Nfld. & Labrador

Memorialized as lost at sea, but he lived to tell the tale: A WW I survivor's incredible story

Fred Mills survived an attack at sea by a U-boat. So how did his name end up on two war memorials in two different countries?

Fred Mills survived a U-boat attack, and lived to see his name on memorials in 2 countries

WW I survivor memorialized as lost at sea, but lived to tell the tale.

6 years ago
Duration 9:50
Fred Mills survived a U-boat attack, and lived to see his name on memorials in 2 countries.

Fred Mills of Carbonear had a full career, four children, a long marriage and lived to the ripe old age of 83 — but you'd never know it if you just spotted his name on two different war memorials in Newfoundland and France.

His name, and those of his five shipmates on the schooner Jorgina are engraved on the Newfoundland Mercantile Marine Monument in Bowring Park in St. John's and at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, as part of a tribute to those lost during the First World War with no known graves.

Fred Mills was listed as dead in 1918, although he would live until 1979. (Submitted by Clara Oliver)

How that happened is all a glitch in history — but with a very real and remarkable tale of near death behind it that has been Mills family lore for decades.

His descendants decided to share it with The Rooms as part of its ongoing project to document stories from the war.

"It's a fabulously ordinary story of an extraordinary event, the kind of which wars are made," said Mills's grandson, Dean Oliver, director of research with the Canadian Museum of History.

Setting sail

Mills first took to the sea around the age of 15, and was in the merchant navy in the early years of the First World War. In 1917, he married Sarah Belle Smith.

"She said she was married on a Saturday night, and on Monday morning, he went to sea," recounted Mills's now 90-year-old daughter, Clara Oliver.

The Jorgina sailed out of Carbonear in late December laden with cod, bound for Spain. But on the crew's return journey, the six men and their ship ran into trouble on March 24, 1918.

Mills's name appears on this memorial to First World War dead with no known graves, in Bowring Park in St. John's. (CBC)

"Their ship had come upon another vessel being shelled by a surfaced German U-boat and when that ship went to the bottom, the U-boat turned on the Newfoundland boat and shot across the bows," said Dean Oliver.

Dean Oliver said the U-boat commander took the sailors' papers, told them they had a few minutes to gather supplies, and set them adrift in the Atlantic in a small dinghy. 

Struggle to survive

The men had no choice but to row to where they supposed the nearest land might be, an estimated 600 to 800 kilometres away.

"They just rowed day and night — he said they took turns. Some would sleep and some would row, and they had a couple of oars," said Clara Oliver.

"Rowing some of the time, they improvised a sail, and it took them six full days to make landfall in Madeira," said Dean Oliver.

"They had very little water, but he said they cut the tongues out of their boots — they had leather boots — and he said they chewed the leather from their boots to keep the saliva in their mouth. He said they were discovered on the Madeira Islands by a beachcomber, but he said at that time, they couldn't talk very much because their tongues were swollen," said Clara Oliver.

The two-masted wooden schooner Jorgina. (Maritime History Archive, Memorial University, image of painting PF-343.0037)

When the men made landfall on the Portuguese archipelago off the coast of Morocco, they were cared for by the locals. They stayed on the islands for more than a month as they recuperated.

'Dad was torpedoed'

But the news the men were alive never made it back to Carbonear.

"They got a message that said Dad was torpedoed and Dad was dead and so they all believed that they were killed," said Clara Oliver.

The men rowed six days across the Atlantic before making landfall on the Madeira archipelago. (Google Maps)

After they recovered from the ordeal, the crew slowly traced their way back to Newfoundland, arriving home three months after their supposed deaths.

Fred Mills surprised his wife Sarah one night at her friend's house.

Clara Oliver says her parents rarely spoke about her father's ordeal growing up. (CBC)

"She nearly fainted — she thought she was imagining things. She couldn't believe it was him. She said she was never so scared in her life as when she looked up and saw Dad in the house," said Clara Oliver.

He wasn't a ghost, but tell that to the complicated bureaucracy of war. Mills and the crew had already been chalked up as losses, and the paper trail was never corrected, leading their names to be listed on the Beaumont-Hamel memorial which was later copied and placed in the park in St. John's, where their names remain today.

Rewriting history

Mills's ordeal was not talked about much as Clara Oliver grew up, but the family came to celebrate his adventure and its subsequent historical quirk.

Clara Oliver, right, poses with granddaughter Charlotte Oliver at the Bowring Park monument that includes the name of Fred Mills. (Submitted by Dean Oliver)

"One of the most treasured possessions in the family now is a photograph of my youngest daughter, who's six, and my mother who just turned 90, standing next to the caribou monument in Bowring Park pointing to the name of their not-very-dead-Granddad from 1918 — who lived of course to a ripe old age," said Dean Oliver, adding the family has taken steps to correct the monuments.

"Recently the Commonwealth War Graves [Commission has] agreed with me that my Granddad survived, DNA evidence in the presence of family was sufficient proof. And they will be delisted from those who were formerly commemorated at war."

But the crew of the Jorgina won't be utterly erased from the history books, with the memorials staying as is, despite the error.

'Adventure story for the ages'

With The Rooms now involved in preserving the story of the mercantile marine, the episode has given a glimpse into a little-known facet of the Great War.

"It's not a common story," said Kerri Button, curator of history for The Rooms' First World War project, adding about 500 Newfoundlanders served in the mercantile navy.

Dean Oliver hopes his grandfather's story sheds a bit more light onto the ordinary people involved in the First World War. (CBC)

"We just don't know who they were, we know very little about what they were doing, we know very little about their work. His story is really remarkable for that."

Dean Oliver hopes by sharing his grandfather's story, more people can get to know about the small contributions, services and feats that happened during wartime.

"There was my Granddad, carrying fish to Spain and salt back, and he and his five shipmates wound up in an adventure story for the ages. So it's a reminder, I think to everyone, of the nature and horror of war and just how dramatic and extraordinary those ordinary tales can be."

The names of all members of the Jorgina crew, including Captain Josephus (Ceaf) Osmond, William Pilgrim, Ingram Hiscock, Samuel Short, James Brien, and Fred Mills, are engraved on the monument. They all lived. (CBC)