By RYAN KING
PORT AUX BASQUES — The Railway Heritage Museum will soon be featuring another important piece of rich maritime history. Claudia Lawrence plans to donate a ham radio that belonged to her father, Harold Keeping, that he used to help save 17 men who were on a vessel sinking off of the Southwest coast.
“The radio came from the old American base, and I wouldn’t say there’s too much around from the base is there? I wouldn’t say there’s anything. Dad was friends with the radio men up there up in Mouse Island, and when they pulled out, they gave it to Dad, or they sold it to him. I don’t remember. Anyway, they gave him the radio, and he used the radio a lot. He was a radio amateur,” explained Lawrence.
Harold was heavily involved in communications, and first worked for the railway as a telegraph operator before becoming a conductor, learning Morse code to read and send messages between stations. His skills as a ham radio operator were put to the test on Dec. 21, 1963, when the French vessel, The Douala, was lost just off shore. The vessel’s aerial was covered with ice, meaning the SOS message could only be sent out through an improvised short-wave aerial.
“We had a bad storm. It was wicked. Everything was shutdown to St. John’s, everywhere. And there was a French boat sinking off here, and they couldn’t get the signal out. My father was on his radio, and he picked up the SOS, and he got the coast guard and the air crew to go. They saved 17 lives out of 29,” said Lawrence.
Lawrence actually came to meet these men her father helped to save during their stay at our hospital.
“Some of them ended up in the hospital up here, and they were in here for Christmas. And the reason that I know that is I was a guide leader, and we used to go up to the hospital and deliver fruit baskets to the in-patients, and these Frenchmen were there. And the girls used to sing a couple songs, you know, of course, and when they sang Silent Night, they got right excited. They recognized it, they said in French, and they wrote him a letter, thanking him,” said Lawrence.
A further thanks for their rescue was given later on during a local school trip to France in approximately the late 70s, when a survivor recognized the students from Port aux Basques.
“Another interesting part about it is a bunch of students, Joan Wilson’s daughter and them went to France on a school trip, and they went on some kind of a cruise or something. And when the captain saw that they were from Port aux Basques, he invited them to his table and gave them wine and everything. He told them that he was one of the survivors,” said Lawrence.
Despite his heroic efforts, Harold did not speak much about the events of that day.
“He never every mentioned it. Never talked about it. He always said that they told him if he ever came to France, he would go on a cruise for free, all expenses paid and everything. You would more or less be given the key to the company. But he used to say he’d go, but he never lived long enough. He died when he was 61. I never ever heard him speak about it. He just did what needed to be done. He picked up the signal and passed it on,” said Lawrence.
Harold’s radio has additional historical worth beyond its role in the French vessels rescue. It was also one of the only means of communication for the town at the time to reach areas outside the community.
“Back in the day, there was no radios, no telephones, and long distance was quite expensive. So, say you came to town and you wanted to let your family know you got here, they would go to our house and my dad would call somebody in say, Deer Lake, and they would say let them know he got here okay. Then if the family wanted to talk to him, that family would go to that house and you would come to our house and communicate. That happened all the time, there was always somebody at the house,” said Lawrence.
Additionally, Harold used this radio to communicate with people all over the world, including in one instance, the King of Jordon.
“He had a card from the King of Jordon. He was an amateur radio operator, and he talked to him,” said Lawrence.
“At that time, there were amateur radio operators all over the world, that’s how they communicated, and they always had their own card. And he had a wall full of cards. Whoever he talked to, he would send them a card and they would send him a card. He just collected them, you know, everybody he communicated with had their own call letters and their own cards,” added Harold’s son, Max Keeping.
With such a notable history behind it, Lawrence’s son, Duane, suggested she donate it to the museum.
“I’m starting to downsize, and he gave it to me,” said Lawrence, “And I didn’t want to see it just thrown away, and didn’t even attempt to try and sell it. I just thought that should be, coming from the base as it was, it should be kept for the history.”