'Heart and risk and sacrifice': Film celebrates sailors' rescue off Newfoundland

The story of the dramatic rescue through ice and oil is the subject of a new documentary called As if they Were Angels.

People from Lawn and St. Lawrence sprang into action when the USS Truxtun and USS Pollux were in trouble

A still from the documentary As If They Were Angels shows an oil-soaked sailor rescued off the coast of Newfoundland (Terry Strauss/Vimeo)

It was four o'clock on a February morning and no one could see anything. The two ships were on rocks, oil was gushing everywhere and the sailors had to swim for it. 

The ships were U.S. navy vessels — destroyer USS Truxtun and supply ship USS Pollux — en route to Placentia Bay, when they came upon a blistering winter storm that would eventually kill 203 sailors. 

Another 186 men survived the ordeal, in large part thanks to the people of nearby St. Lawrence and Lawn, Newfoundland. Now, the story is told in a documentary called As If They Were Angels

"The Newfoundlanders came out in the storm and risked their own lives to save sailors," said filmmaker Terry Strauss. 

"I was absolutely blown away."

Ice and oil 

It happened in 1942, at the height of the Second World War. The ships were headed to a U.S. naval base in Argentia when the trouble started. 

A few sailors managed to make it to shore on their own, swimming through icy salt water and oil slicks. 

As they did, people on land came to understand the catastrophe unfolding, and leapt into action. 

A US. navy ship with the number 229 on the side.
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)

They tied ropes around themselves and headed out into the water to pull sailors to safety. 

They struggled for hours, dragging the Americans ashore one by one, where other volunteers warmed the victims by a fire, before taking them home for hot baths, clean clothes and warm beds. 

"This is a story of such tremendous heart and risk and sacrifice on the part of the Newfoundland people. It's hard to imagine," said Strauss. 

"Would you do that? Would you take those risks?"

Family connection

If anyone should be able to imagine it, it's Strauss. Not only has she spent years immersed in the story of the wreck, she has a family connection.

Her father was aboard the Pollux.

"My father would have died if they had not rescued the sailors, there's no question about it," she said. "I wouldn't have been here."

Strauss said her father helped with research, but they agreed the story couldn't simply be about his experience; the wreck had a far greater impact. 

Hundreds of sailors and their families were shaped by that storm, including Lanier Phillips, the U.S. navy's first black sonar technician. 

His widely recounted experience in St. Lawrence changed his perspective on race relations.

Phillips, who was a mess attendant aboard the Truxtun, said the Newfoundlanders treated him far better than white people in his home state, Georgia. It inspired him to break down barriers within the navy.

Lanier Phillips, a mess attendant aboard the Truxtun, was rescued when the ship got caught in a storm off Newfoundland. (CBC)

Strauss said many survivors felt a heightened sense of purpose after the wreck. 

"In my father's case, certainly, he felt a responsibility to do something valuable in the world," she said. 

"There had to be some kind of a result of the fact that they were rescued when so many others weren't."

The film had its world premiere at The Rooms in St. John's in 2018. More recently, it's been shown to soldout crowds at the Patriot Theater in Michigan.   It debuts on the documentary Channel on Tuesday, February 18 at 9 pm ET/PT.

Strauss hopes other theatres and platforms will screen the movie — she'd also like to see the story developed into a major motion picture. 

"I hear from audiences all the time," she said, "this is a story we need to hear now more than ever."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On the Go