Robert J. hunt is an author in St. John’s whose writing centers on historical Newfoundland. When he answered the phone for the interview, his high spirits were audible. After years of searching, he finally found the son of the Port aux Basques man who rescued his father when the S.S. Kitty’s Brook was torpedoed in 1942.
Family history is clearly important to Robert. His first three non-fiction books (Corner Boys, Townies, and Brazil Street) told his story of growing up in St. John’s. His most recent book, The Bullet: Stories from the Newfoundland Railway, told the story of himself, his brother, his father, and the people they met while they worked for the Canadian National (CN) Railway in Newfoundland.
Edward Hunt, Robert’s father, was born in Harbour Breton in 1913. He went to work with the CN coastal boats as a young man, and remained there for about 14 years before he enlisted for World War II in 1941. Edward found himself stationed on the S.S. Kitty’s Brook, where he and his crewmates shipped supplies to New York after departing Newfoundland from Argentia.
It was on a return trip to Newfoundland on May 9, 1942, that the S.S. Kitty’s Brook was torpedoed. The vessel was attacked by a German U-Boat 30 miles off of Cape Sable, Nova Scotia. Edward was injured, nearly unconscious in the water, but had clung to a piece of wreckage. He was hauled into a lifeboat by a crewmate and they rowed for approximately three days before they were rescued.
“As you could see, a row boat with just regular oars and rowing 10 miles a day, that’s a lot of friggin’ strenuous work,” said Robert.
Eventually the two were picked up by ship five miles outside of Lockeport, Nova Scotia, and Edward was admitted to Camp Hill Hospital.
“Dad was there for a few weeks before they sent him home. He had an injury, a head injury, and he had migraine headaches all his life. My dad passed away in 1990,” Robert said.
Arriving back in Newfoundland, Edward’s wife, Mary, was uncomfortable with him going back on a boat again with the war still on. However, Harold did return to his duties, and worked on the boats for two more years before he decided to look for other work. He approached his manager, Mr. Russell, and asked for a job with CN Railway, ending his work with CN Marine and the dangers at sea that came with it.
Typical of his generation, Edward was reluctant to talk about his service, but his son’s curiosity made him inclined to tell his story.
“I told Dad when I was 13 I was going to be a writer. And he said ‘I don’t doubt you will b’y.’ So, I got it from him, because these old gentlemen, they didn’t talk about the war. But I got it from him,” said Robert.
Edward highlighted his experiences during the war, including his dramatic rescue from his torpedoed boat. This was when Robert first heard of the crewmate who rescued his father, a man named Harold. Edward recounted how Harold saw that he was near unconsciousness in the water and pulled him into the lifeboat. The two men developed a friendship after the war. Both started working for CN Railway and would meet up whenever Edward found himself in Port aux Basques.
“God knows what they talked about – I wish I had a recorder at the time,” Robert said.
While Edward remembered Harold for his rescue and for their friendship, he could not recall Harold’s last name.
It was years later, when Robert had established himself as a writer in St. John’s, that the mystery of who saved his father’s life started to be revealed. A friend pointed him to a book written by the owner of Flanker Press, Garry Cranford, entitled Not Too Long Ago. On page 169, Robert found a story about a Harold Richards being torpedoed aboard the S.S. Kitty’s Brook.
“One of the guys sent me a link to it. I looked at it, and said ‘My God.’ I contacted Garry and I said, ‘Garry, do you know where Mr. Richards is from?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think it’s Port aux Basques.’”
Robert needed some way to reach out and give thanks to the man who saved his father’s life, so he decided to try social media. He posted in the Historic Port aux Basques Facebook group to request help to make contact with the family.
“The next thing his son called me and we had a grand chat,” said Robert.
Harold Richards had passed in 2006, but his son, Roy, was made aware of Robert’s post. Born and raised in Port aux Basques, Roy is now retired after 30 years of work at the College of the North Atlantic. The two sons connected and filled out Harold’s part in Edwards’s rescue.
When asked how it felt being approached about his father rescuing a man, Roy said, “I was surprised, yet honoured, that they remembered he had done something like that. People back then, they don’t brag about doing lifesaving stuff. And I would say today he would be classed as a hero.”
Roy described his father as a kind man who would help anybody if they needed it. He talked of his father’s work for the United Church, for which he designed plans for the building, established in 1975.
“Sometimes they name buildings after you die. They named the hall –the H. B. Richards Hall – after him, before he died, which was really an honor for the family, and for him too,” said Roy.
Harold worked for the Bridge and Building department with CN rail as a maintenance supervisor, and in his later years did work for all of CN’s Atlantic provinces.
Like Robert’s father, Harold did not talk much about the dangers he faced during the war, but did share some of his story with his son.
“I don’t know if it’s this particular one, the Kitty’s Brook, but one of the times he was out there they could see the sub come up above water. So, they stopped rowing and laid down in the lifeboat, because they were afraid that they would be blown out of the water if they saw that they were alive. But, when they got up to just look and see, there was just a lifeboat. That was a long time to be on the water, and I think it was in May month, but it was still cool. And you know, a lot of them weren’t dressed for it because they were all getting ready to go to bed. So, they went sometimes with very little clothes on.”
Seventy-nine years after the torpedoing of the S.S. Kitty’s Brook, these two sons were brought together to share the story of their fathers’ remarkable survival. However, Robert Hunt is not yet done with the story of the S.S. Kitty’s Brook.
He is on a mission to find out who else was aboard the S.S. Kitty’s Brook. Through his research he knows that 33 people were aboard the vessel. Nine of the men perished in the water when it was torpedoed, and he has gathered the names of nine survivors, leaving 15 more names. All of his research will culminate in a book to be released next year that will be titled “Torpedoed”, and will reveal the in-depth story of the S. S. Kitty’s Brook and her men.
“They have amazing stories, these men, I’m telling ya. Amazing stories,” said Robert.