Halstead Gosse recalls his days in the navy

by Barbara Dean-Simmons
Published in The Packet on November 06, 2014
Reprinted with permission

His luck held for six years during the Second World War

He crossed the North Atlantic under cover of darkness during World War II more times that he can remember.

Halstead Gosse
© Barbara Dean-Simmons
Halstead Gosse of Queen’s Cove spent most of the Second World War serving on board the convoy ship Totland.

He sailed back and forth, regularly, between England and Africa – protecting the ships that were bringing supplies to the Allied troops in the North Africa campaign.

He saw other ships in his convoy torpedoed and sunk.

Halstead Gosse was one of the fortunate ones.

“I never got a scratch,” says the 92 year old with the clear blue eyes, reflecting on his six years of naval service during the Second World War.

He was just 19 years old when he signed up for duty in 1939, leaving his hometown of Queen’s Cove and his job in the family sawmill business for a life of adventure on the high seas.

He spent most of his war service on the Totland – a 250 foot, 1,500 ton American coast guard boat that had been loaned to the British in 1941 to serve as anti-submarine warfare escorts.

The escort ships travelled with the ships ferrying troops and supplies between North America and England, and between England and Africa.

The escort ships sailed either side of the supply ships, essentially circling the wagons formation, to protect the supply ships from enemy attack.

The escort ships were the first targets when German U-boats sought out victims. If the escort ships could be destroyed, the supply ships were then unprotected.

Gosse doesn’t speak much about the dangers he likely faced.

He’ll only say that, “I never once felt scared. I never thought about that.”

However, he did admit that he had manned the guns on deck numerous times when U-boats were sighted. And he saw other ships in the escort convoy get torpedoed.

Wartime records available through the Internet also account for three notable events during the Totland’s naval service.

On May 21, 1943, the ship picked up 12 survivors from the British Merchant ship New Brunswick, which was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat U-159 about 140 nautical miles east-south-east of Santa Maria, Azores.

On Feb. 23, 1943, the German U-boat U-522 was sunk in the mid-Atlantic, southwest of Madeira, by depth charges set by the Totland.

That same day, the Totland picked up 65 survivors from the American tanker Esso Baton Rouge and 53 survivors from the British tanker Empire Norseman. Both ships had been torpedoed and sunk by German U-boats about 400 nautical miles south of the Azores.

Gosse recalls taking the survivors on board.

“They were burned pretty bad,” he says. “We all gave up our bunks for them, so they’d have a place to lie down.”

The Totland transported the injured crewmen from the two tankers to St. John’s, Antiqua.

“One of them died as we were moving him off our ship,” he remembers. But he offers up few other details from that day.

He prefers to remember the good times; the camaraderie among the men who sailed together, and the shore leave when they could get to the Newfoundland club in London, or take a train to visit his Queen’s Cove and South West Arm buddies who were working with the Forestry unit in Scotland.

He smiles, when asked whether navy men got daily rum rations, like the ground troops did.

“Oh yes,” he said, adding he still follows that wartime tradition of having a drop of spirits daily. Whiskey or wine are his preference and, at aged 94, the daily routine doesn’t appear to have hurt his health.

He remembers that on the Totland, the sailors had a practice of offering a sip of their rum ration to any fellow sailors who were having a birthday.

“We’d all give the fellow with the birthday a sip of our rum,” he says. By the time the birthday boy had the last sip, they were having a very happy birthday indeed, he recalled.

“Did anyone ever have two birthdays in a year?” we asked.

“Oh yes, some fellows tried that,” he chuckled. “But once we caught on, if anyone said it was their birthday they’d have to show us their (enlistment) records to prove it was actually their birthday.”

With alcohol rationed, sometimes it came down to luck and ingenuity to fill the need for strong spirits.

While they were stationed in Africa, Gosse met up with a young woman whose father owned a large sugar plantation.

As he developed a friendship with the young lady, he got to know her father as well.

Because of that, he soon became everyone’s favourite sailor back on the Totland, thanks to the sugar cane he brought back to the ship from his girlfriend’s father’s plantation.

“We’d put the sugar cane in a vice (press) and squeeze all the sugar out of it, pure alcohol,” he recalls with a grin.

No doubt, after dodging sailing dangerous waters, in the dark of night with no lights, with the threat of attack by submarine a constant thought, a bit of pure alcohol was a welcomed stress reliever.

Gosse remembers well the day they heard the war was over.

They were sailing along the coast, on a pitch-black night, heading to England from Africa. As they approached the port of Morocco, they noticed all the lights in the city were on.

“Everything was all lit up,” he says. After six years of the nighttime “black out” rule, where lights had to be turned out, or windows covered with black material, to make it more difficult for German airplanes to pinpoint buildings and houses for nighttime attack, the lights of the city were a welcomed sight.

“We knew then the war was over.”

Gosse remained on duty until the end of 1946. Ships like the Totland were stripped of their military gear to return to their former use as Coast Guard ships. The sailors were assigned to help refit their ships for regular civilian service and then they were sent home.

Gosse returned to Queen’s Cove, to regular work and regular life.

He married Mabel Robbins in 1948 and they raised five children: son Wayne and daughters Linda Davis, Dianne Raymond, Judy Ellis, Donna Barr, as well as a grandson, Jamie Gosse.

He was a founding member of the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Clarenville. For years he led the Remembrance Day parade as the Sergeant at Arms. He didn’t miss many parades; but a bout of illness last year put him in hospital and he was unable to get out to the memorial service in Clarenville.

He hopes, however, to make it out to this year’s service on Nov. 11; not to parade but to watch the others carry the flags onto the parade square and lay wreaths in memory of all those who served and were not as fortunate to survive conflict without a scratch.

Six years is a long time to spend away from family and friends, putting your life at risk each and every day you go to work. However, Gosse looks back with good memories of his time in the naval service, remembering the friends he made and the camaraderie that helped make those days less difficult.

Asked if he would do it all over again, he does not hesitate to answer, “Yes I would.”