'The worst part was the thirst'
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May 28, 2009  |  Vote 0    0

'The worst part was the thirst'

Kanata man inducted into Canada Veterans Hall of Valour

Ottawa East News

A 92-year-old Kanata Lakes man was inducted into the Canada Veterans Hall of Valour on Saturday, May 22.

“It’s an honour,” said David Whittet a resident of Walden Village Retirement Residence.

Whittet was one of 20 Canadian veterans honoured for bravery at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Ottawa.

During the Second World War Whittet served with the British Merchant Navy, carrying war material and soldiers from Canada across the North Atlantic to Europe.

We lost count of the time. I do not think anybody

One of his most terrifying experiences occurred in April, 1942, when he survived nearly a month in a lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic Ocean.

David Whittet was half dressed and asleep when he heard the explosion.

He awoke to the sound of a loud bang and the sound of water rushing across the deck into his room.

Instinct told him to grab a lifejacket and head topside.

By the time he reached the top deck one of the lifeboats had already been lowered and was casting off; Whittet rushed to the ship’s port side and helped launch the remaining lifeboat.

By then, the S.S. Empire Dryden, a ship carrying war supplies from New York City to Alexandria, was sinking fast.

“Our boat passed right under the propeller and rudder as we cleared and watched the ship disappear under the waves,” Whittet said.

That night, the crew huddled in the lifeboat, trying to keep a low profile in case the German U-boat that sank the Dryden went looking for prisoners, or worse, for victims, said Whittet.

“I clearly remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh no, not two weeks of this misery,’” he said. “It was not a very good estimate.”

The next day, the crew decided to abandon one of the three lifeboats and divide the men among the remaining two craft, with 25 in Whittet’s boat and 26 in the other.

As ship’s navigation officer, Whittet determined the boats were drifting 322 kilometres north west of Bermuda and 644 kilometres off the North American coast.

After some debate, the crew decided Bermuda might be too difficult to locate – and easy to miss – so they decided to sail west.

Each of the lifeboats carried two wooden casks of water, tins of hard biscuits, chocolate tablets and pemmican, a mix of beef drippings, meat and vegetables.

“It was awful,” said Whittet.

“It was decided right away that food and particularly water would be strictly rationed,” he said.

Every day, each crew member was given two ounces of water at sunrise and another ration at sunset.

The lifeboats tried to stay together, said Whittet, but on the third night adrift at sea in the North Atlantic, a storm separated the boats.

“We did not see the other boat again,” Whittet said.

Over the next couple of days the weather improved, but the wind died down and the days were very hot.

“Most of us had few clothes,” Whittet said, “and of course were covered in salt, and so burned quickly.”

As the days grew hotter, the men often jumped into the sea to cool off – until one morning, someone noticed a large shark following the boat.

“So that ended that caper,” Whittet said.

At night, the men huddled together to keep warm.

“We divided up into watches about half and half,” said Whittet, “the chief officer and myself taking the tiller most of the time.”

Some of the men sat and did nothing, others constantly baled water, while a few kept lookout for another ship.

“We lost count of the time,” Whittet said. “I do not think anybody had a working watch.”

Days soon drifted into weeks.

On several occasions, the crew of the lifeboat saw a ship passing in the distance; they signaled for help with flares, but the vessels ignored them.

Allied ships were under strict orders not respond to sightings – U-boats were known to use decoys to lure targets.

Despite the rationing, water grew scarce and the men’s thirst grew stronger.

“The worst part was the thirst,” he said.

“One or two (of the men) had to be restrained from drinking salt water,” remembered Whittet. “One night there was a sudden commotion in the fore end of the boat as one of the watch caught someone trying to get into the water keg.”

Soon the water had to be rationed to one ounce a day for each crew member.

“One afternoon, a ship was sighted and a flare sent up, and to our great joy, was seen to turn toward us,” said Whittet.

“We saw it turn towards us,” he said. “It was probably the best feeling one could ever have. We tried to row to meet her, but we were not very good at rowing at that state — we were too weak.”

It was the S.S. City of Birmingham, an American passenger ship.

The crew was taken to Bermuda, and later learned they had been adrift at sea for 27 days.

Everyone on the boat survived.

Whittet received a commendation for bravery from Winston Churchill and later the 1939 Star, the Atlantic Star, the North Africa Star & Clasp, the Italy Star, the War Medal with Oak Leaf and the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal.

He served with the British Merchant Navy until the end of the war and later became a captain of coal-carrying cargo ship travelling from Quebec ports to the Maritimes, until he retired in 1954.

In 1957 he became a Canadian citizen.

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(1) Comment

By Dennis | JANUARY 11, 2014 06:53 PM
My Father, John Richard Mason, was on the same lifeboat as Mr. David Whittet, and is listed as died 20 April 1942 at the age of 19, I was born in 1957.
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