*Warning: This story contains graphic details some readers may find disturbing.
When Lawrence Morgan enlisted for duty in the Royal Navy, it was without any blessing from his father. William Morgan’s protests were likely a loving effort to save his young son from witnessing the horrors that he imagined awaited overseas.
“He didn’t want me to sign up but I signed up anyhow, went to St. John’s and signed up. But I don’t regret it,” says Lawrence, donning his neat legion coat, adorned with countless medals.
Approaching his 97th birthday, the Seal Cove, Conception Bay-native resides at the Springdale Retirement Centre in Springdale, Newfoundland. Though in excellent physical health, he admits his memory isn’t what it used to be. While names and dates often escape him, one disturbing, wartime memory seems to remain at the forefront of his mind.
He says he witnessed a close friend, a fellow Newfoundlander from St. John’s, getting fatally struck at sea.
“My friend’s head was cut off and the captain sang out - my nickname was Rattler - ‘Rattler, go pick up that head!’” recalls Lawrence. Though he was horrified by the captain’s grisly order, he carried it out. “The hardest thing ever I done,” says Lawrence, who later performed his buddy’s burial at sea. “You can’t forget a lot of things. It would be nice to forget everything, but you can’t do that,” he says.
Lawrence says he served as a gunner aboard HMS Valiant before being transferred to HMS Warspite.
“I’ve been all over the world. We were protecting Africa and Egypt during the war,” he says.
Following the war, Lawrence went on to serve in the Merchant Navy. In the late 1940s, he finally settled in Montreal, Quebec, where he found work as a machinist with Northern Electric (later Nortel), where he was employed for close to 40 years. Oddly enough, in Montreal he met and married a fellow Newfound-
lander, Jessie Belbin of Carbonear. Together, they raised two children.
Lawrence didn’t return to his home and native land until the early 1990s, after his wife passed away. He remarried at age 75 and lived in Robert’s Arm with his second wife, Dorothy, and moved to Springdale in 2011, shortly after she, too, passed.
While he says he’s long since put his Navy days behind him, he admits he suffered from nightmares in the war’s immediate aftermath and he’s thankful that he now enjoys a peaceful night’s sleep. Despite the many life-and-death situations he faced, Lawrence insists he kept a level head.
“I wasn’t afraid back then, wasn’t afraid of nothing,” says Lawrence. “If you were scared that was the worst thing ever happened.”
He says many of his friends became shell shocked as a result of their experiences overseas, and didn’t live the long life that he has enjoyed. And despite his haunting memories, Lawrence is enjoying his golden years. He participates in functions at the retirement home where he lives, and recently went on bus trips to Trout River and Twillingate. He is also a lover of music; during our interview he spontaneously regales me with a rendition of the Scottish ballad, “Andrew Davidson,” about a fishing vessel going down in a storm, and misses neither a beat nor a word. He turns 97 this month.
“Today it’s all like a dream, but it was no dream back then - it was the real thing,” says Lawrence. “But I feel good today.” - By Ashley Miller