Jim McAskill: A Life from the Collection

By Clare Sully-Stendahl

While cataloguing items in the museum’s collection, I came across a small black book titled “The Navigators and Engineer Officers’ Union Membership Book.” The membership information in the inside front cover revealed that it had been issued in Glasgow to James Alfred McAskill, a 3rd Officer (at the time of issue in 1941) with a home address in New Westminster. I was very curious about who James McAskill from New Westminster was – so I was thrilled to discover we had a donor file in our records from his wife, Pegeen McAskill. The file contains a “Remembrance” of his life that was read at his funeral. This “Remembrance” includes an extensive account of his time in the British Merchant Navy on deep water ships during World War II, written in his own words. By combining his biographical writing with the other objects from his life that Pegeen had donated to the museum, I was able to get a glimpse into his incredibly interesting life.

James McAskill – known as Jim – was born in New Westminster on June 16, 1914. He grew up spending time on the docks and marking on the woodshed door the names of all the deep water ships he saw coming into port. After high school, he worked at the Woodward’s grocery store until his wish to be a sailor himself came true. The introduction to his “Remembrance” notes that “When his chance finally came, many of his older friends wondered if this pale, thin young man would survive the rough life in a ship’s foc’sl. He thrived.” He did indeed – he sailed out of New Westminster in 1935, embarking on a deep water career that spanned more than a decade and included service in the British Merchant Navy during World War II.

For almost four years, Jim sailed on the Donaldson Line ship Gregalia, a cargo ship with routes between the United Kingdom and ports on the West Coast. After a short time at navigation school, he was placed on the steam merchant Corrientes. It was while he was on this ship, travelling west through the Panama Canal, that World War II was declared.

The New Westminster Harbourmaster put him as an Able Seaman on the Harborough, which had a memorable stop in Sidney. Jim writes “a 4” gun was put on the ship in Sidney. A quite unsatisfactory lesson in gunnery was given by naval officers and when we went below our quarters were in a shambles. […] It was obvious our old ship had not been built to carry guns. We never fired it again.” The Harborough then became the last merchant ship through the Mediterranean by sailing to Gibraltar, where the crew had a no less memorable stop. Jim remembers:

“For some unexplained reason the mate decided on our first morning in Gibraltar to have a boat drill. First morning in any port not the best time. Those who weren’t using both hands to hold their head up were giving a flawless performance of windmills with their oars, until one person jumped up, looked at the rock, and yelled ‘Tahiti!!’. Things got better.”

Arriving in Glasgow, Jim recognized his old ship Gregalia and filled an open berth onboard for an Able Seaman. After a round trip to Canada, he went to the shipping office to have his time checked in order to sit for his Second Mate Foreign Going certification. He was only a few days short, and he more than made it up by signing on to the Coracero for two round trips to Buenos Aires that included shovelling bombs and incendiaries off of the Coracero’s deck during the blitzing of Avonmouth. He returned to Glasgow and on the day of passing his exam he returned to a telegram on his pillow telling him to report the next morning to the Merchant Navy Officers Pool.

Jim spent a year as a Third Mate on the Empire Glen, loading phosphate rock in Florida and ammo in Alexandria, before coming to Vancouver with a crew, where he stayed at the Hotel Grosvenor while waiting to take delivery of a new ship. The next year he went to take another delivery, this time of a small Portuguese trawler. Jim writes:

“A delightful time in Lisbon – a city not at war and all the lights on. Followed by an undelightful voyage in rough weather in convoy to Hull.

We were all seasick. So seasick that when the captain spotted a lone plane high in the sky, he said, ‘I hope that’s a German. I hope he has one bomb left and I hope he drops it down our smokestack and puts an end to this nonsense.’ However, it was a friendly plane and we struggled on. We had been designated as the pick-up vessel in the convoy; we wondered how we could help anyone.

We had adopted a half-grown cat in Gibraltar, named him GIB of course. Have you ever seen a seasick cat? When we arrived in Hull we couldn’t turn a merchant cat over to the navy. The second engineer was due for a visit home to Stornaway, so he took Gib. When we changed trains at Crewe station, the cat got away. All five of us missed our train to Glasgow, but we found the cat, and safe inside the engineer’s jacket, he got to Stornoway.”

August 1943 to September 1944 saw Jim on several different ships crossing the Atlantic multiple times, as well staying in Glasgow for about six weeks while he studied for his First Mate Certificate. He spent the following summer loading lumber in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, before returning again to Glasgow and signing on to the M.V. Pinzon. Jim writes that “On starting up the gangway I had the oddest feeling that all would not be well with this ship. Met the third mate on board. Norman Livingstone would only say ‘2nd Mate, I don’t want to be here.’ More later – But it turned out to be his last ship.”

 It was on this ship, after a year off the Adriatic Coast, that Jim experienced one of the largest ammunitions disasters of the war. The Pinzon was loading in Bari in April 1945 when the liberty ship the S.S Charles Henderson, discharging bombs in the adjacent berth, suddenly exploded. The disaster killed 542 people and injured 1,800. Jim writes of the experience that

“There was considerable loss of life among the Merchant Seamen and considerable damage to the ships in the area, including our own ship. The top bridge and lower bridge were in a shambles, as was my cabin. I guess I was safer on deck, under a shelter of hatch covers. My sextant, normally kept in the chart-room, was found intact in its box in #3 lower hold. The blast from the explosion carried me over the side to the water. Fortunately the dock side. The deck rails were out, and a cargo net was there to hang onto. Somebody hauled me up onto the dock and I crawled to the dock gate, from where I was taken with others to the hospital for a clean up as I was covered from head to foot with fuel oil from ships whose tanks were ruptured. The cleaning was a painful process, following which I was issued a new battle dress. My other battle dress pants had a slit the length of one leg, but I don’t want to know what came that close! I returned to the ship and found the Captain and C/O in board. They had noticed a body in two pieces abreast of #2 hatch and wondered who it was. I removed the ID card from the breast pocket, although I was afraid it was the 3rd Mate. He would not know what hit him.”

After attending the mass burial, Jim was on the Pinzon as it was towed to Taranto and then to Haifa for repairs, before sailing to Alexandria. In Alexandria Jim was hospitalized for jaundice, during which time the war ended.

After being discharged, Jim sailed “for Halifax and home.” Tucked into the back of his membership book, I found his ticket stub for the first leg of his train journey back to British Columbia.

Jim finishes his recollections by writing:
“A short spell at home and in March ’46 signed as Chief Officer on Selkirk Park, renamed Tahsis. Took a timber cargo to Hull, England and returned to Vancouver. Signed off July 31, 1946 and ended a deep water career. Paused at the gangway. I had done what I most wanted to do, and I had done it well.”

Jim received the medals the 1939-45 Star, the Atlantic Star, the Pacific Star, the Italy Star, and the War Medal 1939-45.

 A year later Jim signed up with the Union Steamship Company. He was on the Cardena with Captain Billy McCombe when he met his wife, Pegeen, who was on board taking a cruise to Rivers Inlet the summer of 1948. Jim made an impression upon her and she visited the bridge, where the Captain told Jim to take her down for tea. The book Union Steamships Remembered describes that “Pegeen was a very persistent lady and liked this Third Mate but he was a little hard to get to know. The day they were to dock back in Vancouver she had to think of some way of meeting him again. Then she got the bright idea of obtaining a ship’s dinner menu and getting the autographs of the ship’s officers. She approached him for his autograph and managed to get a date with him after the ship docked in Vancouver.” They were married the following year.

In 1948 Jim studied for his Home Trade Master’s Certificate, and in 1949 he spent time in the Arctic as a First Mate on the Snowbird II. After working on tugboats until 1954, he worked on the waterfront to stay closer to his family until his retirement in 1977. He died on December 25th, 1988.

Apart from his Membership Book, we also have several items from Jim’s Merchant Navy uniform in the Collection, along with two of his “workbooks.” Although Jim doesn’t refer to these items in the “Remembrance,” a note written by Pegeen explains that crewmen in the Merchant Navy were responsible for buying their own uniforms and equipment from the Ogg Brothers in Glasgow. Apart from their uniforms and eating utensils, the sailors bought their own “galvanized pail” and “a straw mattress known as ‘donkey’s breakfast.’” Pegeen explains that the pail would have been used as a tub for both his clothes and himself, and tells the story that “Jim’s family doctor, who was the ship’s doctor when needed in New Westminster, admonished Jim when he first went to sea, ‘Don’t let anyone use your bucket.’”

Jim would have also purchased his boots. We have his pair of Merchant Navy work boots in the collection. Interestingly, they are wooden-soled – apparently, the wood sole was actually more non-skid on deck surfaces than the rubber soles we normally associate today with work boots.

The two workbooks are both filled with notes and working problems. These range from calculations of tides, to notes on procedures relating to storms and tropical cyclones, to a carefully transcribed paragraph on “How to tell if pickled goods are going bad.” The introduction to the “Remembrance” remarks that as a high school student, Jim was not particularly enthralled with studying literature until his math teacher Mrs. Urquhart reminded him that if he wanted to be a ship’s officer he would have to have a strong memory. He certainly seems to have taken to his studies – his workbooks are a remarkable testament to the scope of the knowledge and skills he not only had, but used daily while at sea.

Reading Jim’s memories from his years at sea while engaging with his items from the collection not only provided me with insight into the daily experience of living and working on deep water ships during the war years; it has also been a most wonderful experience of getting a peek into the story of one sailor’s incredible, rich life.

Photograph from Union Steamships Remembered: 1920-1958. p.196.M