John Joseph Ryan of St. John's was a telegrapher in 1914 when he enlisted in the First Newfoundland Regiment for the duration of the war. Little did he know that he'd return to that profession before war's end for one last encounter with the enemy.

This time, not on the battlefields of Turkey, France, or Belgium, but on the U-boat-infested waters of the north Atlantic.

The First 500

Ryan was born in 1896. Shortly after the declaration of war, the 17-year-old enlisted: Regimental No. 38 — one of the First 500.

He was wounded by shrapnel at Gallipoli and hospitalized first in Malta and then in England.

He returned to active service with the Regiment in 1916, survived Beaumont Hamel and was gassed at Ypres, only to be wounded again by a sniper while walking down a road.

Ryan was invalided back to England.

No longer physically fit to fight, he was posted home in 1917 and discharged from duty early the following year.

On board the S.S. Erik

Back in civilian life, Ryan resumed his career as a wireless operator on board the S.S. Erik, a three-masted, 583-tonne wooden sealing steamer.

S.S. Erik

S.S. Erik in an archival photograph. (Courtesy Memorial University Maritime History Archive Job Photograph Collection PF-315.197)

On Aug. 25, 1918, the vessel departed St. John's bound for North Sydney to pick up a load of coal.

In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, about 75 miles from St-Pierre, a German U-boat sighted the Erik.

"There was word out about the submarines and we were keeping close to the land … Of course our ship was very slow, it didn't move very fast, six knots or something like that. When it became night-time we had no riding lights. Everything was black. That was Admiralty rules," Ryan said.

An hour after midnight, he heard an explosion.

"My room was in the Marconi [wireless] room built on the bridge and I heard the explosion and jumped down over the steps to the main deck to see what was going on. I saw this shell burst in the water. I knew it was a shell because I saw them bursting in Gallipoli, a good many of them. And when I saw this I said 'Oh hell, we're being shelled.'"

A shell hit the coal pound on deck, throwing up a cloud of thick black dust as Ryan tried to get back to the wireless room.

"All the equipment was on the floor … having fallen down, you couldn't send a message anyway." 

The Erik took a number of direct hits. One slammed into the forepeak. Another shell hit the boiler room.

"We were steaming like a kettle on the stove and then she started to go up in flames. But after a while it's like the escaping steam must have put out the fire. And we were waiting to see what was going to happen, we didn't know where the old bucko was," said Ryan.

Captured

Seventeen men were on board the Erik.  

John J. Ryan c. 1975

John J. Ryan c. 1975. (Submitted by Wallace Ryan)

Two launched a small rodney when the German submarine surfaced nearby. An officer and sailor from the U-boat climbed into the lifeboat and they all rowed back to the disabled steamer.

"The German boarding officer said 'Did you send out any SOS?'  I said, 'No, I couldn't, your shell took all the equipment off the walls before I had a chance to use it'. 'Okay,' he said," Ryan chuckled. "He wasn't too sure I was telling the truth." 

Another metal boat on the deck of the Erik was big enough to carry all the men, but it had been damaged in the shelling.  

"The shells were after making a sieve out of it," said Ryan. "All holes, small holes."

The crew began patching it up under the watchful eye of the boarding officer.

While that was happening, a couple German sailors attached a bomb under the keel of the Erik.

The U-boat came closer. Ryan said as dawn approached, the Germans became impatient, worried about patrols. The boarding officer decided to transfer the Erik's crew to the submarine. Once they were all aboard, the Germans triggered the bomb.

"I could hear the thud. I couldn't see any explosion, because it was all under water. I saw her sink, stern first. I saw the bow up in the air. I didn't see completely, because I was going down the manhole," said Ryan.

The U-boat then submerged.

Safe and sound

"We didn't sleep … We just sat there and waited to see what was going to happen," Ryan said. "We didn't know if they were going to drown us all after."

Hours later, the sub surfaced again not far off St. Pierre, alongside a small fishing schooner from Grand Bank, the Wallie G.

"The Germans were counting out how many dorymen, how many of a crew the Wallie G had," said Ryan. "He decided to let us all go on board the Wallie G. Only for that, he would have sunk the Wallie G, see."

Ryan said later that day, the submarine sank three large American bankers in the same area.

The Wallie G landed at St-Pierre.  

"We were staying in Cafe du Nord. That night, all the crews of all the three American ships were in there, and our crew, we were all sleeping on the floor in the music hall."

The Erik's crew spent just one night on St. Pierre. The Wallie G took them to Lawn, where they were billeted before eventually picked up by a patrol vessel for the voyage back to St. John's.

"It was a different war, you know," said Ryan. "They were different men. They weren't the same Germans that fought with Hitler. I mean, there was a little more humanity ... He was after the ships, not the men."

Postscript

After the war ended, John J. Ryan married. He and his wife had five sons. He started Royal Grocery, a retail/wholesale grocery business in downtown St. John's.

He continued to work there until the year before his death in 1983, aged 86.