Down with the ship

Fa­ther spent fi­nal min­utes search­ing for son be­fore SS Caribou sank

The Packet (Clarenville) - - EDITORIAL - BY DAVID JALA CAPE BRETON POST NORTH SYD­NEY

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.

“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

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.

DAVID JALA/CAPE BRETON POST

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.

David Sey­mour

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