Wilmot Beeson comes from a military family.
The 93-year-old Camp Creek native comes from a family of seven that saw all but one of his siblings join the Canadian Armed Forces — Beeson was the second youngest.
Under normal circumstances that might not be too much of a surprise, considering all of them joined during the Second World War, except when you consider the fact that his father and grandfather were Quakers.
Quakers are members of a group with Christian roots that began in England in the 1650s and among their core beliefs is that that non-violent confrontation of evil and peaceful reconciliation are always superior to violent measures and usually forgo military service.
“There were two in each branch of the service,” Beeson said. “Robert and Marge in the Air Force, John and Harvey in the Army, while Maxwell and I were in the Navy.”
Actually, Beeson said when he was ‘called’ into service, it was for the Army in 1943, but explained that if a person was conscripted they had a choice of what branch of the service to enlist.
“I was actually happy to get in and the Navy was the right fit for me,” he said, adding he thought he would see more of the world.
Initially, Beeson hoped he would be trained as a shipwright, but ended up being trained as a gunner and volunteered to serve on a merchant ship.
“Once again I thought I would be able to see more of the world that way. Plus the pay was a little better, because I guess they thought serving on a merchant ship was more dangerous,” he said.
Beeson received the bulk of his training at the now defunct Cornwallis Canadian Forces Base in Digby, N.S.
“It was quite a change for a prairie boy,” he said.
Beeson noted one of the biggest differences between the Maritimes and the Prairies is the weather, most notably it is cold and damp.
“When you are not used to it, it really can affect you,” Beeson said, noting while he was stationed at Cornwallis, he spent about a month in the hospital after coming down with everything from Pnenmonia to Scarlet and Rheumatic fever.
Eventually he recovered and he was assigned to an oil tanker, which brought crude oil from South America, mostly Venezuela, to Portland, Maine — a 21-day round trip. From there the oil was piped to Quebec where it was refined into aviation fuel.
On rare occasion, Beeson said they were also called upon to ship oil from Venezuela to Aruba.
“We had to kind of sneak in at night and get out because the subs were looking for us,” he said.
In the early part of the war, Beeson said the majority of merchant ships didn’t have any armaments, which is why they were usually escorted by navy military vessels, as well as the Royal Canadian Air Force. This was especially true for the convoys headed to England.
But that wasn’t the case for oil tankers.
“If a U-boat torpedoed it and it exploded it could take out the entire convoy. That is why most of the time we were alone,” he said, adding U-boats tended to save their torpedoes for destroyers and other heavily-armed vessels. “For a tanker like us, they would surface and strafe them with their top guns.”
For the most part Beeson said his ship managed to avoid German forces, but he recalled one time when they picked up a U-boat.
“[They] followed us for quite a ways, but the captain, and he was pretty good at this, lost them using this zig zag maneuver he had perfected,” Beeson said, adding the enemy wasn’t the only danger they faced. “Weather and storms were just as dangerous.”
Beeson recalled one storm in particular near the end of 1944.
They were on their way back to Portland, near the Bermuda Triangle, when they hit a particularly bad storm. Although they managed to return to port safely, they lost the majority of their provisions, which were strapped to the side of the ship including all but one lifeboat. The ship itself was heavily damaged and needed to be repaired — a process that took three weeks.
“So they turned us loose in New York [City] and I can tell you we didn’t mind one bit,” he said, adding most of the ship’s crew stayed in a building near Times Square where close to 150 cots had been set up. “We didn’t need any money. Everything was free, from trams to theatre shows, as long as you were wearing your uniform and it was quite an experience for a young guy [he was 19 at the time]from the bush [Camp Creek],” he said.
Life on the ship, revolved around performing their duties and for Beeson that meant manning the ship’s guns and watching for enemy craft. The standard rotation was four hours on, four hours off.
When the crew wasn’t working, they occupied their time playing cards, with cigarettes being the most common currency. Boxing was another popular activity and one Beeson took part in.
“There was this guy from Ontario, and he tried to teach me how to box, but I just told him he wanted to use me as his punching bag,” he joked.
However, Beeson’s favourite off-duty activity was climbing — more specifically up the ship’s protective torpedo netting, which was seldom used.
“We made much better time if we didn’t use them so they towered above the ship on booms 80 to 100 feet high,” he said.
Beeson noted that for the most part the crew managed to eat well, at least compared to the meals he was served at Cornwallis. The crew also supplemented their regular diet, by buying food from the locals, especially when on the Orinoco River, in Venezuela.
“We would drop down pennies and the locals would tie bananas to ropes and we would haul them up. You can’t believe how many different types of bananas there are,” he said.
In total, Beeson spent about six months, not counting leave and retrofits, serving aboard the tanker, including May 8, 1945, better known as VE Day.
“It was a great day and we all let out a cheer you wouldn’t believe,” Beeson said, noting they were anchoured just outside Cuba at the time.
Even though the war was over they still needed to make it back to port safely, something that wasn’t guaranteed, because not all the German U-boat commanders had received word. As a result they were asked to join a U.S. led convoy. However, eventually they decided it was safe leaving the convoy.
“My family was pretty lucky, we all made it home safely,” Beeson said, adding that doesn’t mean they were not impacted by the experience, saying most of his siblings experienced some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome when they returned home. His brother John, who was part of the D-Day assault at Juno Beach was particularly affected.