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Joe Wilson waiting for a train from Portsmouth to Dunstable, England, while on leave, 1948. Last survivor of HMCS Esquimalt. (Handout/Handout)
Joe Wilson waiting for a train from Portsmouth to Dunstable, England, while on leave, 1948. Last survivor of HMCS Esquimalt. (Handout/Handout)

Last survivor of HMCS Esquimalt buried at sea Add to ...

They buried Joe Wilson at sea this week, allowing the ocean at long last to claim a man who defied death 67 years ago.

Aboard Caribou, a training vessel, an ageless ritual unfolded with military precision.

A naval chaplain read prayers. A piper played Amazing Grace. An urn containing Mr. Wilson’s ashes was placed upon a committal board and draped with the Canadian flag.

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With dignity, the urn was eased into the waters.

Kiara Pratt, 10, dropped a loose bouquet of yellow roses on the choppy sea, a flowery farewell to her grandfather.

“An emotional ceremony,” Mr. Wilson’s widow said afterwards.

Joan Wilson had never before been aboard a ship. It was her first experience of what her husband had gone through in seeking to defeat the Axis in the Second World War.

Joseph Frank Wilson died on New Year’s Day, two days short of his 90th birthday. He was the last survivor of the sinking of HMCS Esquimalt, a minesweeper torpedoed to the ocean floor just three weeks before the end of the war in Europe.

After the burial, Mr. Wilson’s family gathered at a memorial cairn on the lawn of town hall in Esquimalt, the community after which the minesweeper was named.

The cairn tells some of the terrible tale. One of the panels is marked: “Bodies not recovered.”

At dawn on April 16, 1945, German U-boat 190 fired an acoustic torpedo, striking the Canadian ship at the engine room in the stern. In about three minutes, the Esquimalt sank beneath the waves, taking with it 28 men.

The 43 survivors scrambled into Carley floats. There was not enough room for all, so some clung desperately to the sides. They could see the lights of Halifax in the distance, so the promise of rescue was in the air.

A plane flew overhead, but it mistook the floats for fishing boats and failed to raise an alarm.

Hours passed and the men prayed and sang songs.

One of them, Thomas James McIntyre of Victoria, the ship’s cook, tried to keep spirits up by promising to broil juicy T-bone steaks for all once they were ashore.

Over the hours, the men immersed in the chilly water began to die of exposure. Their bodies were lashed to the sides of the floats.

At last, six hours after the attack, the men were spotted. HMCS Sarnia rescued 27 survivors. The cold sea claimed 16 who escaped the ship.

An annual service is held at the Esquimalt cairn to remember those who served and died aboard the vessel.

On Monday, the Naden Band of Maritime Forces Pacific played O Canada and God Save the Queen. A trumpeter played the Last Post. A few lines from the Great War poem For the Fallen were read: “They shall not grow old …”

About 100 people came to pay respects. Some had a personal tale to share about the victims.

Myra Johnson came to honour her uncle. She was just 7 when a telegram with the sad news arrived at the family home. “I remember him coming over for Christmas,” she said. “He used to pick me up and throw me across his shoulders.” Her uncle was the cook. He was 32 when he died off Halifax harbour. He is buried at the Esquimalt (Veterans’) Cemetery, which is nestled between the 12th and 17th holes of the Gorge Vale Golf Course. The site is known as God’s Acre.

Cathey Meyer came to honour her late husband, Montague (Monty) Meyer, a leading stoker from Regina, who survived the attack.

Also in attendance was Catherine Walker, 90, who as a nursing sister tended to the men rescued from the sea.

The roll call of the survivors shortened with every passing year. In 2009, Ab Campbell and Thomas Kidd died. Five months ago, Fred Mimee died in Ontario. Now, Joe Wilson, who enlisted as a 19-year-old meat cutter from Prince Albert, Sask., is gone, too.

He slashed open both legs while abandoning ship, although the icy waters served to cauterize the wounds. They ached ever more with each passing year.

Mr. Wilson took as his duty the responsibility to travel from Chase, B.C., to Esquimalt for the annual remembrance.

This year, the duty fell on his widow, daughter and three grandchildren.

He also had a final request. Some years ago, members of the base at Esquimalt presented him with a decanter of rum. Mrs. Wilson opened it on Monday, toasting the memory of the men of the Esquimalt.



Special to The Globe and Mail

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