Putting the Past to Rest

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 30, -0001 12:00 AM
In the summer of 2006 when he climbed from the small beach to the top of the cliff at Chambers Cove, near St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, 84-year-old Edward T. Lewis buckled under the weight of his memories. He sat down to rest. Far below him, waves gently lapped against the sand on a pleasant July afternoon.

It was a steep climb, although Edward led the way for his son Tom and the mayor of St. Lawrence, Wayde Rowsell, who had come along to help him. The two younger men had a hard time keeping up.

EdwardImage had laid eyes on Chambers Cove only once before, 64 years prior. His return unleashed an avalanche of locked-up emotion as he relived his days as a sailor aboard the four-stacker destroyer USS Truxtun, and the infamous events of February 18, 1942. He had never before told his family the details of that morning when he woke to orders over the ship's loudspeaker to get on deck. But up on the cliff the day of his return, Edward finally shared his tale.

The Truxtun ran aground at 0410 hours on the south coast of Newfoundland, while heading for Argentia. It was part of a convoy of three ships, including the USS Wilkes and the USS Pollux, that were under radio silence to avoid detection by German U-boats. In blizzard conditions, all three were off course and much closer to the craggy coastline than they thought.

Despite the heavily rolling water, Edward was fast asleep below deck; as a sailor he was used to sleeping through such stormy nights. He never heard the ship crunch and scrape against the rocks.

"It came on the loudspeakers that we had hit an iceberg and that everybody should get dressed and come topsides, so I got dressed real good and went up and realized it wasn't an iceberg, but that we'd run off course and had run into the rock by the mountain," Edward said.

On deck it was chaos. Sailors were running from their cabins getting ready to abandon ship. The boat was snagged on her starboard side and all around it were sharp, jutting rocks. The sailors were relieved a little to see the beach only a mile and a half away. If they could see land, there was a better chance for survival.

"There were life rafts not too far," Edward continued. "I decided I was going to jump overboard and swim to one. As I was getting ready to jump in, I knew that people didn't live more than 20 minutes in there. I told the Lord I accepted him when I was 19 years old and that I was jumping in and I would probably see him in 20 minutes. So I jumped overboard and started swimming."

By sheer luck, and perhaps also because he was young and strong, Edward wasn't pulled underwater and out to sea. He made it through the oily sludge of ocean to a raft with 10 or 12 sailors already on board. Someone called out for a switchblade to cut the line holding the raft to the side of the ship.

"When they got the rope cut they told us to put our hands in the water and paddle to get the raft up to shore," said Edward. The waves were running four or five feet high that morning and, as they paddled, a large breaker picked up their small craft and flipped it over. Edward hit the bottom and his teeth cut through his lip. But he could touch ground with his feet - he had overcome one more obstacle.

One of the first sailors to leave the ship, 18-year-old Edward Bergeron, had already made it to land and climbed the 300-foot-high rock face. He followed a dim, flickering light on the head-frame of The Iron Spring Mine in St. Lawrence, which was two miles from Chambers Cove, to get help. It was still very early in the morning and up to this point no one on land knew of the crisis unfolding just offshore that would become known as one of the worst naval disasters in American history. But once the first household was awakened, the residents of St. Lawrence sprang to action. The local men risked their lives lowering themselves by ropes over the steep cliff to rescue the Americans trapped below. The women prepared shelters to clean and feed the injured and nurse them back to health.

Next, Edward Lewis recalled someone attaching a rope to him and hauling him up the rock face of the cliff. "As I got to the top of the mountain there was a man up there with a bottle of whisky," he said. "He gave me the bottle to get a drink and I put it in my mouth and drank, but the whisky came out where my teeth cut my lip."

As Edward started walking to the shelter where the women were already caring for survivors, he fell in the snow. "Two little girls came up on both sides of me and hit me on the back real hard and told me to get up," he said, "and I did."

Edward was one of only 46 to survive that early morning wreck. In the end, 110 sailors on the Truxtun and 93 on the Pollux were lost. Fortunately, everyone aboard the Wilkes survived.

Edward Lewis's wife and children had been listening intently as he told this story to Downhome. He isn't normally a talkative man. In fact, many of the published accounts of the shipwreck disaster do not mention him.

Now that his story is told, his daughter Julie recalls standing above Chambers Cove with her father a few days earlier. "It just didn't occur to me what he was thinking - that he didn't see the same things I was seeing," she says. "I saw beauty and he saw death."

She had seen pictures of her father in his white sailor suit and blue tie, but she had no sense of what he had lived through in the U.S. Navy. She and her brothers were unprepared for the emotional response they shared with their father.

"Just for us to say 'Daddy was in a shipwreck and he had to climb up a cliff,' it doesn't mean anything," says Tom. "Until I got there I had no idea what those guys dealt with. And the one man who got off the ship and went to get help should have gotten a medal of honour because he didn't know where he was going or what he was doing, and he kept going and going until he saw a light from those guys in the mine and they grabbed him."

In the typical reserve that Edward is known for, he thought he would go to St. Lawrence and quietly visit the site. No such luck, though. The town learned of Edward's visit and embraced him once again. Mayor Rowsell took him personally to the historic sites linked to the disaster, such as the museum and the Echoes of Valour, a sculpture of a Newfoundland miner and an American sailor that recalls the incredibly heroic actions of that day.

While in St. Lawrence, Edward also returned to the home of the compassionate woman who, 64 years ago, undressed him, washed the oil from his skin and rubbed his freezing hands until they uncurled. When he walked into Sue Farrell's house he said, "It's me, your survivor," then broke down and cried in her arms. Rescuer Levi Pike, who was 18 at the time of the tragedy, crawled down over the cliff and returned with rocks from Chambers Cove beach to give to the Lewis family to take away with them.

Edward is back home in South Carolina now and Julie says he probably won't be making another visit to Newfoundland. He hardly travels as it is, which is one of the reasons why his children were surprised that he was so determined to come all the way to the island. Perhaps he just needed one chance to thank the people of St. Lawrence, of whom he says, "Lord, they couldn't have been nicer to me. They took care of me." - Story by Kristine Power