Survivor of 1942 SS Caribou sinking recalls ordeal

70 years after surviving the sinking of the passenger ferry SS Caribou in the Cabot Strait, Percy Moores still knows he's lucky to be alive.
Percy and Beatrice Moores in 1942. (CBC )

Seventy years after surviving the sinking of the passenger ferry SS Caribou in the Cabot Strait, Percy Moores still knows he's lucky to be alive.

"I darned near drowned there," said Moores.

Moores, a sailor with the British navy aboard a minesweeper in the English Channel, was heading home to Moores Cove, Newfoundland, on leave when, just before dawn on Oct.14, 1942, a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the SS Caribou.

More than 130 of the passengers and crew aboard the ferry died, making the sinking the deadliest disaster in North American waters during the Second World War.  Moores was one of about a hundred people who survived. 

Percy Moores is one of the last living survivors of the sinking of the SS Caribou. (CBC )

Moores spent the evening before the sinking talking and drinking with friends, thinking they had left the dangers of war behind him.

"I guess the war was far out of our minds at that time," said Moores. "We were on leave. We were going home."

Because it was a night crossing, the ship was escorted between Sydney, N.S., and Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, by the Canadian minesweeper, Grandmere. Nineteen ships had already been sunk in Canadian waters by the Germans.

At about 4 a.m., Moores was rudely awakened.

"The torpedo hit us pretty well midships and I was in a bunk at the time, the top bunk,  and it knocked me clear out of the bunk and on to the floor," recounted Moores. "So I scrambled up the stairwell there, but there was only four minutes from the time the torpedo hit to when the ship was gone." 

The S.S. Caribou sank into the Cabot Strait, 35 km from Port aux Basques, with most of its lifeboats still attached.

"I tried to get the lifeboats off. They weren't prepared for it. They weren't expecting it because everything was rusty and [there was ] no time to do anything about it," said Moores.

"We had a habit in the navy of using our lifejackets for a pillow. Most of the time you'd put your lifejacket on. Especially if you were in certain circumstances, you would put your lifejacket on and use it for your pillow and that's what I was doing that night. But the minute, the second I came on deck, somebody ripped that lifejacket off me, just grabbed ahold to it and tore it off.

"I hope the guy that tore it off survived, because I survived without it."

Unaware of sinking

Meanwhile, at home in Cottrell's Cove, the community next to Moores Cove, Moores' sweetheart Beatrice, had no idea her future husband was in danger.

Beatrice Moores had no idea her future husband was in danger. (CBC)

"To get the news, if you wanted to, you could come in the post office and read what was outstanding that particular day or the day before," said Beatrice Moores.

While Percy Moores was fighting for his life, Beatrice thought he was either in England or New England.

Fighting for his life

Meanwhile, Moores was struggling to get clear of the sinking ship.

"I headed for the bridge and almost drowned myself because the suction of the ship took me under for a while," said Moores. "When I came to surface, I heard people singing and crying and whatever have you. I swam for a raft and got on a raft."

Moores had made it into an inflatable liferaft that was overloaded with survivors. He and the other spent four hours hanging on while people all around them slipped away.

"There were still a lot of people that just held on to the side of it but you couldn't do that for very long in that kind of water, temperature wise. You couldn't stay in it very long without giving up." 

"It was so full, so crowded, that it rolled a couple of times and lost some of the people, but it stayed until we were picked up," recounted Moores.

The SS Caribou's escort ship had been ordered to pursue the German submarine, but it eventually returned to pick up survivors from the Caribou.

"All I had on was my top, my tunic and stuff like that. I just had the underpants and the rest was naked and one of the sailors gave me a pair of pants."

Relief in Cottrell's Cove

News of the sinking eventually made it back to Cottrell's Cove.

"His mother got a telegram from the war department that he would be home the next day," said Beatrice Moores. "And she figured it out from there, if they were telling her, that it probably was because he was on the Caribou."

A couple of days later Percy Moores walked back into Cottrell's Cove, much to Beatrice's relief.

"I was in the barn cleaning up, doing something with the horses.  I had a pair of rubber boots on and I was a mess and I came out to come home and ran right into him."

The British navy docked Percy Moores' pay until it recovered the money it cost to replace the Moores' uniform and kit he lost on the Caribou.

But Moores said he has more than made up for the lost pay with the free trips on the gulf ferry he has received as a veteran. 

Percy and Beatrice Moores raised their family in Florida. After 64 years of marriage, they still live there, but they visit Newfoundland almost every summer.