Every Nov. 11, Peter Anderosov and James Peterson don their medal laden blue blazers and berets and attend the Remembrance Day service in Port Alberni.
As the Last Post sounds, Anderosov and Peterson stand in their shined shoes, poppies affixed to their jacket lapels and remember those who fell during wartime.
A closer look at the pair reveals something different from other veterans, and their black rimmed berets with white tops give it away. The distinctive colours denote service with the merchant navy.
Anderosov, 85, and Peterson, 84, served as merchant navymen during the Second World War. The merchant navy ferried food, supplies, ammunition and troops across oceans around Europe and the South Pacific.
The merchant navy served in the same arenas of war as military personnel. According to Veterans Affairs Canada, one in seven merchant navymen died — the highest casualty rate of any of the armed services.
Anderosov was born in Grand Forks, B.C. and was one of six children born to Doukhobor parents. He never went to school, something that was forbidden by Doukhobors.
Bored, restless, and tired of discrimination, Anderosov left the farm at age 12 and headed for Vancouver.
With the help of a friend he got work as a mess punk and utility boy aboard a tramp steamer and with 52 other crew members set sail for England. It was the end of 1938 and the beginning of the Second World War.
Anderosov travelled in convoys that ranged in size from 20 to 140 ships. The ships were escorted by naval battleships and by fighter aircraft but only to a point. The planes had to turn back before running out of fuel, leaving the lightly armed commercial fleet in waters teeming with German submarines waiting to hunt them.
Attacks on merchant convoys were common and they were devastating. According to researcher Robert Fisher, 58 merchant navy ships were sunk by enemy attacks — 31 in 1942 alone. Of the 12,000 men who served in the merchant navy during the war, 1,629 were killed; 1,059 of them went down with their ships.
When Anderosov was 16, his ship was returning to Canada from Murmansk, Russia where it had unloaded its cargo, and was travelling back empty. Anderosov’s shift was just ending at 7:30 a.m. and he was emerging from a tunnel when he heard a loud explosion and felt a big shake.
“I knew we were hit by a torpedo,” he said.
Anderosov and other crew members scrambled to lifeboats on deck. But the ship went down so fast that no sooner had they loosened the lifeboat then they were floating. Of 52 crewmen, only seven survived.
The crew drifted at sea for five days. Anderosov never gave up hope of a rescue but some men did. On the third night Anderosov said he fell asleep during his turn at watch. When he awoke, he discovered that one of the men had thrown himself overboard during the night.
“I don’t talk about it much and I try to forget about it. But I do think about it from time to time,” he said.
The crew was rescued by a British ship and brought back to Canada after five days. “I felt alive when that ship came. I felt so alive,” he said.
Anderosov made one more trip and was in Australia when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, bringing the war to an end.
He met his wife Marion and married her in 1947. The two moved to Port Alberni where they had six children. Anderosov worked at Somass Mill for 39 years before retiring in 1987.
He attends Remembrance Day ceremonies every year and pays his respects at the merchant navy monument at Harbour Quay. “I only take out my uniform on Remembrance Day,” he said.
“I think about the guys who never came home.”
While Peterson also served with the merchant navy, his story is different than Anderosov’s. Peterson left school after Grade 6 in Victoria and worked at the waterfront.
His first inkling of war was when he and his friends threw rocks at a captured German ship that was brought to port.
Peterson, 15, was striking out on his own and carving out a different identity from his three siblings.
His father was in the navy, so Peterson joined the merchant navy at age 15 after lying about his age.
“I was a rogue and an outcast. I wanted to be different,” he said. “Besides, it was the only thing I could get into. I couldn’t get into any of the other services.”
Peterson first served on the Empress of Scotland, where he worked as a bridge boy. His work took him to England, New Zealand, Australia and China. “I served in really cold and really hot weather,” he said.
Peterson remembers travelling in a convoy off the coast of Ireland when an attack came. “We heard an explosion and could see smoke. We didn’t know if it was a mine or sub or even what ship it hit,” he said.
“We couldn’t stop and look or help. Our orders were to always keep going and never to stop.”
On another occasion, a German spotter plane discovered Peterson’s ship, which hightailed it out to sea before a submarine could triangulate its position.
Peterson’s last trip was to Chin Wa Tao, China near the North Korean border. When he returned to Vancouver he was sitting on the stairs at the post office watching as people were going crazy. “The war just ended,” Peterson said.
After the war, Peterson worked for the post office, dock yards, and aboard a tug that cleared Japanese mines that drifted into West Coast waters.
He settled in Victoria with his wife and three children and worked as a longshoreman until retiring 20 years ago. He and his wife moved to Port Alberni, which was a frequent summer destination for the family in earlier years.
A merchant marine flag constantly flies outside Peterson’s Beaver Creek home. “A lot of people have no idea about our story. I’m glad I do it,” he said.