seekers and history buffs an opportunity to get a glimpse of the area's underwater archeological sites.
"You swim over them and you're seeing personal artifacts ..., you're seeing torpedo holes, you know you're seeing bridges where people stood, you know you're seeing the portholes that are opened," said Stanley. "You really got a feel for what actually happened that day."
Over the years Stanley has noticed the erosion of the artifacts on the sunken ships -- erosion caused not by nature, but by other divers. Portholes have been pried off as souvenirs. Any dishes or cutlery that were onboard when the ships went down, are long gone. Even boxes of ammunition have been pillaged.
Stanley is upset that no one is protecting our history, but also that the sacrifice of the men who died aboard these vessels isn't being given the respect they deserve.
"These are war graves," said Stanley. "It's like taking something out of a time capsule. It's unacceptable. It's unacceptable for the people who lost their lives."
Stanley feels that not enough is being done to protect these underwater archeological sites so he has been lobbying the government for their protection.
Under Newfound law all shipwrecks are supposedly protected as archaeological sites under the provincial Historic Resources Act. But the provincial government claims it's impossible to monitor the 10,000 shipwrecks around the coast. It means that Newfoundland must rely on people such as Rick Stanley to make sure that no one is pillaging those wrecks.
If there's little protection provincially, there's even less offered by federal regulation. The Canada Shipping Act could protect the wrecks, but no one has created regulations to enable the Act in this area.
Rick Stanley's passion for preserving our underwater history is shared by Robert Grenier -- a man widely considered to be Canada's preeminent archaeologist. He noted that Americans have more protection for underwater historical sites, than Canada does. "Like the Titanic, the U.S. has an act, a Congress Act to protect the Titanic" said Grenier.
He cautioned Canada needs to act to protect our history before it's too late. "I know how fantastic our underwater heritage is but the problem is that if you destroy it, if you remove it, it cannot be redone. It's gone forever."
Rick Stanley agrees. "I believe they should be an underwater national historic site," he said. Not just to preserve the history of the Battle of Bell Island, but to preserve the final resting place of brave men who gave their lives in the fight for freedom.