Port Alberni’s rich historical roots are tightly entwined in those of D-Day, in the form of a doomed corvette named for the hub of the Alberni-Clayoquot district.
Seventy-five years ago, bobbing around in the English Channel during Operation Overlord, a corvette boat named after the town of Alberni was witness to the grim mission of Allied forces on D-Day in the Normandy invasion – June 6, 1944.
In his retirement years in the namesake community of Port Alberni, Nelson Shudeen would pen a short memoir in 1995 while living on Wallace Street, recalling his three years of service on His Majesty’s Canadian Ship.
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the native of Finmark, Norway was merchant seaman in his late thirties, living in the Parksville/Nanoose area. He’d sailed out of Alberni aboard the Maquinna as she plied the water bringing supplies and manpower to communities around the West Coast, then signed on to help build a dirt road to the speculative world of gold mining in Zeballos.
At the end of the Depression, times were lean across Canada.
“When the war broke out, many flocked to the services to get three squares a day and a pair of boots,” Shudeen wrote.
Shudeen wrote inquiring after a post on a Navy vessel, and finally got his chance on the spanking new Alberni in 1941. The war was hot in Europe, and new corvette class boats were being built on Canada’s west and east coasts. Most were named for Canadian towns, in hopes of raising morale and support. Many of those efforts paid off – on the home front in Alberni, residents helped with everything from knitting socks and sending packages and postcards to raising funds for a potato peeler and a new washer and dryer for the ship.
After a maiden run up to Prince Rupert, the Alberni sailed with the two other “West Coast corvettes” through the Panama Canal towards the war.
Life wasn’t dull aboard one of the feisty smaller craft squiring convoys around the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the mid-Atlantic. Life in a corvette convoy was life on the move. In a 1943 journal entry on display at the HMCS Alberni museum, Alberni sailor Ray Vallette noted the ship sailed 10,000 miles in December, accompanying Allied craft from the Caribbean to Oran in the Mediterranean.
The crew of the Alberni rescued both Allied and Germans dunked when their ships were torpedoed.
In addition to engine room duties, Shudeen helped with everything from sharpening kitchen knives to barbering. Many of the sailors partied hearty when in port, filling leave time with “wine, women and song” – and the occasional fisticuff fracas, he said.
Colourful adventures abounded; Nelson Shudeen shook hands with Jack Dempsey in New York City, and got his sailor hat signed by Canadian actress Mary Pickford in Los Angeles.
Shudeen sailed on the 205-foot vessel for three years, but recognition for notes he’d made on improving the ship and its operations earned him to a promotion; in June 1944 he was transferred to the HMCS Peterborough, just months before German U-boat U-480 would sink the Alberni off the Isle of Wight.
It went down quickly on Aug. 21, 1944.
“Whatever hit us pretty much disintegrated the ship,” recalled Lt.-Cdr. Ian Bell.
“The ship just went out from under me. I guess I was under water for a few seconds but it seemed like minutes,” Bell said in media interviews published in Canadian newspapers at the time.
“I went down again with the suction, but the second time I came up I managed to grab hold of a wooden plank.”
Survivors were in the water for an hour before being plucked from the Atlantic by British motor torpedo boats.
“I passed out and the last thing I remember was going down and fighting frantically for air,” said Bell.
Others weren’t so lucky – sailors like Stoker First Class William Ditloff of Powell River, and Donald B. Grais of Nanaimo.
Just 28 of 89 aboard survived the ship’s 30-second sinking, which occurred when many sailors were below decks having lunch. Just one sailor stationed in the engine room made it out of the depths of the hull alive.
After the war, Shudeen made Alberni his home.
“For many years my sailing days have been over, but I still think back of the days of yore and it comes to mind that the men who served in the Canadian ships of war gave all they had when in theatres of war and were commended by Canadian admirals who also served and experienced the rigors of war,” he wrote in 1995.
On an ironic note, German U-480 Capt. Hans-Joachim Forster and his crew of 47 would die after hitting a mine in the same vicinity as the Alberni sinking, off the Isle of Wight, in January 1945.
EDITOR’S NOTE: At 625 Cliffe Street in Courtenay, tucked away in a retail complex, the HMCS Alberni Museum & Memorial tells remarkable tales of Canadians at war.
The museum will be open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a D-Day display on June 6, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. Juno Beach posters will be available.
“It is our pleasure to help you experience the stories of Canadian heroes whose lives during the past century have helped shaped our nation’s history, our military heritage, and our cultural identity,” said the museum’s executive director, Lewis Bartholomew.
Alberni writer Jacqueline Carmichael is the author of “Tweets from the Trenches: Little True Stories of Life & Death on the Western Front.”