MORRISBURG – “I was never actually scared,” explained Louis Bailey of Morrisburg, now the proud recipient of a citation honouring the men and women who served in Canada’s fabled Merchant Marine during World War II. “But then I think I was probably too young to be scared.”
This official citation, recently presented to Louis, reads: “On behalf of a grateful nation, we present this Certificate of Recognition to Louis Bailey as a tribute to your selfless acts of service and sacrifice during the Second World War, in defence of Canada and our shared values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.” It is signed The Honourable Lawrence MacAulay, Minister of Veterans Affairs.
Although 12,000 men and women served in Canada’s Merchant Fleet, shepherding 25,000 merchant ship voyages in the course of the War, Canada was slow to recognize the courage and contributions of this “unofficial” navy. It was not until the 1990s that veterans of the merchant marine were finally awarded benefits and official recognition. At that time, it was also officially acknowledged that out of the Navy, Army and Air Force, this fourth branch suffered the highest casualty rate.
Louis Bailey, now 93, is honoured by this government recognition.
He shared a little of his story. Brother Walter Bailey also contributed to the interview.
Louis was just 15 years old, and working odd jobs in Quebec City, when he decided, in 1944, to enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy. He was far below legal age, but Louis didn’t mention that fact to the recruiters. However, his “official” enlistment actually ended up lasting just three days.
“The Navy officers were sort of suspicious. They looked me over for those three days, and one of them noticed that I never seemed to need to shave,” Louis recalled. “Finally I had to admit my real age. They immediately kicked me out of the Navy.”
But that didn’t stop Louis Bailey. He promptly went to the Merchant Marine offices in Quebec City. Those recruiters didn’t care about his age. As Louis said, “they hired anyone.” He was in.
“I wanted to serve. I guess I wanted adventure. Now I think that maybe I actually got a little more adventure than I was expecting,” he explained. “I saw things in the service that I think I was probably too young to see.”
Walter Bailey filled in some of the details of his older brother’s early life. The family originally lived in Iroquois.
“Louis actually left home when he was 13,” Walter explained. “He was a big kid and he got into an argument with our Dad: overnight he took off. He had ten cents in his pocket. The family had no idea he’d even gone until the next day. Louis had just started walking west; eventually he rode the rails along with other homeless men. He told me later that he shared their camps, scrounged food with them. He said that those “hobos” looked after him. He was never once scared.” Out west, he worked in the fields.
“Then one day my mother was looking out the west window of our house in Iroquois, and there was Louis, walking down the railroad tracks, coming home. He was 15,” Walter said. “But I think Louis always had a wandering spirit. He soon took off again, this time heading east.”
That journey took him to enlistment in the Merchant Marine.
Louis served as a deck hand on freighters marshaling out of Halifax, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“There were a lot of sinkings in the Gulf,” Louis explained. “The subs were always hanging around waiting for ships.”
He was not in any of the convoys which sailed across the Atlantic to England. Instead his ships constantly travelled up and down the east coast of Canada, carrying goods like pulp wood and war supplies to bases in the United States.
“We were constantly on the look-out for subs though,” Louis said. “We had no escort ships. When we loaded up, we just took off, taking our chances. All we had for protection was a three inch gun mounted on the stern of the freighter.”
Again he thinks he was probably too young to really appreciate the dangers at the time. However, his youth worked against him in quite a different way on shore, he recalled. “In Halifax, they wouldn’t let me into any of the local hotels, even when I was wearing my uniform,” he laughed. “Said I was too young. But I easily got into the blind pigs, the bootleg joints, down town. Those places didn’t care how old I was. Those were pretty tough spots. Not the kind of places I’d go into today.”
He remembers May 8, 1945.
As his ship came into the mouth of the St. Lawrence, he and the rest of the crew could hear every ship gathered in the mouth, large and small, blaring its horns over and over. That’s how they learned that the war had finally ended.
Louis left the Merchant Marine shortly after that in 1945.
However, he was not yet done serving his country.
In 1951, he enlisted in the Canadian Army, and shipped to Korea where the United Nations was staging its “police action.” Louis also possesses a citation from the Korean Government to commemorate his actions in that war.
After he came home from Korea, Louis served as chief of security for the Seafarers, then worked at Dupont in Maitland. He is now retired with his wife of 71 years, his “wonderful lady”, Teresa.
Although one might think that military honours recipient Louis Bailey has had enough adventures for any one lifetime, he laughs that this is just not the case. “It’s been an interesting life, but I’m still ready for more,” said this Canadian veteran. “I’m ready to take life on.”