LITTLE HARBOUR – When 1942 rolled around, Harry Ferguson walked up to a Charlottetown recruiting office and joined the navy. Not for glory or recognition, but to make sure he didn’t miss out.
“It was more a matter of all my friends were signing up to go,” the 92-year-old said with a smile. “I wanted to be where my friends were – who wouldn’t?”
Two years after casting his lot with the navy, he would watch hundreds of thousands of Canadian, British, American and other Allied soldiers land on the beaches of Normandy in the largest amphibious invasion to ever take place.
Born on April 4, 1922, in New Glasgow, Ferguson attended NGHS and spent a year at the Maritime Business College. After a stint at Pictou Lodge and a CNR hotel in Charlottetown, he signed up to fight in the Second World War.
“I spent a lot of my time down at the shore and I liked the water, so that’s why I went navy. It was what I knew best,” he said.
Since he didn’t have a navy applicable trade, he decided to train in torpedoes and other weapons including depth charges. He was drafted to HMCS Ottawa, one of Canada’s formidable escort destroyers.
The convoys, which at times included more than 100 merchant ships loaded with food, supplies, fuel and weapons, sailed from Halifax to St. John’s to Derry in Northern Ireland; a route known as the Newfie-Derry Run. Ferguson remembers the anxiety on the brutal North Atlantic.
“Some nights, the weather was so bad we’d lose a couple ships. We count them in the morning to see which were still afloat.”
When he wasn’t worrying about weather, U-Boats stalked the convoys just below the surface. Ferguson knew when he heard the distinctive ‘ping’ on the radar, it was time for action stations.
“‘Set to D for Dog’ they’d yell out. That meant set the depth charge to D so it would detonate at 150 feet.”
One day out of the blue, the destroyer and crew were taken off convoy duty and given extra workups, or training. While no one knew the specifics, Ferguson said the crew knew something big was up.
“People kept talking about the big invasion. It was a lot of training going on for different scenarios.”
Two days before D-Day, Ferguson remembers the ship’s captain conducting the Sunday service. After hymns were sung, he instructed the crew to make final preparations should they perish in the coming operation.
“I gave one of my fellow torpedo men my mother’s name and he gave me hers, just in case something happened.”
On June 6, HMCS Ottawa escorted landing craft loaded with soldiers to the beaches of Normandy. They went as close to the shore as they could with the men and they slipped back into the English Channel to protect the fledgling beachhead from sea.
In the weeks after D-Day, the ship sank three German U-Boats.
As Hitler’s empire crumbled from west and east, Ferguson found himself in Halifax the day Germany surrendered. He attempted to sign up to fight in the Pacific theatre of war but was discharged instead as a leading seaman.
After a career in the civil service of over 30 years, Ferguson served as a municipal councillor, recreation co-ordinator and first fire chief of Little Harbour Fire Department, of which he remains a member. Not everyone was so well adjusted upon returning to Canada.
“Some people had a tough time, especially the infantry. They saw death right before their eyes,” he said. “When I dropped a depth charge, I knew that we’d sunk a U-boat but I didn’t see bodies. It was a silent, invisible death.”
Looking back, he thinks that there are others who deserve recognition for their work on D-Day.
“The men who landed on the beaches that day, those are the heroes,” he said. “If they failed to establish a beachhead, we would have had to try again. The world could be a different place if they had failed.”
On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn