Rescue and Recovery

Soon after 8:00 a.m. on the stormy Ash Wednesday morning of February 18, 1942, a dazed and semi-frozen American sailor named Edward Bergeron stumbled into Iron Springs Mine, near the small community of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland. His ship, the destroyer USS Truxtun, had gone aground with its crew of 156 men about three miles away in Chambers Cove. Upon hearing Bergeron's story, the Newfoundlanders shut down the mine for the day, sent word to St. Lawrence that help was needed, and set out for Chambers Cove with ropes, axes, blankets, and as much food as they could carry.

In the coming hours, these brave men of St. Lawrence risked their own lives to save strangers in imminent danger. They waded hip-deep into freezing waters and pulled dozens of men out of the ocean; they carried semi-conscious survivors over ice-covered cliffs; and they brought them back to Iron Springs Mine, which the local townsfolk had transformed into a make-shift hospital. There, St. Lawrence women bathed freezing sailors in warm water, dressed them in dry clothing, and fed them piping-hot bowls of soup and steaming cups of tea or coffee. Everything the men ate and wore had come from homes belonging to these women and their neighbours - food from their cupboards, clothes from their closets, and blankets from their beds. After the survivors were dressed and fed, they were bundled into trucks and carried away to various homes in St. Lawrence, where families took them in and cared for them all night long.

While the St. Lawrence residents were saving the Truxtun survivors, a second rescue attempt was unfolding about one and a half miles west at Lawn Point. There, another ship, the USS Pollux, had gone aground that same morning with its crew of 233 men. No one at St. Lawrence knew about the Pollux, but word reached the small fishing village of Lawn by about midday that a second vessel was in trouble. The wreck site was about a six-hour walk away - through 10 miles of thick woods and tall hills - but eight men set out with ropes and axes. When they arrived at sundown, about 122 survivors were trapped on an icy ledge at the base of a tall cliff and a couple dozen more were stranded in a cave further along the coast.

The eight men from Lawn quickly lowered a rope over the cliff and began to pull up survivors. Their hands became blistered and bloody from the work, but they continued into the night, desperately trying to pull up the remaining sailors before the small ledge disappeared beneath a rising tide. After a few hours, other rescuers arrived from St. Lawrence. Many were the same men who had spent most of the day saving Truxtun survivors in Chambers Cove. Tired and chilled to the bone from hours of backbreaking work, these heroic men did not hesitate to travel to Lawn Point when word reached St. Lawrence that a second vessel had gone aground. By dawn the following day, the men from Lawn and St. Lawrence had pulled more than 100 men over the cliffs at Lawn Point. All survivors were taken to Iron Springs Mine and then into the homes of St. Lawrence residents.

A total of 186 American sailors survived the Pollux and Truxtun groundings and all of them owe their lives in large part to the tremendous heroism and generosity displayed by the residents of St. Lawrence and the eight men from Lawn. To this day, the actions of those brave Newfoundlanders on that wind-swept Ash Wednesday in 1942 remain a testament to human courage and compassion.

For months after the disaster, local residents helped to recover bodies and body parts belonging to the 203 American sailors who died at Chambers Cove and Lawn Point. Many corpses were unidentifiable by the time they washed ashore or were found floating near the coast, and an indeterminate number were never recovered at all. Navy divers also pulled some bodies from the wrecked ships, but stormy seas delayed their work until the first week of March. Forty eight servicemen were buried at a cemetery in Argentia during the first week after the groundings and another 90 were buried at St. Lawrence in the coming months. Their bodies were exhumed and returned to the United States after the war.