Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

HMCS Hell

Three months in a lifeboat with a gun

Georges Malouin joined the navy in 1941 for all the usual reasons, but left it realizing that he did not have a country. He has spent most of his adult life receiving psychiatric help for the emotional trauma he suffered while working as an ordinary seaman.

I joined because my two older brothers were in the navy and, not knowing the mess I was getting into, I wanted to see the world. The navy to me was hell. I joined up with the French section, Cartier, thinking that it would be something French, but Montreal and Cartier section was the same thing—all English, not even a word of French to show that we existed. Training? (laughs) It was in Montreal and I understood nothing. The only thing I could say in English was: “Me, English, not much.” I didn’t even always understand my name because I’ve been called Malquin, Maloroom, Mal, here, Mal, there. When they gave me the course in armaments and explosives, I understood nothing and just scratched things on my paper in the tests. They didn’t pass me and thought I was probably in the lower range of intelligence. I couldn’t speak English so I was not intelligent.

My first ship was the Lethbridge in Halifax and the guys didn’t like very much the fact that they had a Frenchman on board so they were watching me. Once I was on watch at the end of the ship and was seasick because I was new in the service. I was vomiting overboard and they came and put me in cells for two weeks thinking I was sleeping on duty. I saw the look of hate on the faces of the officer and the rating who was with him. That’s when I began to be angry. I never forgot that and thought, “Do what you want. I don’t care.” I was in jail and didn’t even know why and that’s when I became a rebel.

So after I got out of there, they sent me to Newfoundland. Because of a mix-up with names, I didn’t get any pay for eight months. I got mad because I wasn’t in the service for free. Anything that was English then became my enemy.  I began to admire the Germans and while I was in Newfoundland I took a course in German and that was against me. (laughs) I also wrote things against the navy and they thought I was a spy. I was told I was going to be shot. Just imagine a young fellow in the barracks, Christmas is coming and being told he was going to be shot. I was eighteen and naive and believed it. I managed to get myself in jail again. I was no criminal but, speaking only French, could not defend myself. They sent me an interpreter but he said he couldn’t understand my French although I spoke it better than most. So I spent months in His Majesty’s jail considered an enemy of the country.

At Niobe, the barracks in Greenock, Scotland, I was waiting for transport to HMCS Teme and we had permission to sleep at the YMCA. Around midnight four sailors arrived and surrounded me and asked me what I was doing there. I wasn’t afraid. I had my two hands and was a husky fellow. I said, “It’s none of your business.” One of them told me that he was the killick of the watch. Killick is like a sergeant. I said, “If you’re a killick, you have to wear your uniform before you tell me what to do.” He told me that I had to get out. He made the mistake of grabbing me and I gave him a punch. The three others jumped on me. At the end, three were on the floor and the fourth one got away. I made a massacre of them. I’m not the kind to look for trouble but I don’t run away from it either. So the Military Police came and one said, “I hear you had problems.” I said, “My problems are over there.” (They were still on the floor.) They quickly understood the situation. An officer told me that I could press charges because I was the one who had been attacked but, if I did, I would miss my ship and these guys would never forget it. Well, I didn’t want that and told him to let it go. When I went on HMCS Teme, these guys came alongside the ship and told my shipmates all about their adventure with me and said that I was responsible for making them go to jail. They didn’t tell the truth, but that’s the reason the hell started. I didn’t want trouble but I had trouble.

One good thing happened at Niobe. One day they sent me to make a hole in the wall for the post office and I told the fellow working with me to go on one side to do the job. He said, “Goddammit, I’ve been here five minutes and already you’re giving me orders.” I told him I thought I had to tell him what to do. The next day he apologized and told me that he had had a bad night and we became friends. He was an English fellow from New  Brunswick, Robert Rowe.  When you have a friendship you always find a way to communicate. Bob was always reading comics and telling me jokes and I was starting to learn English a little. The day after my run-in at the YMCA, I got on the Teme and, to my great joy, Bob joined me there.

I was on the Lethbridge, the Qu’appelle, and the Kincardine, but HMCS Teme was the worst. That’s when I started to hate. One day, Bob came to me and told me that he overheard some of the guys say that the first chance they had they would throw me overboard. I knew from my brothers and others that it did happen and that the law of silence would mean that they wouldn’t stool on each other. So I was waiting for them. I had bought a gun, a .45, from a fellow from Rosemount who was on the ship and every time one of them came near me, I would tell him I didn’t want to see him around me. I was really mad, you know. I wanted to use a machine gun and machine gun all the crew. The only thing that stopped me was having my friend Bob. I knew where the guns were and I only had to cut the chains to use them. I even had maps and knew exactly where I was going to land after I sank the ship. Bob told me that they would take the gun away from me when I was asleep so, every night for three or four months, I had to sleep in a lifeboat. Do you know what being afraid is? I was afraid and shaking with cold and fear and hunger. I had nothing to eat so Bob would come and give me some food. Sometimes it was frozen potatoes or potato peels, which made me sick, and I had diarrhea but couldn’t get out of the boat. I couldn’t bathe or anything.

It was hell. I was living a nightmare and was delirious. For Christmas Bob brought me a chicken leg or some ham, I don’t remember exactly, but I do remember the piece of apple pie and a jug of hot chocolate. That was my Christmas. I couldn’t eat in the mess because even in daytime they would throw me overboard. Many times I wished I could die. All the things that happen on a ship—nobody sees a thing. They were just like hoodlums,  like bandits. The three worst were from St. Catharines, Ontario. Whenever they would meet me somewhere they would give me a punch. At the end I was so mad that I probably would have worked for Hitler. The guys who were supposed to be fighting on my side were fighting against me. I had two wars. I was fighting against the Germans and watching for my life on the ship. The enemy was not only below the water. They were on deck with me. Sometimes I was sure that I had lost my mind.

We got torpedoed by a U-boat near Falmouth on March 29, 1945, at 7:45 in the morning. The explosion knocked sixty feet off the stern and my friend Bob got killed. That was the worst thing that could happen in my world. He wasn’t my best friend—he was my brother. I got hit with shrapnel in my face and chest, and one eye was affected. The guys came around and said, “You bastard, how come you’re still alive?  It’s always the good ones who die.” The ship was towed to Falmouth. While I was taken from the ship to the harbour, I was in a basket and the two guys holding the cables let them go. I was drunk with morphine but I still remember it. It’s a good thing the captain came or they would have drowned me. On the 13 of April, I had to go back on the ship to pick up the ammunition that was lying around before the ship was scrapped. Not knowing what I was doing because I couldn’t understand the ammunition course I took, I picked up an explosive and it blew up. I lost the thumb and three fingers of my left hand. 

I spent four or five months in jail altogether because I had a reputation as a rebel. You sleep on a bed made of wood. I don’t think there was a mattress. I was always alone in my cell. I had a Spanish book so I learned Spanish. I sang and talked to myself. Dinner when you had it was a biscuit with a jug of tea. You put the biscuit in the tea but, by the time it got soft, the tea was cold. But they give you a lot of tea, eh? When you threw this biscuit against the wall, sometimes it would break and sometimes it wouldn’t. I used to kill the cockroaches with it. On Sundays we had a meal but if they decided that your cell wasn’t clean enough, you had no dinner. They broke my spirit and I lost my mind after the Teme. The first thing I said when that happened was, “I won’t have to pick oakum anymore.” At the end of the war, I wanted to go home on the first ship, a rowboat or anything going to Canada. I was on the parade ground at Greenock when an officer called me inside and asked me when I was going home. When I got back, my name had been called but I wasn’t there. They did that four times. Tell me that it was only a mistake! The fifth time I lost my patience and they placed me on the first ship in the direction of Canada. They took me to Newfoundland. When I left the ship, I had my two hands bandaged and asked someone to take my luggage ashore. They threw my kit bag overboard so I couldn’t change clothes and had no hat or anything. I was charged a lot of money to replace my kit. When I went to see my brother who was in Newfoundland already, I was crying and he told me I didn’t look so good.