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The Search for Uncle ‘Moe’


 

Island 42: 1873: Unwin 0.2 acre Value $10

“Low rock, a few small trees on it.”

1894: Beatty 1/10 acre Value $150

A lovely little island bearing some fine pine trees; pretty view; good approach.”

Sale: 1908: to James A. Latimer

The First Summer People, The Thousand Islands 1650 – 1910, By Susan Weston Smith

 

Coffee cup in hand, Sherry sits comfortably back in her deck chair and stares out at the St. Lawrence River. From her vantage point, here on Belittler Island in the Lake Fleet Group of the Thousand Islands, the artist has a front row seat. She carefully studies the movement of the waves as only an artist can.

A light southwest wind is blowing. This early August morning small ripples have started to form short, choppy waves, the troughs darker in colour finishing with a light, pale blue crest before breaking into a light foam. Nobody paints a picture like Mother Nature.

“In quiet moments by the river, I often ponder the early native dwellers, paddling their birch bark canoes quietly through the water, scouting for a place to fish and rest for the night,” she says, sipping her coffee. “Did they ever pull ashore on our island?

“I imagine how the river looked to them. Did they appreciate its raw beauty or did they only think in terms of travel and the food it could provide?”

Sherry and husband Larry Pringle live in Napanee with the Napanee River passing lazily by their back door. The Pringles have been coming to their cottage on Belittler Island or ‘Island 42’ in the Lake Fleet Group since they purchased it in 1997. All around them, islands are named after warships from another era: Endymion, Niagara, Dumbfounder, Netley and Bloodletter. She smiles for a moment. Very fitting. Looking back, the last ten to twelve years have been a whirlwind of memories about another warship from not so long ago. Memories surrounding a family member she never met, but has felt a kinship with since she saw him in a faded photograph from another era. He’s wearing a sailor’s uniform of the Royal Canadian Navy. A Napanee boy who also loved being around the water. Maurice Waitson AB, only seventeen when he enlisted to serve his country on January 15, 1942.

When she asked her mother about this young man, all she heard was, ‘he died in the war! “End of story,” she says. “He died in the war’! I knew the memories were too painful for her to speak of her younger brother.” A small motorboat passes by, its engine mixing with the sounds of the waves lapping at the shore just under the deck. Does this annoy the artist? Not at all. It’s part of the river.

“When the thunderous roar of engines break my train of thought, I wonder if all those hurrying past ever think of the significance of the river and all it offers to its summer dwellers?” she said. “Do they ever consider the early Indians or the boats that carried our forefathers upstream to settle in the wild? Are they aware they play on the greatest fresh water system in the world while it laps languidly on its flow to the sea? Do they think of the War of 1812 or the 49th parallel? Do they think of the people – just like us – that dwell on the other side?”

By ‘the other side’, Pringle means the other side of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. She ought to know. Ten years ago, on her quest to find about her Uncle Moe, after many, many telephone calls and letters, Sherry and husband Larry met and befriended war veterans and villagers, many people they’ll never forget. Strolling through quiet, seaside French villages, it was hard to imagine these same places were torn apart in a world gone mad during World War II.

In 2003, the couple travelled to Brest, France to be on hand at the filming of a documentary titled: the Mysterious Sinking of HMCS Athabaskan G07. Her lost Uncle Maurice Waitson’s ship. On April 29, 1944, a German destroyer torpedoed the Athabaskan near the occupied French coast of the English Channel. The warship was escorting a mine-laying operation in preparation for the D-Day invasion. HMCS Haida G63, Athabaskan’s sister ship was able to rescue fifty survivors after the sinking. Others were taken as prisoners of war. From 261 Canadians aboard, 128 perished. Thirty seven men were never found. Maurice Waitson AB was one of them.

“On February 4, 1943, Moe reported for his final posting on board HMCS Athabaskan. He was assigned to the crew of ‘B’ guns. There were two gun stations on Athabaskan’s bow. The ‘B’ gun station was on a platform above and behind the ‘A’ position. There was a similar configuration for the two gun stations at the stern of the ship where ‘X’ guns were mounted on a platform above ‘Y’ guns, which were the furthest aft on the ship.” Pringle has walked the decks of HMCS Haida now on display in Hamilton, an identical sister ship to the Athabaskan, so she knows the ship intimately. Studying the layout as only an artist can, Pringle was able to capture HMCS Athabaskan in her paintings.

One painting depicts the ship on that fatal night. “Death of a Warrior” depicts the Athabaskan in her final moments before plunging to the bottom. It’s this picture that adorns her first book “All the Ship’s Men, HMCS Athabaskan’s Untold Stories”, published by Vanwell in 2010. The artist – turned author – wanted to capture the stories of the survivors of her uncle’s ship while there was still time.

“The sinking of the Athabaskan is the worst naval disaster in Canadian history,” writes Wayne Abbott of Northern Sky Entertainments. “For that reason alone it should never be forgotten. Sherry Pringle has captured the true essence of this very dramatic story in this book. It’s heartfelt and... gives a beautiful and honest look at the true horrors and true heroes of war.”

Traveling through France, the couple met people who remembered the tragic night of the sinking. Sailors had washed ashore and were buried in the small towns. They travelled to the Normandy Beaches, Ile de Batz and Plouescat, Brittany. Talking with survivors, Sherry was sure her uncle was buried in one of the graves marked ‘Known Unto God’.

In Brignogan-Plages, France Larry and Sherry visited wartime graves in the local cemetery. “How would I know which one might be Moe’s?” she wondered. “I rationalized that, if we only had time to visit three cemeteries, perhaps they were the three I was meant to see. At some point you have to give fate credit.”

“Quietly I asked God for some kind of sign. As I raised my head, my eyes immediately rested on the fourth stone from the left. Although it was identical to the others, there, beside the stone was one lonely little bedraggled weed. It seemed to be waving at me in the breeze as if to say ‘over here!’ Who is to say that was a signal or not? I chose to believe it was.” That was several years ago, in 2003.

Pringle’s quest for her Uncle Moe led her on an incredible journey. Veterans, many unable to speak clearly at the time have gone now. She is thrilled that she was able to capture their memories, personalities and camaderie before it was too late . Her painting ‘Channel Patrol’ depicts the Athabaskan flying through the heavy waves, is now on permanent display in the military museum at Fort Montbarey, Brest, France.

On May 22, 2010, Sherry unveiled her new book at the Juno Beach Centre in Courselles-sur-Mer, France, along with a new display for the museum there on the Athabaskan. Shortly after, fittingly, ‘All the Ship’s Men’ was launched on board the flight deck of the current HMCS Athabaskan in Halifax Harbour. Pringle has since been awarded the prestigious ‘Beaver Award’ for her work in recording the personal stories of the sailors involved on that fateful night.

I met Sherry Pringle at the Bath Marine Heritage Festival during the weekend of May 24-26, 2013. There she spoke lovingly about her passion for the sailors of the HMCS Athabaskan and her quest to finally find out about her long, lost uncle. As she read one of her last passages, I noted a slight tremble in her voice as she describes standing by the seaside in the small French town in Brittany. “After a few moments of quiet contemplation, survivor Herm Sulkers (Moe’s shipmate) broke the silence and started to sing ‘O Canada’. Everyone joined in, standing at attention as if staring at an imaginary maple leaf flag. Together we sang our national anthem, overlooking the quiet harbour of a little French town.”

Sherry Pringle puts her empty coffee cup down. “Beyond the daydreams comes the reality that past our door, out to sea and across the Atlantic a war was fought, she said. “Ships were sunk. Lives were lost. I think of Uncle Moe and thousands of Canadian sailors who made it possible for me to sit quietly and contemplate.”

Sherry J. Pringle 

Sherry J. Pringle is a fine artist who works in acrylic, collage and mixed media. An art instructor and lecturer she is Past President of Gallery 121 in Belleville, Ontario. Her works can be found in private collections, public buildings and museums, both home and abroad, including Juno Beach Center, France and Fort Montbarey, Brest, France. Her website is: sherrypringle.ca

Pringle lives with her husband Larry in Napanee, not far from where her Uncle Moe used to fish and learned to skate on the Napanee River.

By Captain Brian Johnson

 

Brian Paul Johnson is a  past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society.  He is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years, recently celebrating 20+ years as captain.  We often see him pass through the islands as captain of the Canadian Empress.   Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Fascinated by stories and legends of the 1000 Islands area he has written for the Kingston Whig Standard, Telescope magazine and the Great Lakes Boatnerd Website:“Seaway News”. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen.

  • The author at her book launch held on

    The author at her book launch held on "Athabaskan III" June 30, 2010

  • One painting depicts the ship on that fatal night. “Death of a Warrior”

    One painting depicts the ship on that fatal night. “Death of a Warrior”

  • Shelly Pringle's painting of the

    Shelly Pringle's painting of the "Athabaskan"

  • "Athabaskan" Display at Juno

 

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Comments

LyndaCrothers
Comment by: LyndaCrothers ( )
Left at: 8:14 AM Thursday, August 15, 2013
Thank You another great read from Capt. Brian Johnson.
Mrs. Leona Dittfield
Comment by: Mrs. Leona Dittfield ( )
Left at: 1:58 PM Sunday, September 8, 2013
Now living in retirement in Apex, North Carolina. My husband and I spent our vacations on the St. Lawrence River in Cape Vincent, NY with our 5 children. Three of them, the daughters and their families return to the St. Lawrence almost every year with their boats and camping equipment. We loved the area so much we wanted to spend eterniry at the river. My husband and our oldest grand-
daughter who passed away at the age of 17 are now resting in peace in the St. Vincent of Paul Cemetary in Cape Vincent. After moving to Apex over 20 years ago, we spent four and a half years at the river and the remainder of the year here in the south. We enjoyed the best of both places in our retirement and were thankful for being able to do so. I like keeping in touch with you. Thank you.

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