Little Lawn Point, the area where the Pollux went down (Tony Loder photo)
The coastlines of Newfoundland and Labrador are littered with the wrecks of sunken vessels. All their victims were mourned in their day, but few have garnered long-lasting, international attention the way that the loss of the American naval vessels USS Truxtun and USS Pollux have. Lost on the same stormy night off Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula at the height of the Second World War, the shipwrecks claimed the lives of 203 sailors and have been called one of the worst naval disasters in US history.
This month marks 75 years since the tragedy, which, even after all this time, is far from forgotten by the people of Lawn and St. Lawrence - and many others south of the border.
Against All Odds
Escorted by the destroyers USS Truxtun and USS Wilkes, the supply ship USS Pollux was bound from Maine to the US military base in Argentia, Newfoundland, loaded with cargo for the war effort. A few days into the trip, on February 18, 1942, the convoy found itself in the midst of a blinding winter storm off the coast of Newfoundland. The Truxtun ran aground at Chamber Cove just after 4 a.m.; minutes later and less than two miles to the west, the Pollux followed suit at Little Lawn Point. (The Wilkes also ran aground, but freed itself and eventually made it to its destination.)
It’s what happened next that makes the story of the Truxtun and Pollux not just one of tragedy, but one of humanity. When news of the wrecks reached the locals, brave men from St. Lawrence and Lawn ventured to Chamber Cove and Little Lawn Point and risked their own lives to save 186 American sailors - often by hauling them with ropes, or by carrying the weary men on their own backs, over steep cliffs. The survivors were transported to St. Lawrence, where residents took them into their homes and nursed them back from the brink of death.
The late Frederic C. Brehm of Wisconsin was one of those surviving sailors. His son and namesake, Fred Brehm, is still astounded by that story, which his father relayed to him as a teenager.
“In high school I was writing a term paper and looking for a subject, and I think my mom suggested that I interview my dad about the Pollux incident,” says Fred over the phone from his home in New Jersey. “I was in awe…It was kind of unbelievable that something like that had happened to my dad.”
He says over the years his father, who passed away in 2009, travelled all over the US attending reunions of survivors. One place he never went, however, was Newfoundland.
“He did regret never having gone back, but he never did do that. I think part of it was that he may have been - I don’t know if scared is the right word - but that place did not hold good memories,” says Fred. “So I always wondered if it was because of that that he didn’t go, rather than just forgetting.”
Last summer, Fred finally made the journey that his father regretted never having taken. He and his wife and a couple of friends loaded up an RV and travelled to Newfoundland for a two-week trip that took in L’Anse aux Meadows, Terra Nova National Park, Gros Morne National Park - and Lawn and St. Lawrence.
During a reception at the Royal Canadian Legion in Lawn, held in their honour, Fred met the wife and daughter of one of the rescuers. “It was really touching, they all came out to meet us,” says Fred. “It seemed like everybody in the town is related in some way to the rescuers. I basically said ‘Thank you’ a lot.”
During the trip, Fred donated a heirloom beloved by his father to the Lawn Heritage Museum. The dramatic painting of the Pollux, created by a fellow survivor, depicts the ship half submerged in icy waters. On the painting, artist J. Crump wrote the eerie words, “We Were There.”
“You get the chills, kind of, when you look at it,” says Betty Drake, a Lawn resident committed to preserving the memory of the disasters. The image holds even greater meaning for Betty, since she’s one of relatively few people who has visited Little Lawn Point, where the Pollux went down. She says her first visit was an overwhelmingly emotional experience.
“When we got on that cliff, it was like we could feel them. Looking down into the water, it was like we could feel their spirits there. It’s impossible to imagine…And then it’s impossible to imagine hauling 140 men up over those cliffs, and then carrying them to a copse of wood and trying to keep them warm and keep them safe,” says Betty.
It’s a moving experience she wants others to have as well. So, in 2013, Betty formed the Little Lawn Memorial Trail of Heroes Committee, a group dedicated to forging a trail to Little Lawn Point. A hiking trail to Chamber Cove, where the Truxtun ran aground, already exists and Betty feels a trail to Little Lawn Point would help complete the story. A portion of the trail is complete, but there is still much work to be done to make the rugged terrain suitable for public use, says Betty. The committee is currently raising funds, appealing to the public and to government for financial assistance to see the project through.
Meantime, the group has created a Room of Remembrance, dedicated to the Pollux, in the basement of the Lawn Heritage Museum. Fred’s father’s painting now hangs there, along with priceless artifacts and photographs that tell the story of the disaster to locals and tourists alike. Among the items on display are actual pieces of the Pollux (which, Betty says, can still be spotted wedged into the cliffs at low tide), two naval uniforms once belonging to Pollux survivors, and photos of many of the American sailors and their rescuers.
A Tie That Binds
Betty says that in addition to visitors from all parts of this province, the Room of Remembrance has had its fair share of American tourists, like the Brehms, who come to gain a greater appreciation for a disaster that touched their own family.
Fred and his wife plan to return to Newfoundland this month, to participate in the events taking place in St. Lawrence and Lawn in honour of the 75th anniversary of the disaster.
“Every year we have an ecumenical service and a wreath laying, but this year it’s going to be a week-long event…plus we’ll be having extra things going on throughout the year,” says Laurella Stacey of the
St. Lawrence Historical Advisory Committee.
From February 13-19, a variety of events are set to take place in St. Lawrence, including a production of the play “Colorblind,” based on the disaster; a craft exhibition; and live music (see below for a schedule of events). In Lawn, a prayer service will take place at the church, and a wreath laying will be held at the Legion at a time to be announced.
On February 18, 75 years to the day from the date of the disaster, the St. Lawrence Historical Advisory Committee will hold an ecumenical service and wreath laying at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in St. Lawrence.
Following the service, a new memorial will be unveiled at Chamber Cove. Laurella says the design for the memorial was thoughtfully chosen.
“When you look at it from a distance, it looks like an anchor,” she explains. What it actually depicts is a cross and the wings of a bald eagle, the US national emblem - which also holds special meaning locally.
“It’s been said that they’ve seen a bald eagle out there sometimes, hovering over the site, almost like he’s protecting the area,” says Laurella. “He sort of goes from one side to the other, hovering over the place where the Truxtun went down.”
It’s all heartening for Fred. While his father, and most likely all the other sailors who survived the shipwrecks, has passed on, the efforts to preserve the memory of the disaster offer hope that the tragedy will not be forgotten.
“I think it’s really wonderful. I didn’t know that the shipwrecks really meant so much to the local people,” says Fred. “It really says that they have some feeling of history or ownership of this thing, that it’s not just some random thing that happened in the past.” - By Ashley Miller
Click here to read the late Frederic C. Brehm’s fascinating first-hand account of surviving the USS Pollux shipwreck. See below for special events taking place in St. Lawrence to commemmorate the shipwrecks.
75th Anniversary Schedule of Events
Slideshow presentation, featuring photos related to the disaster, shown to students of St. Lawrence Academy
Live music by local talent at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Hall, St. Lawrence
Members of the St. Lawrence Historical Advisory Committee perform the play “Colorblind” for the general public at St. Lawrence Academy
Ecumenical service and wreath laying at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, St. Lawrence; monument unveiling at Chamber Cove followed by a social gathering at St. Lawrence Academy
Craft exhibition at the St. Lawrence Recreation Centre - try your hand at knitting, rug hooking, etc. during hands-on demonstrations by local crafters