McKHAIL firstname.lastname@example.org_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2005-05-04 published
Somer JAMES, Sailor and Numismatist: 1921-2005
Canadian pacifist who chose to join the merchant navy rather than take up arms during the Second World War won an unprecedented brace of civilian bravery medals
By Ayah McKHAIL, Special to The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, May 4, 2005, Page S7
Toronto -- He was an ordinary Canadian seaman who accomplished an extraordinary feat. On November 5, 1943, Somer JAMES won two medals for bravery for singlehandedly saving his ship.
The sun was just rising over Torre Aningiatria, a port southeast of Naples, when German bombers descended on allied shipping. The port was of strategic importance because the Allies could unload the massive quantities of supplies they needed to drive the Germans out of Italy; Mr. JAMES's ship offered choice prey. Loaded with ammunition, The Empire Lightening was moored to a dock piled with high-octane fuel when the bombs began to find their targets. One struck the fuel, setting it ablaze and threatening both the Lightening and other freighters moored fore and aft. The ship could be saved only by a careful combination of dropping some of its lines and doubling others, so it could be manoeuvred away from the fire.
The captain called for volunteers. Amidst the pandemonium, only Mr. JAMES, who was not yet 22, stepped up. He donned a heavy jacket and lifebelt and went on deck alone. With the captain shouting instructions down at him from the bridge, with fire raging alongside and with high explosives beneath his feet, he ran the length of the ship from one mooring point to another and did his best to handle the massive hemp lines alone. The entire operation lasted about three hours, but, in the end, he managed to get the ship out of harm's way, its sides scorched by fire.
Yet, he didn't stop at that. Once the Lightening was secured, he helped move a number of barges loaded with dangerous cargo that had also caught fire.
The action later won him both the British Empire Medal and the Lloyd's Medal for Bravery, an unusual double honour. While 29 other Canadian merchant sailors won the British Empire Medal for bravery during the Second World War, and some won the Lloyd's medal, none received both awards for the same event.
A soft-spoken pacifist with sparkling blue eyes, he was an academic at heart. Largely self-taught, he completed only Grade 11 at Toronto's Harbord Collegiate, yet was deeply intellectual and visited the library often. When war broke out, he had been adamantly opposed to armed conflict and couldn't bear the thought of pulling a trigger on anyone. Instead, in 1940, this pensive Jewish teenager from Toronto took a train ride to Montreal to see whether he could join the merchant navy. It would determine his fate for the next five years. He found a Greek steamer, the first of 12 ships he would serve aboard in the Battle of the Atlantic. It was the war's longest theatre of war and the costliest. One in seven people died in the line of duty, their ships and their valuable cargo sent to the bottom by German U-boats and surface raiders and sometimes because of collision while in convoy. Of the 12,000 Canadians who served, more than 1,600 lost their lives.
For all its dangers, the job suited Mr. JAMES. "It saved me from certain actions," he once said. "I didn't want to get involved with killing people, shooting them with guns from far away, and getting involved with anything like that."
Contrary to belief, merchant sailors didn't do it for the money. In 1940, the year Mr. JAMES joined, the average monthly pay rate for a seaman in the merchant navy was $55, compared with $123 for a sailor in the Royal Canadian Navy. Until later in the war, a merchant seaman who was forced to abandon ship even had his pay stopped.
In August of 1945, Mr. JAMES made one final voyage across the Atlantic. In 1943, he had met a young English woman while waiting for a train at Denham station in London; a romance soon developed. They married on September 18, 1945, at Saint John's Wood synagogue in London and decided to settle in Canada. They lived in Toronto until August of 1946, then headed for Winnipeg to a job at the Winnipeg Film Exchange.
Later, Mr. JAMES became a partner in a theatre-poster business and then opened the Regency Coin and Stamp Company, which he operated until his retirement in 1998. Over the years, he wrote several books on coins, stamps and tokens, a fascination that had started during his years in the merchant navy when he always seemed to have a pocketful of interesting foreign coins. He served on the board of several non-profit organizations in Winnipeg and was made a life member of the Canadian Numismatic Association.
Mr. JAMES spoke little about his war service and thought less about his two medals until they were sought by the new Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. They go on display when the museum opens this weekend.
Somer JAMES was born in Toronto on December 24, 1921. He died of Parkinson's disease on January 17, 2005. He was 83. He leaves his wife, Jean; daughters Heather and Wendy; sons David and Keith and sisters Beula and Esther.
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