John Michael Paithouski met his father, Mike, only once in his life, but he has no memory of the occasion. He was, after all, only a few weeks old in the fall of 1944 when his dad took a leave from the Royal Canadian Navy to meet his newborn son in Sarnia.
Weeks later, Mike died tragically aboard the corvette HMCS Shawinigan, but not before the proud father had mailed three letters home to his wife, Eloise, and his infant son.
John does not remember meeting his dad, but he got to know him as he grew up in Sarnia’s south end. Eloise displayed several photos of her husband at their home and she, along with other relatives, continually regaled John with stories about his father that he was eager to hear. Decades have passed, but John still treasures those moments and memories.
“From what I understand, my dad was hard not to like; he was a very popular guy,” John stated. “Everyone liked him—he was ‘one of the guys’. He was a party guy who enjoyed life and his friends and, from what I’ve been told, he loved to laugh. When people told me stories about him, they recalled the good times and usually commented on how much my dad laughed.”
John also learned about his father’s wartime service.
In January 1941, Mike Paithouski, 24, quit his job as a labourer with Kellogg Construction Limited in Sarnia to enlist with the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) in London. After his training, he became a stoker aboard the corvette HMCS Drumheller until December 16, 1943.
For over two years, Mike saw much action as the Drumheller was part of the Sydney Force, the Newfoundland Command, the Newfie-Derry run, and the Mid-Ocean Escort Force. Escorting convoys in the Atlantic was always demanding and dangerous given the unpredictable weather, the stormy seas, and the constant threat of U-boat attacks.
On November 30, 1943, a few weeks before he completed his stint on the Drumheller, Mike married the beautiful 23-year-old Eloise Johnston in Sarnia. Mike had met Eloise during the war and had fallen in love and proposed.
The weeks before the wedding, however, were an anxious and difficult time for the Johnston family. On October 19, six weeks before their wedding, Eloise’s brother, Jay, who was serving with the RCAF, was declared missing in action. Along with six RCAF crew members and 17 fellow passengers from the RCAF who were on leave, Jay boarded a B-24 Liberator in stormy weather. The Liberator left Gander, Newfoundland, for Mont-Joli, Quebec, but the plane and the 24 men on board had vanished without a trace somewhere in Quebec.
Despite the unsettling news of Jay’s absence, Mike and Eloise wed and after a brief honeymoon, the couple moved into their home on Confederation Street. Before Mike returned to active duty, Eloise and he mapped out their future together. When Mike returned to Sarnia after the war, they planned to start a family, God willing, and Mike wanted to become a stationary engineer.
Mike returned to the Drumheller until mid-December and was then stationed for six months at Stadacona, a base in Halifax. During Mike’s deployment in Halifax, a jubilant Eloise informed her husband that she was expecting their first child. Neither Jay nor the missing aircraft had been found yet, so Eloise’s news did much to lift their spirits.
On June 13, 1944, Mike reported to HMCS Shawinigan with the rank of petty officer stoker. The Shawinigan was a Flower-class corvette, one of the sturdy little “work horses” of the RCN that typically had a crew of 80 to 100 sailors. She was in the navy’s convoy escort and patrol fleet and had earned a sterling reputation. Her sea miles totalled more than 150 000, and she had been one of the busiest vessels of her class, escorting convoy runs in the Atlantic Ocean and off the east coast of Canada.
Few ships of her class had spent more time at sea during the period when German U-boats were most active in the North Atlantic. Men who served aboard her had been acclaimed for fighting efficiency, for rescue work, and for attacks on enemy U-boats. The Shawinigan escorted hundreds of thousands of vital war supplies and shipping to Allied ports, and she had an unblemished record: she had not lost a ship under her charge.
In early fall, when John was just a few weeks old, Mike returned to Sarnia on a brief leave to visit Eloise, his close-knit family—parents, Tato and Rosa, and siblings, Mary and Nick—other family members, and his friends. Most importantly, though, Mike wanted to hold and to cuddle his newborn son.
A few days later, duty called and Mike returned to HMCS Shawinigan. Eloise had no idea this was the last time she would see her husband.
For part two, click here.
St. Amand and Slater are the authors of Valour Remembered: Sarnia-Lambton War Stories, available at The Book Keeper.