ONCE A YOUNG SAILOR, A GRANDFATHER NOW
Reporter talks to grandpa about war experience at sea
When Clinton White was a 17-year-old Prairie boy, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy and served in the North Atlantic. His grandson, Leader-post reporter D.C. Fraser, sees him as a hero. But like so many veterans, White sees it differently.
He doesn’t speak much or often about it, but my grandpa was one of those young men who put his life on the line so I could enjoy freedom.
Recognizing that he, like all of those who fought in the Second World War, was getting older, I wanted to know what, if anything, he would say — because like everyone else who risked their lives to protect our freedom today, his story is one worth remembering.
On June 22, 1942 in Regina, Clinton White joined the Royal Canadian Navy as an Ordinary Seaman. He was soon sent to Vancouver Island, near Comox, to train at what is now known as HMCS Quadra. He was 17 years old.
It was the first time he had ever left the Prairies, and he knew he was going to war.
After being qualified on munitions as a trained Able Seaman, Third Class, he was placed on HMCS Miramichi — a mine sweeper stationed on Canada’s West Coast. He transferred to another minesweeping ship — HMCS Canso. This ship carried him, now at the age of 18, from Victoria, B.C. through the Panama Canal and up to Halifax, N.S.
My grandpa was soon sailing toward the Second World War, now aboard the frigate HMCS Prince Rupert.
He tells me he was on call 24 hours a day as the Prince Rupert travelled across the Atlantic Ocean guarding convoys.
“You were a little apprehensive, because you had to be apprehensive. Let’s face it, we were at war and the enemy was out there,” he said, when I ask him what it was like travelling across the ocean.
The enemy ended up changing from “out there” to “right there” for my grandpa on March 13, 1944, when the Prince Rupert was a key participant in the sinking of German U-boat 574, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about 1,100 kilometres away from land.
According to an article that appeared in Canadian newspapers about this sinking, “six seconds after the submarine broke surface, Prince Rupert’s gun crews were plastering it with high explosive and Oerlikon shells.”
Two United States ships aided the Prince Rupert, and 14 German sailors were taken prisoner aboard my grandpa’s ship. The Americans took another 24 prisoners. Sixteen Germans died during the event.
While all that was going on, my grandpa was “at the bottom of the ship,” moving ammunition up to those gunners.
“You’ve got guns going off, popping. You don’t know if they’re yours or the other guys’, or what’s going on. You’re a little apprehensive, until you start moving ammunition,” he said, “The apprehension all leaves right away.”
“You don’t think anything. You don’t really know what to think. It must go through your mind, ‘Am I going to be here or not?’ But I’ll tell you, the man who says he wasn’t scared is a liar.”
Over the years, mostly through research done by my dad, I’ve read bits and pieces about this moment. In my mind it was always this triumphant moment — the peak of my grandpa’s heroism. That isn’t how he sees it, though. “We were happy about it, but we weren’t really celebrating. After all, guys were getting killed. Whether the enemy or not, it’s still guys getting killed. So you’re not really jumping up for joy,” he says.
It’s for this reason, I suspect, that when I ask my grandpa why it is important to wear a poppy, to recognize the importance of Remembrance Day, that he’s never filled me full of glorious tales of sinking a German submarine.
“You should know about the war, for sure. I don’t think it should ever be forgotten, in any shape or form,” he says. “If we hadn’t … fought, you might be living under Hitler today. It’s as simple as that.”
When I ask him what he remembers most about the Second World War, he gives two answers.
“You think about the guys you serve with,” he says, before adding, “the most important thing I remember is when I met Dorothy in Saint John.”
Dorothy is my grandma — we call her nanny — and she has been married to my grandpa for 73 years.
They met at a dance near the end of the war, when my grandpa’s ship was being repaired in New Brunswick.
My grandpa was, and for his age still is, a very good dancer. He caught the eye of my grandma, who is also a great dancer, and they have been together ever since.
Growing up, and to this day, grandpa will only speak in short sentences about fighting in a war that resulted in 60 million people dead, more than 45,000 of them Canadians.
But the signs of my grandpa being a sailor have always been evident.
On both of his arms he has sailor tattoos — both done by an Irish sea captain in Londonderry, Ireland. Both are indistinguishable now, as the skin on his arms has wrinkled over his 94 years, but one is of the old Canadian flag with the words “Canada Forever” above it. The other is of a ship and the words, “Homeward Bound.”
Another telltale sign of my grandpa’s former seafaring life is his ability to put back a bottle of rum. He doesn’t drink much these days, but I’m pretty sure my grandpa could still drink me under the table.
But my earliest memory of recognizing that my grandpa fought in the war comes from my mom, who when I was maybe six or seven, came into my bedroom on Nov. 11 and instructed me to be silent for one minute, to think about grandpa.
I remember asking her why. This is when she told me her dad fought in a war so that I could be free, and that many of his friends died during it.
This was also the moment when war became more than just a make-believe idea in my head, and my grandpa became even more of a hero in my mind than he already was.
He didn’t need to talk about it for me to know that, so I had never really asked — until now.
“You’ve got to think about what the past is. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t, because I mean after all, I did lose a lot of buddies in the war,” he says. “You always think about it.”
Clinton White joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1942 and did his part to defeat Hitler’s Nazi forces.
Clinton and Dorothy White met in Saint John, New Brunswick near the end of the Second World War and have been married 73 years.