Like many teenage boys of his era, when the Second World War broke out, Harry (Red) Wassick put his life of hockey and hanging with friends on hold to serve his country. This is his story …
It was an early morning on the North Atlantic and the HMCS Guelph was being lashed by yet another storm. The ship was on escort duty, helping to protect merchant freighters sailing between Newfoundland and Londonderry, Northern Ireland from German U-boat attacks.
The sea was notoriously rough. As huge waves crashed against the ship, someone yelled: “We’ve got a man over!”
Nelson’s Harry (Red) Wassick didn’t see it happen, but was close by on deck and dropped everything to help.
He discovered he knew the crewmate in distress, who had been stationed on the pom pom gun, which could fire both across and at aircraft. Two men were always on watch at that position in case a U-boat showed up.
The water was too choppy to launch a lifeboat, but at least it was light enough to see, and a rescue net was tossed over the side.
As the ship maneuvered to locate his lost comrade, Wassick spotted him on top of the waves, trying to get closer. He wore a life preserver — a Mae West, they called it, after the busty movie star — but Wassick could tell his crewmate was getting tired.
“I’ve got to do something,” he thought. And the best thing, he decided, was to jump in.
Not yet out of his teens, Wassick was in excellent shape — he’d played junior hockey in Trail and was a strong swimmer from summers in Kootenay Lake — but he was not tethered to anything as he plunged into the ocean.
Ignoring the risk he was taking, Wassick latched on to his fellow sailor, only for the ship to lurch and pull them both down. The other man — a “big, powerful guy” — resurfaced and got one hand on the net, while Wassick held him from the other side.
By now, another crew member joined them in the water and together they hauled the exhausted man to safety.
Reflecting on the dramatic rescue today, Wassick chuckles that once the fellow recovered, they worked side-by-side in the ship’s galley.
“It worked out pretty good,” he says. “We had another cook aboard, but he ended up with some problem. I needed somebody, so the skipper said well, you brought this guy out, so he’s going to work with you. I said good deal!”
The man’s name was Williams and he was from Port Arthur, Ontario, but Wassick can’t remember his first name and doesn’t know what happened to him after the war.
While that incident had a happy ending, not all of Wassick’s shipmates were as lucky — others were swept overboard never to be seen again.
In fact, he says, the weather was far more formidable during his Navy service than the enemy, which he never saw firsthand.
“It wasn’t the U-boats that did damage,” he says. “It was Mother Nature.”
Once, the night watch told him, a torpedo was fired at them, “but I guess we were lucky. There was not much more said about it.”
‘I’M IN THE NAVY NOW’
Wassick enlisted in 1942 when he was 17.
The Hall Siding native spent the previous summer as a mucker at the Bayonne mine, near the top of the present Kootenay Pass, where his father knew the foreman.
“It did me good. It was a good physical trade for getting in shape and playing hockey,” he says.
He returned to school for a bit, then moved to the coast, where he stayed with a friend’s family.
“I bunked with them and worked for a while pulling grain out of cars from the Prairies. Then I got my army call.”
Wassick went for his physical, but realized he’d rather be a sailor than a soldier, so went to the HMSC Discovery, moored at Stanley Park, to sign up. A few weeks later, he heard back from the army, “but I said ‘It’s too late, I’m in the Navy now.’”
Although he hadn’t finished high school, he felt he and his friends had the blessing of principal L.V. Rogers: “He thought we might be better off if we went into the service and helped.”
The Trail Jr. Smoke Eaters, on the other hand, wanted him for another season and tried to find a job for him in the smelter, “but I said no, I’m in the Navy. Once I come back I’ll get into sports again.” (One of his Trail teammates, Jack Gallicano, also joined the Navy and was later best man at his wedding.)
Following training, Wassick headed east and was assigned to the Guelph. Soon, they were sailing the Atlantic under veteran naval officer Skinny Hayes — although at a speed of only three or four knots, the crossing took 16 to 18 days.
They would tie up for a short while and enjoy the old country, then escort another group of ships back the same way. Sometimes they would stop at US ports before returning to Newfoundland to pick up another set of freighters and do it all again.
Wassick packed his skates and on April 15, 1945 played in an exhibition hockey game in Halifax against the crew of the minesweeper HMCS Esquimalt.
“A fun game. Recreation for us. Next day they were on sailing orders in the morning and they got torpedoed just off Halifax. It was a big loss. Some of us were hit pretty hard. They had no time or chance to get any word out.”
Forty-four men died in the attack or from exposure.
Wassick says it showed just how far afield the U-boats operated.
“They were around Newfoundland and even up the St. Lawrence River. When we were doing escort work, taking all these freighters over with supplies, there was debris floating by all the time… We dropped depth charges when they found something happening.”
Once, in the Irish Sea, they detected a U-boat and began dropping charges, which brought oil to the surface — but this was a common decoy tactic.
“Eventually three English destroyers came out and told us we better move on and they would take over. But we got mentioned in despatches for initiating the attack.”
In addition to his duties as a cook, Wassick’s main action station was on a magazine right on the ship’s keel.
COMING OF AGE AT SEA
In all, he spent three years at war, including time aboard the minesweeper Fort Frances. In the final days, they brought a damaged submarine back to be refitted.
“Things were getting pretty close to the end. We ended up in Philadelphia and spent a day or two there, then went back to Halifax and on our way, Hitler called it quits. We gave up and just had a good time.”
Not that he thought his days at sea were over just yet: he signed up for duty in Japan, but surrender came while he was still on leave. Since he’d been gone, he’d grown from a teenager into a young man.
The following year he married Dorothy, a Nelson girl, at St. Saviour’s church. They celebrated their 65th anniversary this past July. They have five children, 10 grandchildren, and 10 great grandchildren.
Wassick and his brother took over the Occidental Hotel from their father and changed its name to the Civic (it’s now Finley’s). Red then ran a hotel at Athalmer in East Kootenay for a year and a half before coming back to Nelson and going to work in forestry.
He also resumed his athletic pursuits, patrolling the blueline for a few seasons with the Nelson Maple Leafs and playing senior baseball and lacrosse.
Now 86, Wassick has outlived most of his Naval buddies except one in Kitchener, Ont. who he still keeps in touch with.
Although he doesn’t have many mementos of his military service, he attends the Remembrance Day ceremony in Nelson every year and will be among the veterans there tomorrow.
Friday’s Remembrance Day ceremony at the cenotaph outside Nelson City Hall begins at 10:45 a.m., but you’re asked to show up about half an hour early. The moment of silence is at 11 a.m. A procession will then move up Ward Street to the Royal Canadian Legion.