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A case of memories: Sailor who survived sinking of HMCS Valleyfield kept mementos in old brown suitcase

This week will mark the 80th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the HMCS Valleyfield off Newfoundland, killing 126, including several sailors from Victoria.

Laurence Hammick packed his memories of the Second World War into a small brown suitcase and never showed any of it to his daughter.

Inside were his medals and records of service in the Royal Canadian Navy, his dog tags and a watch, official teletypes he kept as a signalman for all the ships he served on — and yellowing newspaper clippings about the harrowing night of May 8, 1944 off Newfoundland, when a German U-boat delivered a lethal torpedo that split the HMCS Valleyfield in two and sent the frigate into the depths, with the loss of 126 of 164 crew.

The Valleyfield, only six months in commission, was hit while protecting the flank of a large convoy returning from England in the North Atlantic.

Hammick, 21 at the time, was one of the lucky ones. He was on the deck when the acoustic torpedo hit in thick fog at 4:35 a.m., and was able to follow the captain’s order to release at least one of the Carley floats — a kind of life raft — as the fore of the Valleyfield sank in 90 seconds and the aft about five minutes later.

Hammick was one of 38 survivors who spent an hour in the cold, oily waters before being being rescued by HMCS Giffard.

“Dad never really talked about it … I don’t think many of them did after what they went through,” says Kathleen Hammick, who was only 10 when her dad died in 1980.

But the suitcase revealed a lot about some of the horrors he probably kept well hidden when he returned to Victoria after the war, says Kathleen.

She had heard some stories about the sinking from her mother, Sharon, over the years, but she never gave it much thought.

Hammick went on to work at the post office on Glanford Avenue, enjoyed music and ballroom dancing and generally lived a happy life — though it was cut short at age 57 when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

“Everyone that knew him said he was just a wonderful guy,” said Kathleen.

Kathleen Hammick rediscovered her father’s suitcase of war memories when her stepsister was cleaning out the family home in Cordova Bay in December. She opened it to discover the newspaper clippings of the Valleyfield sinking, realizing that May 8 will be the 80th anniversary of the tragic event that affected so many sailors and their families — including several from Victoria.

Another Victorian and signalman on the Valleyfield, William (Bill) Hocking, also survived the sinking. But unlike Hammick, who was clothed and on duty, Hocking was below deck in his shorts, so he pulled a “zot suit” — a padded overall designed for warmth — over his shoulders, leaving his arms free to swim.

“The explosion was terrific,” Hocking said in an account in the Daily Colonist after the sinking. “By the time I reached deck the ship was well down … seemed as if her back was broken. I don’t think she remained afloat for more than a minute.”

Hocking dove into the icy water and found a Carley float, waiting for an hour in the frigid waters to be picked up.

Hocking returned to Victoria after the war. Including a leave of absence for war service, he worked for British Columbia Coastal Marine, a division of the Canadian Pacific Railway, for 45 years. He died in 2009, survived by his wife of 63 years, Vera, and five children.

The last of the 38 survivors — including 10 from B.C. — of the sinking of the HMCS Valleyfield died in 2015.

Of the 126 dead sailors — 14 of whom were from B.C. — only five bodies were ever discovered.

Six Victorians perished in the sinking — Lieut. John Edmond Storey, 27; Lieut. Stirling Cash Mason, 23; Ordinary Seaman James Anthony Cornwall, 21; Leading Seaman Walter Gordon Randall, 20; Ordinary Seaman William Davey, 20; and Stoker PO Roderick Arnold Wilson, 25.

Wilson was working below deck at the time of the torpedo strike — newspaper accounts at the time said explosions of the ship’s boilers and ammunitions were “certain to have caused a number of casualties.”

“No man in the stoker petty officers’ mess or engine room escaped,” according to a May 20, 1944 story in the Montreal Daily Star.

Carla Wilson, a Times Colonist reporter and niece of Roderick Wilson, said his loss was heartbreaking for the family.

Roderick’s parents, Nellie and Percy Wilson, had raised one daughter and three sons in a home on Gonzales Bay, and all four of the siblings enlisted and served in the war effort.

Roderick’s body was never recovered. After the sinking, one of his crewmates visited Roderick’s parents and described how terrible conditions were in the water and assured them that he would not have been able to survive, Wilson said.

“Even so, my aunt Lorna, Rod’s sister, said she believed that for the rest of her life, [Roderick’s mother] always hoped that Rod would walk through the door.”

Roderick Wilson’s name is etched on one of the family gravestones in Ross Bay Cemetery.

Stories emerged about the “cool courage” displayed by the Valleyfield crew during the brief but horrific sinking,

The Royal Canadian Navy said amid exploding ammunition lockers and boilers that immediately killed sections of crew, the ship’s captain, Lt.-Cmdr Dermott T. English of Halifax, started singing For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow while clinging to the side of a float as the Valleyfield slipped below the waves.

English kept up the survivors’ spirits, but was weakening, according to survivor accounts. He asked one sailor to write to his wife if he didn’t make it. Awash with waves, the captain then silently slipped away.

Three sailors were also honoured for bravery for calmly making their way among the Valleyfield’s depth-charge vaults to kill the primers to prevent them from exploding, thus saving their mates who were struggling to survive on the surface. “None of the brave trio survived,” according to the navy.

“The cold water was thick with oil, wreckage, hammocks, lifebelts, floats and debris,” the navy said in a news release at the time. “In a few minutes most of the survivors were paralyzed by the cold, unable to to help themselves or their shipmates. Many injured themselves beating their hands and feet against the sides of the floats to try and keep circulation alive.

“From the water, they watched the stern go down with the propellers churning.”

The rescue efforts of crew members from both the Valleyfield and HMCS Giffard were also noted, with 14 men decorated for gallantry and bravery. Members of the HMCS Edmundston also picked up survivors.

Stoker Charles Coleman, 20, of Victoria, from the rescue corvette Giffard, was among five naval men who volunteered to set out in the oily waters in a dinghy to rescue crew members from the Valleyfield.

HMCS Giffard’s commanding officer, Charles Petersen, also of Victoria, told the Canadian Press in 1944 that the volunteers were “extraordinarily calm” as they pulled survivors to safety.

“They pulled until they just couldn’t pull any longer,” said Petersen. “When they returned to the ship after more than an hour of back-breaking, heart-breaking effort, they were physically exhausted and so soaked with black fuel they could no longer hold their oars.”

The dinghy crew brought in three survivors from one Carley float, then two more from another float and returned yet again to rescue a sailor from a piece of floating wreckage.

According to the Canadian War Museum, the navy escorted more than 25,000 merchant ships over the course of the Second World War. The vessels delivered 165 million tons of supplies to Britain and Allied forces.

The museum said in the course of operations, the Royal Canadian Navy lost 14 warships to U-boat attacks and another eight ships to collisions and other accidents in the North Atlantic. It also sank, or shared in the destruction of, 31 enemy submarines.

Most of the 2,000 members of the Royal Canadian Navy who lost their lives in the war died in combat in the Atlantic. Canadian merchant mariners lost one in 10 seamen among the 12,000 who served in Canadian and Allied merchant vessels, the museum said.

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