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SARNIA REMEMBERS: Son attends funeral of father decades after war ends (continued)

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As part of our Sarnia Remembers series — now in its eighth year — The Journal is publishing a series of stories this week, honouring veterans and fallen soldiers from Sarnia-Lambton.

(Continued from part one)

By Tom St. Amand and Tom Slater

Two months passed since Mike Paithouski had returned from his leave in Sarnia to resume his duties as a stoker aboard HMCS Shawinigan. On the morning of Friday, November 24, 1944, the Shawinigan and Sassafrass, a United States coast guard cutter, escorted the ferry SS Burgeo from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. It was just over 200 kilometres across the Cabot Strait, and ferries on this route had escorts ever since the tragic loss of the passenger ferry SS Caribou two years earlier. On the same route in mid-October 1942, U-69 had torpedoed the Caribou and 136 passengers died, including ten children.

On this Friday, however, the eight-hour crossing was uneventful. After seeing the Burgeo arrive safely in Port aux Basques, the Shawinigan, as instructed, headed out to complete a solo anti-submarine patrol of the area. The corvette was scheduled to rendezvous with the Burgeo the following morning for the return trip to Cape Breton.

Saturday morning arrived in Port aux Basques, but the Shawinigan did not.

What had unfolded hours earlier in the Cabot Strait was horrific.

The previous night, a relatively calm moonlit night, Lt. William James Jones had instructed his radio operators to maintain radio silence aboard the Shawinigan. Unknown to the corvette’s crew, U-1228 was in the vicinity. Her crew had been trying unsuccessfully to repair the submarine’s faulty snorkel and, by 2130 hours, the U-boat’s frustrated commander informed his crew that they were heading back to Germany for repairs. Unfortunately, when U-1228 started her return route into the Atlantic, she sighted the Shawinigan.                                                                                                                  

In her first recorded attack on enemy shipping, U-1228 fired a single T-5 GNAT acoustic torpedo that struck the corvette in the stern. Despite travelling in a zig-zag course, the Shawinigan and her crew never stood a chance. Four minutes after the torpedo struck, the corvette and her entire crew of 91 disappeared in a plume of frigid Atlantic water and a shower of sparks. The ship had no time to transmit any messages, and authorities speculated later that the Shawinigan’s depth charges exploded as she sank, adding to the destruction. After the war, navy officials interrogated the commander of U-1228 about the events of that Friday evening, November 24, 1944. The German officer confirmed that the Shawinigan sank quickly, that two underwater explosions followed her disappearance, and that he saw no survivors in the water.

The next morning, the Burgeo left Port aux Basques on schedule but did not see or encounter the Shawinigan in the fog. Fearing a U-boat attack, the unescorted ferry maintained radio silence and did not immediately inform anyone of Shawinigan’s absence. Only at 1800 hours that evening, when the Burgeo had arrived safely in Sydney, did her officers share the grim news with naval authorities. Suspecting something grave had happened to the Shawinigan, the naval office in Sydney ordered an air and sea search for the missing corvette. Bad weather delayed the operation, but a day or so later, search and rescue ships found what remained of the missing corvette: fragments of wreckage, an empty Carley float, and six bodies. The bodies of Mike Paithouski, 27, and Bill Anderson, 23, another crew member from Sarnia, have never been found.                                        

In Sarnia, the news of Mike’s disappearance and probable death devastated Eloise, their families, and their many friends. “I was told that when the telegram arrived,” John stated, “my mother collapsed on the floor.” On November 29, five days after the Shawinigan’s disappearance and one day before her first wedding anniversary, Eloise received a letter from the secretary of the naval board. He offered his heartfelt sympathy because “slight hope is held for your husband’s survival.”                                                                        

In late August 1945, Eloise received a War Service Gratuity of $817.95 for the loss of her husband, but no amount of money could ever replace Mike. As a young mother of a three-month old son, Eloise did her best to raise John in a loving household. Still grieving, she found a job at Bell Canada, and several family members took turns looking after John. To a person, they never stopped telling John about what a wonderful father he had.                 

Young John Paithouski (Courtesy of John Paithouski)

They also mentioned how much John and Mike resembled each other; not only in their appearance—“I’m told I’m the spitting image of my dad,” John says proudly—but also through their actions, their mannerisms, and their infectious laughs.                                

Life, with all its ups and downs, went on for Eloise and John. In late June 1946, nearly three years after Jay Johnston’s plane had disappeared, searchers in Quebec found the crushed Liberator near a mountain top in the Laurentians. Still aboard the shattered aircraft were the 24 bodies of all aboard. The discovery of Jay and his fellow airmen solved the painful mystery for Eloise and her father; the memorial established at the site shortly after provided them both with some closure.

Eloise re-married in the mid-1950s and John and Eloise’s dad moved to Toronto with her. Even though his stepfather was a terrific person with whom John got along very well, when John had an opportunity to take his surname, he refused. As he explained, “I meant no disrespect to my stepfather—he was always simply wonderful to me—but I wanted to honour my father by keeping the name ‘Paithouski’. I’ve never regretted that decision.”     

 In 1966, John, 22, returned to Sarnia, starting working at Union Gas, got married, and his wife, Paulette, and he made Sarnia their home. John never stopped thinking of his father or talking about him. When he was at a restaurant in Port Credit in the 1980s, an older man and fellow diner struck up a conversation. John had never met him before but, by coincidence, this man was also from Sarnia’s south end. When he asked John what his name was and John replied “Paithouski,” the man stared at him and simply said, “Mike.”

As it turned out, he had served in the navy as well and knew Mike. When he saw John and heard his surname, he just knew he was Mike’s son based on their similar appearance. He told John that he had been stationed in Sydney on November 24, 1944, and remembered shaking Mike’s hand before the Shawinigan departed for Port aux Basques with the Burgeo and the Sassafrass.

In 1997, John received a phone call and a letter from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). The occasion was the upcoming christening of the new HMCS Shawinigan on June 14 in Trois Rivieres. To honour the men who had died in action on the original Shawinigan, the RCN was arranging a memorial service for them. They were inviting the next of kin of any crew members who had served on the corvette.

Eloise was unable to attend, but John and Paulette leaped at the chance. They are still avid travellers, but their four-day stay in Quebec remains memorable 26 years later. It was a whirlwind time, filled with meeting new people, making new friends, attending dinners, and viewing ceremonies. What mattered most to John, however, was paying his respects to his father and to honour those who had died with him.

“Like others, I hoped the occasion would provide me with a definite sense of closure,” John recalled. “I have never stopped thinking of my dad. In many ways, I would be attending the funeral my father never had.”

At the memorial service in Shawinigan, Prime Minister Jean Chretien delivered a heartfelt speech in his hometown, and those in attendance appreciated his sincerity and compassion. A stone memorial was unveiled in a park overlooking the St. Maurice River. The names of the 91 crew members who died in action on the corvette are inscribed on the black monument. They are positioned in four columns below an etching of the original ship and these words in both French and English: “In memory of the crew members of K-136 HMCS Shawinigan who lost their lives on 24 November 1944.”

Memorial to HMCS Shawinigan. (Wikipedia-HMCS Shawinigan)

After a solemn unveiling, the playing of “The Last Post” sounded before a cannon shot rang out over the bowed heads of the mourners. It was an emotional time for all gathered. John met a resident of Shawinigan, a complete stranger, who shook his hand and thanked him for his father’s service. An elderly veteran approached John and disclosed that he had been on the Shawinigan in November 1944. He had broken his leg and was removed from the ship’s crew before the corvette set out on that fateful November morning. That said, he turned around and walked away with nothing more to say. The loss of his crew mates so many years ago continued to haunt him.

John and Paulette also met admirals and dignitaries, other family members who had lost loved ones on the Shawinigan, and some members of the “old crew”, those who had served on the corvette earlier in the war. John had picked up a bottle of Pusser’s Navy Rum during one of his trips to the Caribbean, and he passed it around to original members of the crew. Smiling, John recalled that he “became pretty popular with them. When their glasses were filled, they stood up in unison, chanted a short naval song very familiar to them, and then together they adhered to the naval tradition by chug-a-lugging the rum straight.”

The entire trip was exhilarating, exhausting, and memorable. “After all these years, I was fortunate enough to see my dad honoured,” John stated. “I had finally attended my dad’s funeral… it was a beautiful ceremony.”

In 2008, the Paithouskis took the ferry from Sydney to Port aux Basques—in effect, retracing the route of the Shawinigan’s final voyage over six decades earlier. She has never been located but, according to John, “the Navy has a pretty good idea of where she went down.” When the ferry approached that location in the Cabot Strait, John was overcome with emotion. He imagined the panic and terror his father and his crew mates must have felt after the torpedo struck the Shawinigan in total darkness.

John holds no bitterness about what happened to his father. “Life could have turned out differently, I suppose, but it’s just the way it was, the way things happened,” he explained. The father he had met only once in his life remains an undeniable and integral part of who John is. Mike is still with his son every time John looks in the mirror, every time he sees his dad’s photos adoring the walls and shelves in his home, and every time he meets someone who was fortunate enough to have known his father.

St. Amand and Slater are the authors of Valour Remembered: Sarnia-Lambton War Stories, available at The Book Keeper.

For more Sarnia Remembers stories, click here.

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