Newspaper article The Canadian Press

The Day 546 Soldiers Were Plucked from a Floundering Ship off Halifax

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

The Day 546 Soldiers Were Plucked from a Floundering Ship off Halifax

Article excerpt

The day 546 soldiers were plucked from wreck

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HALIFAX - The SS Letitia was cutting through thick fog, its crew preparing to unload hundreds of wounded Canadian soldiers in Halifax's busy harbour, when the captain stepped onto the deck and saw a dark shadow looming.

Capt. William McNeil knew instantly that the hospital ship, with its 546 injured soldiers and 137 crew, was heading directly into one of the treacherous shoals that line the entry way to the harbour.

He immediately ordered the ship full astern, hoping to prevent it from crashing into the rocks that were quickly coming into view.

But the order came too late -- the momentum propelling the 473-metre vessel grounded it on a cluster of rocks near Portuguese Cove at about 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 1, 1917.

The lesser-known incident, thought to be the result of poor navigation by a pilot brought on board about 10 minutes before the crash, was being remembered Tuesday -- the 100th anniversary of an accident that miraculously claimed only one life.

Roger Marsters, curator of marine history at Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, said the vessel was on the final stretch of an uneventful transatlantic journey when the wrong course was conveyed to the ship's master as fog horns and bells rang around them.

As soon as it crashed, he said the captain issued requests for help from nearby minesweepers and boats, which were dispatched to pick up the soldiers injured during the First World War. They were headed to Pier 2 for treatment at a convalescent hospital, or to be sent home.

"It seems quite spectacular in retrospect," he said. "In an age where there were a lot more vessels on the oceans, dramatic rescues like this were much more common than they are today."

Several members of the crew stayed on board after the passengers were removed, but abandoned the Scottish-registered vessel when it became clear it suffered too much damage to be salvaged. …

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