Paul Berg

Paul Berg

Merchant Mariners quiet heroes of First World War

When larger ships sailed the Atlantic, ferrying supplies, ammunition or troops from Canada to Britain, a fleet of small frigates would

When larger ships sailed the Atlantic, ferrying supplies, ammunition or troops from Canada to Britain, a fleet of small frigates would accompany them, sailing in convoy to protect them from enemy fire.

These frigates sank with terrible regularity as they absorbed enemy torpedoes and saved countless supplies, troops and weaponry.

Norwegian Paul Berg, who after the war settled on a farm north of Gadsby, was a fireman on several of those frigates during his career as a member of the Merchant Marines. He didn’t put out fires, but stoked them, deep in the bellies of the frigates on which he served. Shovelling fuel into the hungry furnaces of the steam-powered ships of the First World War, Berg knew that his life was on the line – if a ship was hit by a torpedo, he only had moments to get above deck.

His daughter, Paulette Heer, lives on the farm her father bought after the war. With Remembrance Day around the corner, her father is large in her mind, because the day held such importance to Berg.

“Dad lived to 103,” Heer said, sifting through photos and postcards her father had collected during the war. “He said very little about the war. I saw a lot of tears, but I was too young to understand. (November 11) was a very solemn day for him.”

Merchant marines weren’t recognized as part of the navy in the British Empire, of which Canada was a part during the First World War. They weren’t recognized by Canada until after her father died, something Heer said she wished her father had lived to see, because he always felt that he had been part of the war effort.

Twice during the war Berg found himself running from the bowels of the frigate to the deck, water gushing in behind him through the ragged torpedo wounds dealt to the ship by enemy fire.

“You didn’t stop to grab anything,” Heer recalled her father saying. “You only had minutes.”

She said her father never really spoke about the experiences, except to say that the wait in the ocean water for rescue was cold.

“Because there were so many ships you knew you were going to be picked up,” Heer said. “They just had to wait.”

That wait sometimes was as long as an hour, sitting in the Atlantic. Deaths weren’t uncommon, but they weren’t as many as one may expect, Heer said. “Rescue was right there, they just had to wait for it to be safe.”

Her father continued to sail after the war, before he gave in to his brother’s nagging to come visit his homestead on the Alberta prairies. Berg came north to the rolling gold fields and never left, renting the farm he one day came to purchase as his own, and employing the woman that would one day be his wife, Iona Hankins. Together, they had one child – Paulette – when Berg was about to enter his fifth decade.

When European tensions exploded into what became the Second World War, Berg signed up as a reservist. A man with a new wife and a farm, he wasn’t as eager to leave to fight as he was in his carefree sailor days, but he put his name in the hat in case it was needed. He was never called up.

After the wars, Berg became a steady force in the Gadsby, and later Stettler, Legions, helping to support his fellows.

“You didn’t talk to your families about what you went through,” Heer said of her father’s experiences in the war. “You went to the Legion, to your buddies who went through it, too, and understood.”

There, Berg received the support he needed, and he doled it out without reservation to others.

“He was the type of man who made friends across the ages,” Heer recalled. “And the Legion was so very, very important to him.”

In 1999, three years after Berg died at the age of 103, the Canadian government recognized merchant marines as part of the Canadian Navy, thus eligible for veteran’s benefits.

Please see many more Remembrance Day feature stories in this week’s paper.