Lucien Simard was born in Saint-François, Quebec, in 1926. Both his family and community had strong connections to seafaring. After his 18th birthday, he started working as a sailor on a merchant ship. Soon after, Simard tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy, but was rejected because he couldn’t speak English. He remained in the Merchant Navy for the length of the war and participated in the Battle of St Lawrence. Simard was one of 12,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who served in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Approximately 1,600 merchant sailors lost their lives due to enemy action.
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I hail from Charlevoix originally. I was born in Saint-François, a sailors’ town. They always told me, even though I never believed it, that I had sailor's blood in my veins. We didn't have a lot of opportunities to leave in those days, unless it was on a boat.
One of my father's cousins had a ship, he owned a large ship that was chartered by Clarke Steamship. He hired me to work for him as a sailor. I didn't speak any English. I had spoken to some other young fellows who were there and who told me that you had to speak English, you didn’t have a choice. If you had a lot of experience in the merchant navy or an officer's certificate or a lot of years in the merchant navy, you could maybe get transferred to the navy. I said to myself, let's start in the merchant marine while waiting, since I can’t [get into the navy].
When I went to enlist in the navy, maybe about three months after starting on a merchant ship, we had a stopover in Québec City. I went to the call field, if you’re familiar with that. There was a navy officer there, and plenty of young men who were there for the training, sailors in smart uniforms, well dressed, very well-organized. They were maybe a little bit older than me. The officer who had me come into his office told me that, “since you don’t speak English, we don’t have the time to teach you. You look like a good lad, and since you’re in the merchant navy, it’s best to stay there. Stay there, the other forces won’t have a place for you.”
I was sailing on a ship that was transporting airplane fuel and cement. The high-octane fuel was placed in one compartment, cement in the other, and the rest of the fuel was put into barrels on the deck. It was for the planes and to build the base in Longue-Pointe de Mingan. That was a base the Americans were building in order to fly over the St. Lawrence River and monitor for submarines that could have made their way down the river. We now know that some submarines made it all the way to the Saguenay during the war. Some ships were sunk in Ste-Luce-sur-Mer, right next to Rimouski, so we were right in the thick of it.
We had some consolation. The captain would always say to us, since we were young, "There’s no danger for you guys, don’t worry about anything. I’m the captain; if a submarine surfaces, we give up, they’ll take me back to Germany as a prisoner, and the rest of you just have to make for the shore, take the lifeboats, get to land, you’ll be home.” It really comforted us. We used it to motivate us to keep going.
The darkness was what was really difficult for us. It bothered me particularly the darkness, when dark came early, whether it was in the spring or fall. The summer was alright since the days were longer. When you are out at sea and night begins at 4:00 pm, you go into a room, and out goes the light. Into the kitchen, out goes the light. We weren't even allowed to light a match in the room unless the portholes were completely covered. We were in utter darkness. All along the Gaspé coast all the way to Newfoundland, you were in complete darkness. During the war, the houses located all the way down the Gaspé coast had to cover their windows. The submarines were torpedoing the ships only 5–10 miles offshore.
When the war of 1939–1945 ended, it wasn't over for us. The submarines disappeared, but the mines remained.
I kept going in the merchant marine. I didn't stop. I learned how to speak English.