Hedley Lake - War Veteran
Hedley Whitfield Lake was born in Fortune on August 12, 1918, the son of Samuel P. and Ada C. Lake. Growing up on the family farm, he did his share of the work as soon as he was old enough and learned about farming from his father. However, farming would not be the most important thing in his future. After the end of WW1 in 1918, when Hedley was 3 months old, veterans from Fortune returned home and shared stories of wartime experiences over the years, subtly planting the mental seeds to later inspire him to fight in WW2.
In 1940, Hedley joined the Royal navy. After Basic Training, he spent two years on a flower class Corvette, the “HMS Hyacinth”, which was running gunner escort for convoys in the Mediterranean Sea. Steering a zig-zag course, while setting depth charges, was both strenuous and stressful. The charges were supposed to be very accurately timed so the corvette would be at a safe distance when they detonated. Hedley can recall at least once when the timing was off just enough that the charge exploded too quick, just clear of the ship, lifting its stern clear out of the water. While on the “HMS Hyacinth”, Hedley suffered bouts of appendicitis, resulting in him being sent to the British Field hospital in Tobruk to have his appendix removed. He was released a few days and the hospital fell to Germans.
During his recovery, he spent a month posted on the HMS Canopus. Along the way, the ship visited the Holy Lands, allowing Hedley the chance to wash his feet in the River Jordan, a highlight he would recall many times for years to come.
In June of 1942, he traveled on the battleship “HMS Queen Elizabeth” to the American naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. The ship had been damaged in a sneak attack by Italian torpedoes in December of 1941, so it was escorted across the Atlantic Ocean at a speed of 5 knots to be repaired. It arrived on September 6, and Hedley began training on a Landing Ship Tank (LST), a new design that could land servicemen and equipment on beaches during invasions into enemy territory. On September 30, Hedley was assigned with LST 303 and by October 1, he went to New York City to join it. After that, he was coming home to Fortune on a well-deserved four-week leave.
He travelled by train from New York to North Sydney, Nova Scotia. He was one of 25 naval personnel who sailed from North Sydney on the “S.S. Caribou”, bound for Newfoundland, on October 14, 1942. The “Caribou” was escorted by an armed Royal Canadian Minesweeper, the “Grandmere”. Besides Hedley, another Fortune resident, Mack Piercey, was also on board. They had met at the Brooklyn Naval Yard while in line for breakfast.
When a German torpedo fired from U-69 struck around three in the morning, the entire ship went pitch dark. Hedley felt his way out of the cabin, along the corridor and up to the deck where the ship's rail was just disappearing below the water. With his lifejacket in his hand, and wearing only his shorts, Hedley jumped into the cold water and swam away from the sinking boat. He found a woman in the water trying to save herself and a young child and gave them his life preserver to save them. The “Caribou” sank to the bottom and 127 of the 237 passengers and crew were dead.
He spent several hours in the freezing ocean, clinging to a lifeboat that was filled to capacity. It was daylight when they were picked up by the “Grandmere”. He remembers being on board the minesweeper and hearing Mack shout: “Did anyone see Hedley Lake?” Hedley was wearing a boiler suit and a pair of socks given to him by one of the “Grandmere” crew members.
By the time they reached home, much of their leave time had been used up. A request for an extension of leave was denied. Hedley and Mack went back to their separate posts and wouldn’t meet again until after the war. When Hedley returned to duty in New York, he further trained in the use of landing craft. He sailed to the Mediterranean again, this time as Quartermaster on the “LST 303”, where he was involved in the invasion of Sicily, Salerno and Anzio, as well as the infamous Beaches of Normandy, in France.
They were grounded on the beach at Normandy for days while landing troops with tanks and various other equipment and supplies. German bombs were hitting the beach, stirring up the sand so that it sometimes covered the deck of the ship
At one point, Hedley was pinned down behind the gun turret for several days, while German planes continued to bomb the area. The guns were choked with sand, making it difficult to use them. German planes were constantly overhead. One plane flew back and forth over the ship, as if daring them to fight back. Hedley aimed at the gun and began firing until he saw smoke and fire. Finally, one of his comrades called out: “You got her, Lake.”
Armed ships, farther off from the coast, were also shelling the beach. Eventually, the German ground troops began to fall back and the allied troops could advance. When the ship he was on finally left Normandy, it carried a load of wounded personnel to England.
He then volunteered for service in the Pacific but was turned down. His superiors felt that he'd had enough combat duty on the front lines. He spent the remainder of the war at a training barracks in Raleigh.
Returning home after the war, Hedley led a much quieter life. He worked on the construction of the fresh-fish processing plant, then he worked inside the plant when it was operational and was also a part time farmer. On December 7, 1946, he married Jane Petten(born October 24, 1921), daughter of Walter and Elizabeth Petten, and built a house on the family land - commonly referred to as 'in on the farm'. They raised a family of one daughter, Elizabeth and three sons: David, Paul and Samuel.
Jane passed away on November 15, 1994. Afterwards, Hedley became a pretty active senior, doing things like growing most of his own vegetables. Elizabeth and Paul moved Mount Pearl, but David and Samuel are living in Fortune. He didn't like to talk about the horrors of war that he witnessed and experienced, the death and destruction, but then - who could really blame him?
Hedley lived alone after his wife passed away, but he still enjoyed having visitors come over and challenging them to a game of pool or card games like Rook or Skip-Bo. He was described as a “humble and unassuming man with an awesome memory that never deserted him.”
Hedley Lake passed away on December 1, 2021, at the age of 103, leaving behind his four children, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Original Story © Fay Herridge 2003
Additional details provided by Eva Lake, 2022 and P01 Wayne Rose (via historical plaque)
Edited by Jeffrey Elford