Merchant navy veterans celebrate their last supper

At the rate Canadian merchant navy veterans are passing away, Bill Emberly says this year’s Christmas dinner could be the group’s last.

— Kevin Underhill

At the rate Canadian merchant navy veterans are passing away, Bill Emberly says this year’s Christmas dinner could be the group’s last.

Emberly, a merchant navy veteran from Vic West, distributes a newsletter for the group three times a year and said it is mostly filled with obituaries now.

“The average age is 89 to 90 years old and we lose about 20 veterans per year,” Emberly said.

Canada’s 12,000 men and women that served in the merchant navy in the Second World War delivered war supplies, food and military personnel from Canada to the war theatres in Europe. Emberly, who served from 1944 to 1945, said merchant seaman rarely get the recognition they deserve.

“We would travel at six knots across the North Atlantic on unarmed vessels,” he said. “Not only were we at risk of attack but we also had to deal with storms with 70 to 80 foot waves.”

David Zimmerman, a UVic history professor who studies the Royal Canadian Navy, said the dangers the merchant navy faced in the Second World War were very real.

“They ran a greater risk than the war ships because they couldn’t defend themselves,” Zimmerman said. “They were the primary target of German u-boats and aircraft.”

By the end of the Second World War, Canada had built more than 400 merchant ships. Zimmerman said the importance of the merchant naval fleet couldn’t be overstated.

“These sailors risked their lives carrying vital goods across to Europe,” he said. “And they certainly didn’t get recognition right after the war.”

Earlier this month, Emberly gathered with other merchant navy veterans and their wives for a turkey dinner. It was nice to catch up with old comrades and reconnect, he said.

Events like the dinner are becoming fewer and further apart as more and more war veterans are passing away each year. Emberly said the government, after ignoring merchant navy veterans for years, has only recently started to show support.

“We’re finally getting benefits now. In 1992, we were officially recognized as veterans,” Emberly said. “I finally got a pension in 2008.”

Zimmerman said the recognition of the merchant navy was a long time coming but things are finally getting better. After World War II, the fleet was disbanded and the merchant navy basically ceased to exist.

Knowing what those benefits are and how to access them is lost on some veterans, Emberly said, which is one reason he stays active in the veteran community.

“The reason I stay involved is to help people,” Emberly said. “Even to this day, there are a lot of people that don’t know they are entitled to benefits.”

For Emberly, events like the “last supper,” are really important to keep the feeling of belonging alive amongst remaining veterans.

“The camaraderie that these people have is unbelievable. I think it’s holding them together,” he said.