Crossing guard

This Remembrance Day, as Canadians honour veterans of every generation, Vancouver native Ted Pratt remembers his role as a sailor in the treacherous North Atlantic during the Second World War

Ted Pratt greets you at his door with a wide-smile and firm handshake. Blue eyes lock on you with a look of genuine interest. If you think you were facing a salesman, you'd be only half-right, because there is a natural honesty within, and a serious side for sure.

He was born Aug. 31,1924 after being rushed to hospital from his grandparents' home near Crescent Beach. Mother Beatrice caused a sensation at the dinner table by announcing labour pains, and father, Arthur, took charge. Pratt laughs, proudly showing his family ring passed on from grandfather, to father, to son. Set on a field of gold, a lancer charges a dragon. The Boer War inscription reads: "Edward Pratt. St. George's Rifles April 24, 1889."

article continues below

By 1938, Pratt played basketball at Kitsilano secondary at a time when everyone recognized that war with Germany was inevitable. Kits introduced marching and rifle practice in the basement. Students, with detentions were given target cards. Many years later when "militarism" was removed from the curriculum, Pratt learned that teachers received 10 cents for each card turned in. During the Depression, those dimes were welcomed extra income. Lord Strathcona, the railroad magnate, wanted Canadian support for Britain, seeking "young men who sit tall in the saddle." However, as Pratt developed his strong interest in the sea cadets at HMCS Discovery in Stanley Park, there'd be no saddle for him. He continued navy training even when he moved back to Lord Byng for his senior grades, there discovering Canadian football.

"I'll never forget facing my old school for a football game where the newspaper predicted that 'Kitsilano High would whip Lord Byng handily.' It occurred to me that they might just do that because we hadn't won a game all season. But damned if I didn't catch a long pass at Athletic Park and ran as fast as I could in the mud to score our only touchdown. We lost 35 to seven, but I hadn't disgraced myself."

Pratt's face lights up at the memory and he pulls out well-preserved press clippings and photos of teenagers of the late 1930s full of the joy of life. The enthusiasm continues as he speaks of high school clubs, dances and close games, with more girls' names recounted by this tall young man with the wavy hair and ready smile. His graduation photo describes Ted Pratt as, "An officer in the Naval Cadets. A member of the Monitors Club. Good in all sports. Plays Senior Canadian football."

I n the fall of 1942, Pratt registered at UBC. "But after a couple of months it was time for me to enlist, so I signed up at age 18."

Pratt grows quiet at this point in our conversation. A change has come over him. No more enthusiastic stories or wide grins. Questions are left hanging-or he answers in a business-like manner without detail. "The war was going badly," he recalls. "I signed up at Discovery and left for training at Regina."

Acknowledging the insanity of a naval training centre on Canada's great central plain, he says: "I was a navy guy. I did what I was told." Asked about leaving his family: "My sister, Phyllis, was a nurse. We never talked about the war too much."

Lt. Pratt received more training aboard HMCS Prevost on Lake Erie. "Then to Halifax and Naval College for prospective officers, where they zipped us through onto a real ocean to train on a real ship, the HMCS Renard".

In what is by now a steady stream of guarded statements, Pratt says quietly, "Subs were sinking ships. It was found that torpedoes were attracted to the sound of propellers. So we were sent out to test certain things. Like a cable with a device producing a loud version of a ship's screws."

After a long pause he ends the conversation with the cryptic observation: "It worked. Subs shot at it."

When asked if there was any danger attached to this experiment, Pratt looks blandly at the inquisitor saying only, "We served our duty aboard the Renard. We were ready to go to sea. So they sent us to Montreal where they were building a new frigate, paid for by the citizens of North Battleford. The government wanted to name it after the city, but there was already an HMCS Battleford. Another would confuse signals, so they let the people choose. Commissioned HMCS Poundmaker, she was launched on the St. Lawrence River.

We had an oil painting of Chief Poundmaker in the officer's lounge. When everything was working well, we set sail for Halifax. I said goodbye to a girl in Montreal and another in Halifax. Then we were off to Bermuda for two weeks of work-ups-depth charges, gunnery procedures, search patterns. There were two large cannons- one forward, one aft, and anti-aircraft guns- Poundmaker and crew were pronounced seaworthy. We were ready to escort convoys to Londonderry high up on the north coast of Ireland."

"We sailed out past Halifax to pick up freighters coming from New York, then accompanied them to the 'Western Ocean' meeting place off St. John's. We met in daylight to assign positions in terms of speed. There'd be three or four columns with six to 10 freighters in each. Navy ships would be on the outside: Stonetown in the lead, Poundmaker on the stern, with two Corvettes on each flank. Sometimes these escorts had 60 ships to tend."

Although Pratt did not talk about problems during the 1,250 mile trip east from St. John's, NL, at 53 degrees north latitude, to Londonderry at 55 degrees north latitude, others have. The weather could be savage. There are also photos taken during Pratt's years of service showing men chopping salt-sea ice from metal superstructure to avoid the risk of capsizing. A letter spoke of ". . . mountainous spray topped seas, and the sound of wind howling and screeching through the stays." There were also log entries (from the archives of HMCS Discovery) such as: "February 2. Thick snow squalls. Ship pitching and plunging. March 4. Vessel rolling heavily. Overcast and heavy fog. March 7. Easterly gale. Sighted convoy and rejoined."

Pratt brushes aside these inconveniences during his four years of service, admitting only to the occasional "hectic journey."

Winston Churchill-known as "the man of the twentieth century"-was more to the point when considering the challenges that included the distance to travel, the world's worst weather to be encountered and the German battleships Tirpitz and Scheer lurking in Norwegian fjords.

Years later, Churchill described the first years of convoys trying to avoid Hitler's "wolf packs" as "the most melancholy episode of the war." We can suppose that Pratt's bunch well knew the importance of their work and the pragmatics of their survival rate-they just didn't want to recall the images. "I don't remember ever pushing the action button to have everyone below decks jumping out of their hammocks. I was mostly in the rain looking out to sea through binoculars-if I saw anything untoward, I'd call the senior officer."

Pratt avoids any mention of torpedo hits on that cold, dark ocean. There was a wistful mention of, "Sometimes freighters disappeared. We thought that some didn't like the slow pace, and went off on their own. Sometimes we'd go after them. We might find debris-"

What Pratt was clear on was the hospitality of grateful Londonderry and Belfast citizens who tried to give these visiting sailors some rest and peace before returning to their tension-filled journeys.

"The people of Ireland were wonderful. Bicycles were ready for anyone who wanted a tour through the countryside."

"There was golf equipment and grog and pubs and music," adds Pratt. "The local golf course was trimmed by a herd of goats, and we had wonderful games in the wind, playing 'Sniff and Snort.' The winner of a hole would get a 'snort' of Irish whiskey. The others would get a 'sniff.' Soon the best player was not all that good anymore. After three or four days, we'd head back to Halifax for another gathering of ships with supplies for Britain. Then it was watching for subs and running through the depth charge patterns to track them down- I was a lucky bastard."

A fter D-Day on June 6, 1944 and the re-taking of Europe, the last of the uncounted North Atlantic trips were done, and Pratt was discharged. It took five days, but he arrived home and booked an appointment with Walter Gage, dean of the math department at UBC, and in charge of student enrolment. Gage-destined to become a respected president of the university-looked at Pratt's record and gave him credit for all his abandoned firstyear courses, except for physics. This course, Pratt remembers, would have to be taken with an all-girls class. He attended the first class-consisting of "rolling balls down inclined planes"- but the lecturer called him in.

"Look," the stressed professor said, "You're the only male in a class of 350 girls. All pre-nurses. You might be a distraction. Just turn in the lab reports. I don't want to see you again."

"Three years later, I graduated with a BSc in forestry and still get the faculty magazine. I wanted to get into the wholesale lumber business, and got a job in the Marine Building on Burrard- then I met Beverly. My uncle had a cottage on Bowen Island where we went fishing. Beverly was a Sprott Shaw secretary at Broadway and Granville. She had a cottage at Eagle Cliff and we met on the beach. 'Hi there, cutie,' I remember saying . . . we were married on December 27, 1948."

"At first, we lived in a basement suite at Eighth and Dunbar. Then I was offered a job at a mill in central B.C. owned by the Cliff family. 'Want to come to Prince George with me?' I asked. 'Sure,' she said. 'Where is it?' Colin was born there in 1951.

"Then an American customer offered me a job. Would you like to go to Portland? I asked Beverly. 'Sure' she said. Barbara was born in 1953.

"Next job offer was at the head office in New York State. How about Poughkeepsie? I asked. 'Sure, Ted. Where is it?' We lived on the Hudson River. Andrew arrived in 1957. That's the way she was, always ready for an adventure. I miss her."

"One day in 1958 a letter arrived from Barnett Lumber, asking if I'd like to come home to Vancouver. Well of course we would- so we sold our house, jumped in our four-door Chevy with baby Andrew, Barbara and Colin, for a great ride back. We bought a house near Lord Byng and I joined Point Grey Golf Club in 1976."

Pratt pauses a while to look around his neat house in Delta and the display of his daughter's paintings, family photos and Beverly's favourite chair. (Beverly passed away in 2008.) At 87, he is a grandfather 12 times, and now a greatgrandfather. He's not sure to whom he should leave his grandfather's Boer War ring. "The Veterans' Association takes care of things nicely," he says, passing me a menu full of food choices from which he could order for weekly delivery. House cleaning is taken care of. Living alone, Pratt's main worry is about accidents. One day he tripped, and lay injured, preparing to spend the night on the floor, until he remembered the emergency necklace with a life-line button. "The Delta Hospital staff were great," he says with a big smile. "We still stay in touch. I collect bottles for the deposit money, and donate cash every month for some little extras. I like doing it.

"I was blessed. Still am. My kids live in Kitsilano, Calgary and Victoria. Point Grey Golf Club made me an honorary member a few years back," says Pratt, who will attend a Remembrance Day ceremony at the golf club. They send me a monthly bill for $0.00. Can't beat that. Beverly and I cruised and danced all over the world-Alaska, Black Sea, Mediterranean, Caribbean, Panama, South America- Beverly was great to know. I talk to her every day. "

Read Related Topics

Popular Vancouver Courier

Sign Up For Our e-Newsletter!
Find the Vancouver Courier Newspaper