German submarine attacks, love at first sight, and love lost — Fred Seeley has experienced it all.
These days, life is smooth sailing for the 95-year-old veteran, who loves playing darts on Monday night and shuffleboard on Tuesdays at the local Legion.
But nearly 75 years ago, on March 17, 1945, he woke up on the deck of his naval ship with a broken left ankle and a swollen arm.
“A German submarine had sent a torpedo straight for our boat, the [HMCS] Guysborough,” Seeley said. “I had been knocked unconscious. When I came to, my left ankle hurt like hell, my left arm was twice the normal size, and my left eyebrow was bloody and bruised.”
Just moments before, the naval seaman was checking the damage done from a previous torpedo launched by submarine U-878, completely stopping the minesweeper in its tracks. Now, they were sinking in the Bay of Biscay, off of Ushant Island in the English Channel.
Seeley said his captain wasn’t too worried as an SOS was sent out, but he had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“The torpedo blew off the back part of the stern and we were taking on water. I went up on the deck to check if the Germans were still around and they circled us before sending that final torpedo that sent me flying in the air.”
Seeley realized he had to get out of there quick. Most of the crew jumped into large lifeboats which were ‘shaped like donuts’, according to him. The veteran says everyone who was still alive jumped off the boat except two men who stayed behind in the rum locker, drinking as the ship sank.
“It’s a shame that liquor meant more than their lives,” he added.
The crew spent 19 hours at sea before being rescued. Seeley noted that some seaman died from exposure. In all, 51 of 83 crew members on board lost their lives that day, according to the Government of Canada website.
After HMCS Guysborough sank, Seeley spent nearly six months recovering at a hospital in Plymouth, England.
This wasn’t the war that Seeley envisioned when he first signed up at 17, in December 1941. His brother had signed up for the army two years before.
“Everyone was doing it,” he pointed out. “If you didn’t go, people would have ridiculed you saying, ‘Why won’t you fight for your country?’”
Seeley began training in his hometown of Dauphin, Manitoba, but soon found himself in Greater Victoria at the Naden base. He was taught how to use sonar technology for his work on minesweepers. Each of these small naval ships was equipped with mechanical devices, known as sweeps, to disable mines.
The training helped him immensely on the infamous D-Day. On June 6, 1944, he was in the waters off Omaha Beach.
“It was scary all right,” Seely said. “The sky was full of bomber jets. There were a couple of dogfights right above our heads, but we were okay.”
His team dealt with most of the mines for the American front. He says people who were given his task usually survived 50 per cent of the time because minesweepers commonly sailed through uncertain waters, well ahead of the attack front.
Though he was able to steer clear of the trouble that day, he had his heart stolen by a woman in the navy at a British pub in 1945. Her name was Rosemary.
“She was dancing with a tall redhead across the room when I spotted her,” Seely said. “She had amazing red hair and was really lively for being five feet tall. It was love at first sight for me on that dance floor.”
Three months later, they were married. She was 19 and he was 20. Seeley recalls that day as an unforgettable one, alongside VE Day.
“I knew that we were gonna win all along,” Seeley said. “I was grinning when I read the headline in the newspaper that day.”
With the war finished, Seeley moved with his wife and their first child to Winnipeg, then to back to his hometown to work on local railroads as a freight conductor.
Before he knew it, the couple had five children and the family moved to Kamloops in 1956. A couple decades later, they made their way over to Victoria to escape the cold winters. The marriage that lasted 53 years came to an end in October 1998, when Rosemary died from terminal ovarian cancer.
Now, the 95 year old lives with one of his daughters and her husband in a quiet Colwood neighborhood. The veteran has 11 grandchildren and estimates ‘at least a dozen’ great-grandchildren.
When asked if he had the choice to rewind his life back to 17, Seeley said he would ‘do it all again.’