Bridget Fitzpatrick a story of heroism
Merchant Mariner from Bay Roberts saved others on ill-fated ship
Bridget Fitzpatrick’s gravestone doesn’t attract your attention right away.
A layered white marble construct, at first glance it’s just another headstone in the Roman Catholic graveyard in Bay Roberts.
Enclosed by a cast iron fence, Fitzpatrick’s grave is one of three on the family plot — her mother and father are buried next to her — and it looks simple and ordinary. It has the look of an unkempt plot as bunches of brambles have grown as high as the headstone itself. Even the grass in front of the fence shows signs of neglect.
There’s no evidence it’s been touched for some time, save for the small cross and Canadian flag stuck in the ground at the front of the stone. Royal Canadian Legion member Eric Mercer lays it there each year around Remembrance Day.
There’s nothing to indicate how Fitzpatrick lost her life until you take a close look at the inscription. It’s faded with time, but it’s still clear to recognize what she did to earn such a headstone.
It tells of a 61-year-old woman who paid the supreme sacrifice to save the lives of others
Digging a little deeper into the woman commonly referred to as Bride reveals an astonishing act of heroism.
Fitzpatrick was the chief stewardess aboard the ill-fated S.S. Caribou, a Newfoundland railway ferry vessel sunk by enemy action in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Oct. 14, 1942.
In Doulgas How’s “Night of the Caribou,” he described this trip from North Sydney as uneasy for Fitzpatrick.
“She doubts that she will get much sleep at all, she says, because there are a lot of small children aboard, and she expects to be needed,” How wrote.
The German U-boat U69 torpedoed the Caribou some 40 miles to the southwest of Port aux Basques on the province’s west coast.
Fitzpatrick was the only female in the 46-member crew. Also on board were 73 civilians and 118 military personnel.
Many of the lifeboats were damaged in the attack and it took five minutes for the Canadian vessel to sink. The casualties — many of whom were from this province — climbed to 137 lost.
Gave up her seat
This is where Fitzpatrick’s story of sacrifice starts. While there are differing reports on the circumstances surrounding the people she helped, what isn’t in doubt is that she gave up her seat on a lifeboat so some passengers could have a better chance at survival.
Reportedly, Gladys Shiers and her 15-month-old son Leonard were the ones who took her place.
Of 14 children aboard the Caribou that night, he was the only survivor.
Much of the difference centres on the 20-year-old Gladys, a Halifax native, en route to Newfoundland to be with her husband Elmer, who was either a naval petty officer or a Canadian Navy shipwright depending on what you read.
Another report indicates Gladys was three months pregnant at the time, while others say she, baby Leonard and a Vivian Swinammer were swept overboard as the Caribou sank.
They managed to reach a lifeboat, while a Ralph Rogers placed the youngster in a life raft.
In a 1999 Compass article, Wilson Strickland of Port aux Basques confirmed the truth of Fitzpatrick’s story. He’s since died.
Richard Finn, a manager of the West Corner Brook Town Council, said Fitzpatrick “died as she would have wished to die, at her post of duty and in the service of her country.”
She was the first Newfoundland and Labrador merchant mariner to die at her post.
Fitzpatrick is amongst the dead honoured at the Women Mariners Memorial at Veteran’s Park in Langford, B.C.
Bridget Fitzpatrick rests in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Bay Roberts.