An af­ter­noon with Max

Mer­chant Marine vet­eran, Bay Roberts res­i­dent cel­e­brates 90th birthday


Max Mercer of Bay Roberts is briskly mov­ing around the din­ing area of the Bay Roberts Re­tire­ment Cen­tre with the help of his mo­tor­ized wheel­chair. It’s one of the joys of his life now. He of­ten rides from the per­sonal care home, which is found at the top of Coun­try Road, to Saw­dust Road, about half-a-kilo­me­tre away.

“We tell him we’re go­ing to get him snow tires,” Max’s el­dest grand­son Aaron quips.

It’s Oct. 30 and not even the grey, foggy skies of the out­side world can put a damper on Max’s spir­its. Af­ter all, it’s his 90th birthday. There are smiles and hand­shakes amongst guests as they en­joy a sand­wich or var­i­ous de­lec­ta­ble cookie treats.

Max does not have much time for food as he zips from ta­ble to ta­ble, greet­ing each per­son in­di­vid­u­ally.

Once a turn, he shifts his head and says, “now don’t you tell any­one that I was a boat-builder.”

Max doesn’t want to be repre- sented as some­thing he wasn’t, hav­ing built just a sin­gle ves­sel in his 90 years.

Kisses and hugs

He is sur­rounded by fam­ily and friends on this day. His daugh­terin-law Su­san is mak­ing sure Max meets ev­ery­one, while Keith, his son, is chat­ting am­i­ca­bly with some of the older gen­tle­man. Max’s two grand­sons, Jonah and Aaron, have just set­tled in to play a board game on one of the cen­tre’s couches.

But this is not a day for a sim­ple hand­shake. Ev­ery per­son Max meets gives him a kiss on the cheek, fol­lowed by a squeeze.

Max just of­fers a smile and a how-do-you-do.

Keith asks his dad if he would like a cup of cof­fee, or a drink from the var­i­ous soft drink con­tain­ers.

“Got any Screech?” Mercer asks laugh.

As the nov­elty birthday can­dle num­bers are lit, one’s eyes drift to the im­age on Max’s cake. It is an old-fash­ioned two-masted schooner sail­ing on an ocean of per­fect blue wa­ter.

The ves­sel is much like the one Max was a deck­hand on dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, as a mem­ber of the Mer­chant Marine.

The Bay Roberts res­i­dent was aboard the Agnes, which he de­scribed as the big­gest twom­asted schooner in New­found­land at the time. Max’s brother, Bill, was also a mate on the ves­sel, which moved freight be­tween var­i­ous ports-of-call around the prov­ince and to docks in Montreal, Hal­i­fax and Sydney.

“We used to haul a lot for Hudson Bay,” Max re­calls.

In­fested wa­ters

with a

Al­though he did not see any wartime ac­tion, dan­ger was al­ways present, since the wa­ters around New­found­land’s long and rugged coast­line were known to har­bour Ger­man sub­marines.

The dreaded U-boats sank four ore car­ri­ers near Bell Is­land dur­ing two at­tacks in 1942, killing 60 men. And the Sydney to Port aux Basques pas­sen­ger ferry SS Cari­bou was also tor­pe­doed and sank in Oc­to­ber 1942, re­sult­ing in the loss of 136 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 10 chil­dren.

It was part of a deadly and bru­tal cam­paign by the Ger­mans to choke off the sup­ply of ma­te­ri­als and per­son­nel to the Al­lied ef­fort in Europe.

“We called them re­flects.

Sur­rounded by his son and two grand­sons, Max leans back in his dark blue easy chair, and pon­ders whether the Ger­mans would


wa­ters,” Max even turn their guns on a schooner. “We weren’t worth it, I sup­pose.” At the time, he was not fazed by the threat of be­ing tor­pe­doed, not­ing, “We weren’t ner­vous at all.”

Un­cle Max

When the topic of the First World War and the Bat­tle of the Somme is brought up, tears start to wet Max’s eyes. His un­cle and name­sake, Un­cle Max James Mercer, was killed at Beaumont Hamel.

“Un­cle Max” was only 19 when he and his fel­low sol­diers of the New­found­land Reg­i­ment en­tered the com­mu­ni­ca­tion’s trench along­side St. John’s Road on July 1, 1916. He would not re­turn, as the reg­i­ment was nearly an­ni­hi­lated by Ger­man ma­chine guns.

Of the roughly 800 men who en­tered the fray that morn­ing, less than 70 an­swered the roll call the next day. The re­main­der were ei­ther killed, cap­tured or wounded.

Af­ter the war

When peace was called in 1945, noth­ing re­ally changed for Max. He was still on the wa­ter, and he was still run­ning freight from dif­fer­ent ports around the prov­ince.

He re­mained on the seas un­til his 50s, and later be­came a tin­smith be­fore re­tir­ing at the age of 57.

Max first started his life on the wa­ter at the age of 15 when went to Labrador with his fa­ther. “What­ever I wanted to do, I done,” he say. The Mer­chant Marines strug­gled long af­ter the war ended, with Max and his com­rades fight­ing for the right to re­ceive ben­e­fits as mil­i­tary vet­er­ans.

Af­ter a long bat­tle, they were of­fi­cially rec­og­nized as vet­er­ans in 1992.


Photo by Ni­cholas Mercer/ The Com­pass

Max Mercer of Bay Roberts, who served with the Mer­chant Marine dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, cel­e­brated his 90th birthday on Oct. 30. He is shown here dis­play­ing a photo of his un­cle and name­sake, Max James Mercer, who was killed at Beaumont Hamel in 1916.

Photo by Terry Roberts/the Com­pass

Angie Reid (left) and Denise Legge pose in front of the Bill Pretty Memo­rial Play­ground sign in Dildo last week. The com­mit­tee formed last year has now raised some $40,000 for the play­ground project.

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