The Long Trip Home

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 30, -0001 12:00 AM
Thomas Goodyear, when he spoke to Downhome in 2009. Here, he holds an old photo of the Nova Scotia.

In April 1939, on the brink of the Second World War, a young man bid his true love goodbye before setting off for duty in the merchant navy. He left her with the promise that if she'd wait for him, he would marry her when he returned. "Well, tell me when you'll be back," she questioned him. Half guessing, the young seaman replied. "April, 1943."

Nineteen months later, Thomas Goodyear of St. John's found himself in the throes of war, and hoping for passage home to see his girl, Jessie Windsor. So upon arriving at Liverpool, England in November 1940 he spotted the SS Nova Scotia in port and thought he'd found his ticket home. Thomas knew the ship frequented Newfoundland, so he departed the vessel he had been sailing on and stepped aboard her.

It was a decision that would thrust him into one of the worst sea disasters of the Second World War.

Sailing South Africa
Originally built for the Liverpool-Halifax trade, the Nova Scotia was a small liner at 6,796 tons. During the Second World War, she was converted to a troopship and charged with the duty of carrying South African troops and cargo north to Suez; on return trips, she ferried Italian prisoners of war to help fill the labour gap in South Africa. Thomas made these trips for two long years, all the while with the dream of one day returning home on his mind.

While the Nova Scotia was fortunate to have had mostly smooth sailing, that would all change on November 28, 1942. At 9:00 a.m. that day, Thomas had just finished his breakfast when three torpedoes blasted into the ship.

"I was sitting out in the doorway...and bang! When the torpedoes hit, the three lifeboats on the port side, geez up they went, went up above the funnel," recalls Thomas, now 89, from his home in St. John's.

With no Navy gunners in sight, Thomas rushed to load the gun himself.
"We were all set to fire when the submarine surfaced, but it didn't surface - and the ship was rolling. Finally, when the deck got in the water, I said 'b'y we got to go.'"

There wasn't any need of jumping overboard. Thomas walked off the watery deck into the ocean. The ship was still moving forward when it finally tipped up on end for its final seconds above water.

"You could hear the boiler and the engines tumbling; they broke free from whatever was holding them down. By this time her propeller was out of the water," says Thomas. "And away she went," he says.

Soon after, German U-Boat 177 rose to the surface and its captain, Robert Gysae, was surveying his sea of destruction - nearly 1,000 doomed souls stranded at the mercy of the ocean - when he realized his horrific error.

Unbeknownst to the Germans, they had just sunk the Nova Scotia on one of her return trips; she was carrying 700-800 Italian prisoners of war.

"Gysae, he was horrified to think that it was his allies in harm's way," says Thomas.

U-177 took two Italians onboard, submerged and cruised away from the macabre scene. And in a truly unprecedented turn of events, Captain Gysae radioed for help for his victims.

Swarming sharks and a fight for life
Meanwhile off the coast of South Africa, the plight of the stranded crew and passengers worsened with each passing second.

For those who didn't succumb to drowning, there was another grisly death threat: sharks.

"The previous trip, the (ship's) refrigerator had broken down and the meat went bad and we had to pour it overboard. Next thing, we see the sharks eating (it). So I knew there were sharks around," says Thomas. With that terrifying thought in mind, Thomas covered his body in the tar-like fuel left in the wake of the sunken ship, in hopes of turning the sharks away. He credits this action as one of the reasons he survived the ordeal.

With all lifeboats destroyed, survivors were left clinging to rafts and debris.
"The bo'sun survived. He was on a wooden ladder. He had himself arranged in such a fashion that he survived 40 hours in the water on a ladder," Thomas says, shaking his head as if still in disbelief after all these years.

Thomas was one of the few Nova Scotia crewmembers who made it onto a raft. With more than 700 Italians and only 114 crew, competition for a spot on the rafts was fierce. Ask Thomas how he garnered his spot and he'll give you a look that says, "are you sure you want to hear this?"

"Whenever you would go near a raft the Italians would drive you away. So when the second night approached I said to Roy Hill (a fellow crewmember), 'if we don't get on one of those rafts, you've seen your last sunrise.'"

Roy, a trained soldier, suggested drowning all of the Italians on one of the rafts. Thomas couldn't bring himself to do such a thing, but agreed to help Hill if he got into trouble. Sparing details, he confirms simply that in short order, he and Roy had taken the raft.

Help has arrived
As time wore on, Thomas struggled to stay conscious while he watched so many others drift to sleep, never to wake again. Almost an entire day had passed when he sighted a ship on the horizon. It was the Portuguese training vessel Afonso de Albuquerque, the ship charged with rescuing survivors upon the German captain's say so.

Unfortunately, the ship was searching at the wrong coordinates; it started prowling the waters some 40 miles from where the survivors lay in their weakened states. Thomas watched the ship steam towards - and then away - from him for another 24 hours before he was rescued.

Afonso de Albuquerque eventually found the survivors and plucked 192 from the water - leaving the death toll at a devastating 750 individuals. Thomas was one of 14 survivors from the 114-member crew of the Nova Scotia.

The survivors were brought to Laurenco Marks in Mozambique, where Thomas boarded a train for Durban, South Africa. There, he spent a few days regaining his memory. The ordeal he'd been through left him a blank slate, "I didn't know who I was...I didn't know where I lived," he recalls. But his memory did return, and with it his desire to do what he set out to accomplish two years before when he stepped aboard the doomed Nova Scotia: go home, find his girl. It took a few months, but on March 31, 1943, Thomas finally set foot on Newfoundland soil. He wasted little time contacting Jessie, phoning her the same day he arrived.

It turned out, much had happened in Jessie's life while Thomas was at sea. She had enlisted in the women's division of the air force, and had spent time in Toronto, Calgary, and was by now stationed back in Newfoundland at Torbay.

But evidently, her feelings for Thomas had not changed in the four years that had passed. And Thomas still recalls that conversation as clearly as if it took place yesterday.

"She said, 'when did you get in?' I said, 'I just got in today.'

"'Oh my,' she says, 'you're a day early.'"

The pair married within weeks and celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary in April 2010.

Thomas was back at sea in the merchant navy that fall, appointed navigating officer on the Fort Amherst. He retired at age 55, after an entire career on the sea, but says he's never experienced anything comparable to the sinking of the Nova Scotia. "Nobody else has either - well, I shouldn't say that, I don't know." A pause for thought has Thomas change his mind, unable to imagine anything worse than the sinking of the Nova Scotia. "It couldn't be." - Story by Ashley Colombe


Greetings, from Gysae

Though he's mostly put the Nova Scotia sinking behind him, one serendipitous encounter did bring the disaster to the forefront of Thomas Goodyear's mind once again. Several years after the sinking, Thomas found himself meeting a German ship off the east coast of Newfoundland. He was to board it and help guide it through the narrows into St. John's. While onboard, he met a sailor who knew Captain Robert Gysae, the German responsible for the sinking of the Nova Scotia. It turned out, Gysae, too, had survived the war, and was by now an admiral. The sailor vowed he would inform Gysae that he had met a survivor of the Nova Scotia.

TheImage following Christmas, Thomas received in his mail a greeting card from Gysae. And for the next 10 years at Christmas, Thomas received a card from the man, with messages such as "I hope you are still in good health," and "Don't forget the U177 and the Nova Scotia." Gysae even invited Thomas and his wife to stay at his home in Germany should they visit the area. Incredibly, Thomas accepted the invitation. The Goodyears travelled extensively to visit with other Nova Scotia survivors, and decided to take the opportunity to meet Gysae. However, Thomas' friends and fellow Nova Scotia survivors were appalled that he would visit the man who had brought about so much suffering. Out of respect for them, Thomas returned home without meeting Gysae - a decision he still regrets today. Gysae died in 1989.

Despite the torturous days Thomas spent avoiding sharks and fighting for his life in November 1942, he harbours no anger toward his one-time foe.

"(Gysae) was doing his job as we were doing ours," says Thomas, matter-of-factly.

He's kept each and every Christmas card sent from Gysae, and vows he would visit the man today if he were still alive. What would Thomas have said to Gysae, had he gone to see him? "I have no idea," he pauses, adding, "I'd probably thank him for sending a message to Berlin, to say we were in the water." - Story by Ashley Colombe