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Thomas Goodyear, with a photograph of the ill-fated Merchant Navy ship, the Nova Scotia. (Ashley Colombe/Downhome Photo)
Thomas Goodyear, with a photograph of the ill-fated Merchant Navy ship, the Nova Scotia. (Ashley Colombe/Downhome Photo)

obituary

After U-boat hit, Captain Thomas Goodyear swam with the sharks Add to ...

In April of 1939, Thomas Goodyear left Newfoundland in the crew of the Queen of Bermuda. His girlfriend, Jessie Windsor, asked when he would be back. At a guess he said April, 1943.

Continually studying and rising up through the ranks and to the bridge, in Liverpool, England, in November, 1940, he signed on as watchman (and soon into the Merchant Navy) with the RMS Nova Scotia.

The liner had been on the Liverpool-Halifax mail run with the Furness Withy & Co. line, but with the Second World War it was converted to a troop ship, conveying South African troops and cargo to Suez, and then Italian prisoners of war to South African labour camps.

“The PoWs were treated the same as our British troops,” Captain Goodyear wrote in his unpublished autobiography. “Same quarter, same food, the exception being that they were not allowed on deck at night, nor did they have the run of the ship.”

In November, 1942, they sailed from Massawa, Eritrea, with 134 British and South African troops, several British women and one child, and 765 Italian prisoners of war. On Nov. 28, 1942, about 9 a.m., just as Capt. Goodyear was finishing breakfast, the German U-boat 177 hit the Nova Scotia with three torpedoes. Watch a video here of Captain Goodyear describing the events.

“The ship gave a monstrous convulsion,” he wrote. “The port side lifeboats were blown completely out of their lashings. A great sheet of flame and smoke came out of the main entrance on the boat deck.”

He rushed to man the guns, but there was no target to hit. It quickly became apparent that they needed to abandon ship. The deck was so low he simply walked off it into the ocean. Moments later, the Nova Scotia tipped up and sank.

“We did not swim,” he wrote. “There was nowhere to go. People, everywhere.” Even worse, the radio operator told him they had not been able to send a distress signal.

The German U-boat surfaced and its captain, Robert Gysae, saw them in the water. “Gysae was horrified to think that it was his allies in harm’s way,” Capt. Goodyear said in an interview with Downhome magazine five years ago.

But German Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz had recently issued the Laconia Order, prohibiting the rescue of enemy survivors. The submarine took two of the Italians on board, then submerged and left. Capt. Gysae also radioed the BdU (Befehlshaber der U-Boote, the central command of U-boats) for aid. It ordered him to continue his patrol, but it did, in turn, notify the Portuguese about a rescue.

But no one in the water knew this – only that they were adrift in dangerous, shark-filled waters. Capt. Goodyear got his knife ready, and covered himself in fuel oil.

“It was not long before I saw the first shark take a man,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The man just disappeared with a wave of his left arm.”

Everyone clung to rafts and debris; the bosun, who survived, was entwined on a wooden ladder. After one day in the water, Capt. Goodyear had made it on to a raft.

“Whenever you would go near a raft, the Italians would drive you away,” he told Downhome. But it seemed the only hope of survival.

He and a fellow crew member pushed the PoWs off the raft and into the water, but then let down grab lines. The raft was so unstable they, too, took to the water, all hands working together to steady it. It was a struggle. He lost his knife. Man after man slipped, exhausted, under the water.

Another day passed and he struggled to keep conscious. Then, he saw the Afonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese training vessel dispatched to the rescue. But it had incorrect co-ordinates and was far away. It prowled the wrong area for 24 hours before it finally reached them. In all, 192 men, 14 of them crew members, were plucked from the water. Captain Goodyear later appeared on CBC Radio for the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Nova Scotia. Listen here.

The rescued were taken to Lourenco Marques in Mozambique, from where Capt. Goodyear took a train to Durban, South Africa. He convalesced for a few days. “I didn’t know who I was,” he recalled later. “I didn’t know where I lived.”

He did recover his memory, and his determination to return home and marry Ms. Windsor.

On March 31, 1943, he was back in Newfoundland. Ms. Windsor had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division and been posted to Toronto and Calgary, and then assigned to Torbay, Nfld. When they met that day, she asked when he had returned. He told her he’d just arrived. She replied he was a day early. They married that April.

In the fall of 1943, he returned to the Merchant Navy as navigating officer on the SS Fort Amherst. After the war, he became a master mariner and, by 1952, he was a harbour pilot, boarding ships and guiding them through the Narrows, the only entrance to St. John’s Harbour.

He was assisting a German ship when he met a sailor who knew the now-Admiral Gysae. The sailor promised to tell Adm. Gysae he had met a survivor of the Nova Scotia. That holiday season, Capt. Goodyear received a Christmas card from the admiral. “I hope you are in good health,” it read.

The holiday greetings continued for 10 years, and Adm. Gysae even invited the Goodyears to stay at his home. Capt. Goodyear accepted the invitation and they travelled to Europe, but the reaction from some of the other survivors was so negative that they returned home without making the personal visit. It was a choice Capt. Goodyear said he always regretted, as Adm. Gysae “was doing his job, as we were doing ours.”

Capt. Goodyear kept those Christmas cards. When asked what he would have said to Adm. Gysae (who died in 1989), he replied: “I’d probably thank him for sending a message to Berlin, to say we were in the water.”

Thomas Hallett Goodyear was born on March 17, 1920, at his family home in the Battery, St. John’s, to Valentine and Elsie (née Hallett). He was the eldest in a family of four boys and a girl. He left schooling at Bishop Feild at 13 to work as an office boy with the fish merchant firm of his mother’s cousin, T. Hallett Ltd., and, as soon as possible, to crew with, for example, the two-masted schooner Lady Green, carrying salt to Quebec – which was then a foreign country.

“My developing interest in matters nautical were not encouraged,” he later wrote. “My father in particular would go out of his way to paint a very bleak picture of the seafaring profession.”

But Thomas Goodyear knew his own mind. He became an incredibly able seaman, a cultured and engaging man and fair-minded.

Capt. Goodyear died on Nov. 21, in St. John’s, at the age of 94. Predeceased by his wife Jessie, he leaves daughter Jennifer, and sons Bill and Geoff.

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