Ride to Truxtun & Pollux Wreck Site

I’m a bit of a history buff, so most of the rides that I plan revolve around some sort of historical site. I had long known of the Truxtun & Pollux disaster on the Burin Peninsula, but never had an opportunity to see it first hand. When we decided to go camping in that part of the province in August, the wreck site was the top thing on my list.

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The site of the wreck

Background

The wreck of the destroyer USS Truxtun and supply ship USS Pollux remains one of the worst sea disasters in US naval history. It happened on February 17, 1942 during a fierce snowstorm, and despite heroic rescue attempts by the residents more than 200 men perished in the icy water. The 186 survivors were taken back to their rescuers’ homes, where they were bathed, fed, and nursed back from the brink of death. Survivor Lanier Phillips, an African-American from the racist, segregated southern US, simply could not believe the kindness showed to him by his rescuers; people so unaware of race that they thought his skin was black from the oily water and actually tried to scrub it off.

From Dead Reckoning: The Pollux-Truxtun Disaster:

Never before had white people treated him with respect and kindness, yet here he was, eating dinner with his white hosts, who clearly thought that his life was not only worth saving, but was no less important than their own. It was a moment of awakening for Phillips, who later said the humanity shown to him in St. Lawrence changed his entire philosophy of life – it gave him dreams and ambitions; it gave him a newfound sense of self-worth; and it made him realize that he could shape his own future.

Phillips went on to become the Navy’s first black sonar technician, and became active in the civil rights movement, speaking out against discrimination and oppression. It’s incredible how Newfoundland kindness and hospitality could have such an effect on someone.

Getting There

Like many places in Newfoundland, this site is not well-marked, and it’s very easy to miss the sign at the turn-off in St. Lawrence if you’re not looking specifically for it. In a few minutes you come to a well-maintained dirt road, and after about 5km you arrive at a tiny tourist information centre.

map

I was figuring that we would have to park the bikes and walk the kilometre or so to Chamber Cove, but we were told that the trail was pretty good and we should have no problem navigating it on our bikes. One of the young guys working there actually escorted us out…on his 1983 Big Red. You knows you’re around the bay* when!

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The trail was easily ridable, even with my almost-bald back tire.

The first thing we saw was a tiny hayshack, where survivors covered themselves in hay and huddled for warmth after scrambling up over the cliff face and rolling down the hill on the other side.

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The door was torn off and used as a stretcher. It hasn’t been replaced.

On a calm summer day it may be difficult for some to imagine the ferocity of a winter storm. But as Newfoundlanders we know all too well what the ocean is capable of, and it was easy for me to imagine the terror of those sailors as their ship was battered to pieces on the rocks, their only chance of survival a near-impossible climb up icy cliffs.

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Those cliffs are intimidating enough in the height of summer.

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Small memorial at the site, with rusted debris from the ships.

Some people would probably feel a bit sombre or even depressed after visiting a wreck site such as this. It was a terrible event no doubt, but in counterbalance to the tragedy was the incredibly heroic rescue effort put forth by the residents of the nearby communities. Many people put their own lives in danger to try to save American sailors, and without question welcomed these men into their homes. It’s a story that’s been repeated time and time again in Newfoundland, a part of our unique culture that comes from living hundreds of years on the edge of survival. When I visit these sites I say a prayer for the victims, but I also feel incredibly proud to be a Newfoundlander.

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The best blueberries are the ones closest to the edge.

*Around the bay: Can refer to almost any rural community in Newfoundland. Typically considered to be friendlier and more old-fashioned than the city (meaning St. John’s).

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Posted on October 26, 2015, in Roads of Newfoundland and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. We live in one of the friendliest, most helpful places in the world. I am so proud to call Newfoundland and Labrador my adopted home. Thank you for another great post Krista….

  2. Beautiful story Krista! Some of my favorite stories of yours are this one and the plane wreck ride. I love reading about history, and your story fits right in. Well done!

  3. Good article… Glad u enjoyed your visit to the site.

  4. robert a. hermann goerss

    Very nice story, and a reminder how the sea and war can be a deadly mix, but most of all for me, the story called back memories of my father and I, each, separately made land fall at Gander by air, but for this:. The story of Seaman Lanier Phillips, and his experience and the rescuers’ experience of meeting friendly white people, and for Newfoundlander’s meeting a black man for the first time.

    As always, the people of Newfoundland generous and kind spirited.

  5. Love that tale! I own the book about it, a wonderful read and a source of pride in my province and its people.

  6. I grew up there and enjoy it every time I am home!

    Paul Lambe CFP FMA | RBC Royal Bank | Royal Bank of Canada |
    St. John’s, NL
    paul.lambe@rbc.com

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