Nfld. & Labrador

Newfoundland commemorates 1942 marine disaster

Southern Newfoundland communities are commemorating the 70th anniversary of one of the province's worst marine disasters — the wrecks of USS Truxtun and USS Pollux off Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula.

203 died when 2 U.S. Navy ships sank, while survivor escaped with story of hope

The four-stack destroyer USS Truxtun ran aground and sank in Chambers Cove, N.L. Only 46 of 156 men aboard survived. (Memorial University Archives)

Southern Newfoundland communities are commemorating the 70th anniversary of one of the province's worst marine disasters.

Two hundred and three people died on Feb. 18 1942, when two U.S. warships, USS Truxtun and USS Pollux, were caught in an icy winter storm and ran aground off Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula, near the towns of St. Lawrence and Lawn.

There were 186 survivors.

The guests of honour are the families of former sailors on the two ships, but there are fewer of them now than when the last major anniversary was held.

More than 70 visitors came from the U.S. on the 50th anniversary in 1992, but fewer than 10 came this year.

Over the years, many people whose lives were affected by the tragedy have visited the community, including American Carl Janucha, who came to learn more about his father.

Lanier Phillips at a ceremony on the Burin Peninsula in 2012 marking the 70th anniversary of the sinking of USS Truxtun and USS Pollox off the coast of Newfoundland. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)
"Having been here...I have a deeper appreciation for him," Janucha said.

Ed Lewis, one of the survivors of the tragedy, had kept the ordeal from his family until he returned to St. Lawrence two years ago.

"I lived the whole thing over and over every night of my life," he said.

The story of one survivor, Lanier Phillips, has been celebrated internationally and become part of mythology of Newfoundland — told repeatedly in plays, books, radio and television documentaries.

Philips was a crewmember on the Truxtun in February 1942. St. Lawrence residents trying to rescue the seamen found him on the shoreline.

He was taken to a home and given a warm bath. As he tells the story, women there gave him a rough scrubbing, trying to remove what they thought was oil from the ship because they didn't know his skin was black.

He said once people realized he was black, they still treated him like anyone else.

Phillips, who experienced racism growing up in the southern United States, said he was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of people in Newfoundland. He credits the event with changing his life and teaching him that racism could be overcome.

After Phillips was rescued, he had a 20-year career in the navy and became an active member of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Phillips, who was in St. Lawrence for this year's ceremonies, credits the people of St. Lawrence for his success.

"Had it not been for the people of St. Lawrence, I would have had no family," Phillips told CBC News during a 2008 visit to the area.