Down with the ship
Father spent final minutes searching for son before SS Caribou sank
The sinking of the SS Caribou is recognized as a landmark event in bringing the harsh reality of war home to people living on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The U-boat attack on the North Sydney to Port- auxBasques passenger ferry was especially personal for the families of the 238 people, 137 of whom did not survive, aboard the ill-fated ship.
Brothers Edward and David Seymour lost their maternal grandfather and an uncle when the vessel was torpedoed and sunk off the Newfoundland coast in the early morning hours of Oct. 14, 1942.
Their grandfather was Elias Coffin. He was from Port-auxBasques, but his daughter Margaret, who was married with children, lived on Purves Street in North Sydney, a short walk from the docks of the then busy seaport.
Edward, who was two years old when the Caribou was attacked, said that while his mother didn’t talk much about the tragic sinking, she would occasionally share stories about her father.
“During my growing up years in Sydney, where we moved to after the war, my mother said that when my grandfather was off duty when the Caribou was docked in North Sydney, he would walk up to our house and spend some time,” recalled Edward, who lived most of his adult life in Ontario.
“On those occasions he mentioned that they were aware of the presence of submarines along the route the ship took.”
His younger brother David lives in Sydney and is now a grandfather himself. In fact, one of his own grandsons shares the name Elias with his great-greatgrandfather, who was just 56 years old when he went down with the ship.
“We were aware of what happened when we were growing up, but because I didn’t know him I really didn’t miss him — it was only when I became a grandfather that I realized what we missed out on,” he said, while he sat at the kitchen table of his Whitney Pier residence looking through papers containing his family tree.
Elias, who served as the ship’s bosun, was not the only family member to perish in the tragedy. His eldest son, Burt Coffin, also drowned when the Caribou sank some 20 nautical miles southwest of Port aux Basques.
A glimpse into the final moments of Elias Coffin’s life was referenced in the June 2000 issue of Downhomer magazine.
In the piece, seaman John (Jack) Dominie, who survived the attack, gave the following account of what he saw after the Caribou was torpedoed.
“We didn’t get any warning. Two o’clock I went in and took the wheel, and that’s where I was when we got torpedoed,” he recalled in the Downhomer article.
“I left the wheel and started to go down on the starboard side — I couldn’t see anything for steam. The lifeboats were all covered in the steam, where it struck the engine room I suppose.
“I got to the starboard side and met the Bo’sun (Coffin) coming back, he said, ‘boys it’s no good for you to go over there, it is all tangled up,’ and he was excited, he was looking for his young fella and he was all excited.”
For his part, Edward said he was unable to unearth much information about the fate of his uncle Bert.
“Family lore has it that he was off duty at the time and in bed. The only thing I knew about him during my growing up years was that people who were on the ship said that the last time they saw Elias Coffin, he was looking for his son Bert,” he recalled.
It may never be known if Coffin found his son before the vessel broke in two and sank in the cold waters of the North Atlantic.
But what is known is that the Coffin family was one of many on both sides of the Cabot Strait that suffered great losses in the Caribou disaster.
For Elias, his life at sea came full circle when he went down with the ship. Seventeen years earlier, Coffin was a member of the crew sent to Rotterdam, Netherlands to bring the newly built SS Caribou to Canada. That gave him the distinction of being on both the vessel’s maiden voyage and its final trip.
“We were aware of what happened when we were growing up, but because I didn’t know him I really didn’t miss him — it was only when I became a grandfather that I realized what we missed out on.” - David Seymour
Sydney resident David Seymour studies some of the documentation pertaining to the sinking of the SS Caribou. Seymour’s grandfather, Elias Coffin, was a crewmember on the Newfoundland passenger ferry that was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat during the Second World War. Reports suggest Coffin spent his final moments searching the ship for his eldest son Bert, who was also a member of the crew.