John Matthews served on ferry sunk by U-boat in 1942
By CORY HURLEY Corner Brook Western Star
CORNER BROOK, N.L. — A man believed to be the last living crew member and one of the last known survivors of a German U-boat attack on the the S.S. Caribou off Newfoundland in 1942, has died.
John Matthews, 84, passed away in hospital last Thursday after years of lung-related complications.
“For me, as a child growing up, it wasn’t something he talked about a great deal,” his daughter, Diane Thistle, said in an interview.
“He found it too painful, it was usually a teary subject and he tried to avoid it as much as possible.”
At 19, Matthews was a deckwatch hand aboard the passenger ferry that ran between Port aux Basques, N.L., and North Sydney.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 14, 1942, it was attacked by the German submarine U-69.
A torpedo ripped a hole in the vessel, sinking it and sending all aboard into the frigid waters of the Cabot Strait.
There were 137 casualties in one of the most devastating sea disasters off the coast of Newfoundland.
The HMCS Grandmere rescued 101 passengers, crew, and military personnel after hours in the freezing water.
Many survivors reported huddling in what was left of the over-filled lifeboats or rafts, fearing for their safety, or spending hours in the ocean clinging to some hope of rescue.
The sinking was said to have erased the feelings of security that Newfoundlanders felt despite the war raging around the world.
“It was a painful time. He was in the cold water for such a long time and so many of the people went down with the ship, and that was hard for him as well,” said Thistle.
“I think his biggest sadness was the big loss of life, and the sounds he heard that night and remembered all his life.”
Matthews related the story to family of how he woke his bunkmate and friend after the torpedo hit, but shortly afterwards realized they were separated. He never saw him again.
However, he also told the story of pulling another survivor out of the water — W.J. Lundrigan, a well-known businessman and founder of the Lundrigan construction empire.
After being rescued, the Port aux Basques native ended his career at sea but he stuck with the Newfoundland railway, spending 44 years as a conductor.
With less than half of those aboard the S.S. Caribou surviving the disaster, Thistle said she has always felt lucky to have even been born.
“I heard him say that there were so many of them in the lifeboat that they had to take turns getting out into the water and holding onto the boat so they didn’t sink it,” Thistle said.
Over the years Matthews attended some of the events held in commemoration of the sinking.
Diane and her husband are certain he was the last of the 46 crew living, but there is some uncertainty about how many survivors are still alive.