Cassidy, James

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                                JAMES HOWARD CASSIDY
                            The Story of a Forgotten Hero
                                  By Larry Burden

The story of James Cassidy has continued to intrigue Larry Burden, an RCMP officer based in Ottawa. He began to research the story for a book he was writing and he came across the obituary for the Newcastle native. Burden travelled to Miramichi in 2006 to do more research and challenge the city to officially recognize a Second World War hero. After continuing his research, Burden returned to the city this week and met with Miramichi MP Tilly O’Neill Gordon and a city councillor to see if they could do anything to help. The simple fact of the matter is he (James Cassidy) was not recognized because he was in the Merchant Marines. “His name is on the cenotaph in Newcastle. His name is on a cenotaph in Halifax. But there is nothing else you know; New Brunswick doesn’t have a lot of heroes.” Here is the story about a man Burden believes should be recognized as one of our heroes.


Over 68 years have passed since 29-year-old James Howard Cassidy drowned in the frigid water of the North Atlantic Ocean after bravely sacrificing his life so his shipmates could live. Yet his heroism has gone unacknowledged. Those men who lived because he died have likely all gone to their graves since then, knowing that they had lives and families because the former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was more concerned about their survival than his own. Unfortunately the story of James Cassidy has been forgotten is the sands of time, even in his hometown.

James Cassidy was born November 12, 1912 in the town of Newcastle on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick and attended Harkins Academy. At the age of 21, he engaged in the RCMP Marine Division and went to sea as a mess boy aboard the RMSBayhound. A year later he was enrolled as an ordinary seaman regimental number 12314 and was transferred to the patrol boat New Brunswickeer. Cassidy continued to serve in the RCMP and in 1938 he tried to be transferred to land duty as a regular constable, but was turned down because he was 5’7” in height and the minimum height was 5’8”. He continued in Marine Division until 1939, serving on three other vessels, the Ulna, MacDonald and the Alachasse.

When the drums of war began to beat, Cassidy, like so many other members of the RCMP, wanted to serve, but initially the RCMP was not prepared to grant members leave. This was due to the fact that if war broke out the RCMP would be needed to serve on the home front, and could not run the risk of mass exodus of members leaving to serve in battle. Cassidy was discharged from the Force on April 20th and engaged in the merchant marine as a second officer. Prior to his final assignment aboard the Pink Star, he served aboard a variety of vessels where he experienced the war first-hand, surviving attacks where his ship had been bombed, and machine-gunned by German cruisers and U-boats. During a bombing attack, he was wounded when a bomb fragment struck him.

After he was wounded in action, he returned home to Halifax, to await a new assignment. In 1941, he returned to Newcastle and saw his family for the last time before descending to a watery grave off the coast of Greenland after his Panamanian registered ship the Pink Star was torpedoed. The story of how a former Canadian Mountie ended up serving on a torpedoed foreign ship in the service of a country that was not yet at war is shrouded in its own mystery.

Prior to entering the war in 1941, the United States Government passed an act to enable the Maritime Commission to seize any idle foreign ships that were in American waters and use them for defense purposes. When the Act was passed, there were 84 voluntarily inactive ships, 40 of which were Danish ships with their crews stranded in the USA because their country had been annexed by Germany. On August 20th, 1941, Maritime Commission chairman E. S. Land sent a letter to the captains of all of the Danish vessels in which he appealed to the officers and crewman to serve the cause of democracy by continuing to man their ships, which had been taken over by the American Government. The crewmen were offered wages, overtime, bonuses, benefits, and life insurance and the offer of American citizenship. The 4150-ton freighter Lundby and her crew were one of those ships. It was launched in June 1926 as the Norwegian ship Saga and was sold to A. E. ReimannStensved of Denmark and renamed the Lundby in 1931. After the United States government seized it, it was transferred to the US War Shipping Administration. It was then assigned to the US Lines Inc. and renamed the Pink Star and registered in Panama. Though her crew was comprised mostly of Danish seamen, there were other crewmen who were Canadian. The ship’s captain, John Mackenzie, was a one-legged old salt from Halifax. Boat-swain Harold Hawks and able seaman Harry Carmichael were both from Saint John, New Brunswick. Other Canadians included John Archer, Thomas Cotton, Vincent Martin and Kenneth Price. What we do know is that after being reflagged, the Pink Star loaded with cargo and crew of 36 men and officers, departed from the port of Nova Scotia to join convoy SC-44. There were over 200 different convoy routes during WW2, and each route was assigned a two-letter prefix and a number indicating the destination and the sequential convoy number. SC-44 was the 44th convoy leaving the port of Sydney, Nova Scotia on September 11, destined for the UK. For the Pink Star, SC-44 was the first and last convoy run she would ever make, and she along with three other ships would never make port again. Running the gauntlet in the North Atlantic in 1941 was always dangerous, because the Nazi U-boat “Wolf Packs” were on the hunt, and there was very little the allies could do to prevent the attacks. The only thing ships could do was to make like buffalo and try and take safety in numbers. The U-boat plan was very simple and deadly effective, spread the submarines to hunt for a convoy, and when one was found, you radioed the heading and speed then shadow it until other U-boats arrive. Once other U-boats arrived, the pack surrounded the convoy and then at night they surfaced and attacked. Between 1940 and 1943, nearly 135 wolf packs were formed, averaging 3 to 4 U-boats, but at times reaching as many as 20, preying on the convoys. Over 650 convoys came under attack from the U-boats during the war. The weather on September 20 was unusually calm and flat when the Pink Star made its way in the convoy steaming towards Iceland as the sun was beginning to set. Unbeknownst to the Convoy was the fact that the U-552 nickname “Red Devil” had them in its sights.

The U-552 was the second one of a hundred VIIC class U-boats built by Blom and Voss in Hamburg. The VIIC class was the workhorse of the German U-boat force and was immortalized by the movie “Das Boot,” and with a length overall of 67.10 meters and speed of 17.7 knots surfaced/7.6 knots submerged. It could patrol an area of 8500 nautical miles and dive to a depth of 722 feet; it had five torpedo tubes (four forward, one aft) and carried 14 torpedoes and 26 mines. To save on torpedoes, the VIIC class U-boats had deck gun with 220 rounds of ammunition that could be used in a surface assault. In short, a U-boat such as the U-552 and its crew of 44-52 men was a very effective killing machine. The U-552 was one of very few German U-boats to survive the war without a single casualty, even though it sustained seven attacks and was depth-charged three times. It made 10 patrols and made 308 days at sea accumulating a record of 36 ships sunk and four damaged before it was scuttled in 1945. During one two-month patrol in 1942 alone Topp sank eight ships.

On September 19, 1941 Captain Topp and the U-552 was lying in wait 275 miles northeast of Cape Farewell at the southern tip of Greenland, when the first of 57 merchant ships accompanied by six escort ships of convoy SC-44 appeared in the periscope.

Seven escorts had accompanied the convoy, but twelve hours earlier Captain Eitel Friedrich Kentrai of the U-74 discovered the convoy approximately 120 miles east of Cape Farewell. He immediately notified the rest of the Wolf Pack the details of the convoy, their speed and heading, and then readied his boat to attack. At 06:30 hours he fired a salvo of torpedoes from both the forward and aft tubes but only hit one ship, the Canadian escort HMCS Levis (K115). A single torpedo hit ten feet from the stem on the port side, instantly killing 17 men because the point of impact was where most of the mess decks were located. The captain ordered the ship abandoned and the survivors were taken aboard the HMCS Mayflower and Agassiz. The Mayflower then took the crippled Levis in tow, but it capsized and sank 12 hours later. The convoy carried on two less escort ships while the U-74 repositioned and shadowed it until it could be joined in the hunt by two other U-boats, the U-69 and the U-552.

As the flotilla came into position, Topp readied his boat to attack, but before he fired, the U-74 struck again, firing a spread of four torpedoes into the convoy and hitting three ships. Of the three ships hit, only the catapult-armed merchant ship the Empire Burton sank but not before Master John Mitchell and 51 members of the crew and six RAF passengers managed to escape the sinking ship and were picked up by the crew of the HMS Honeysuckle. Unfortunately, two men did not make it.

At 01:38 hours, Topp joined the battle and gave the order to fire a single torpedo from the stern tube of the Red Devil and watched the fish speed towards its intended target, but groaned as it missed and passed by. But the shot was not in vain. Two minutes and two seconds after being fired, the torpedo hit another ship in the stern. The 8,212-ton British Steam Tanker T. J. Williams sank fast. Captain Robert Thomas Charles Wright gave the order to abandon ship, but 17 of the 39 men aboard did not survive.

The survivors were later rescued by the HMS Honeysuckle as the U-552 sped off to continue the hunt.

Less than twenty minutes later, the Pink Star was in its sights and Topp fired two torpedoes.

Time seemed to stand still for 52 year old Captain John Mackenzie, who was on the bridge when he saw the two torpedoes coming towards his ship. He ordered the helmsman to steer hard to Port, but the ship couldn’t react quickly enough and both fish slammed into the Pink Star. Later in Reykjavik, Iceland, Mackenzie told his story to a reporter, “I could see the torpedoes coming for minutes. I shoved the ship hard to Port and they hit. She seemed to be tearing to pieces. Water engulfed the whole ship and the explosion smashed all the life boats but one. When we got her down we found she was half full of water from the tidal wave the explosion threw up.”

The force of the exploding torpedoes split the ship in two and it went to the bottom in less than eight minutes. The Pink Star had a crew of 35 men and only a lifeboat survived the attack. As the ship was sinking, some of the crew members got the remaining lifeboat to the water and clambered aboard. Captain Mackenzie retrieved the secret documents and weighted them and tossed them overboard.

After completing his duty, he hobbled along the slippery deck on his wooden leg and dove overboard and began swimming for his life as his ship slipped below the surface while trying to suck him down with it “she reached for me she did. I felt the suction tugging me as though she wanted me with her, but I kept swimming.”

Captain Mackenzie found his way to the lifeboat in the dark and was pulled aboard by the rest of the survivors. As he sat shivering in the overloaded lifeboat, Mackenzie looked around and counted the heads of his crew of 35. There were only 23 men aboard.

Suddenly second officer Jim Cassidy appeared from the darkness, and swam towards the lifeboat. Jim had always been a strong swimmer. As he approached the lifeboat he could see how low in the water it was and could clearly see that the boat was dangerously overloaded. Jim continued to swim around the boat, assessing the situation as his shipmates called him to come closer so they could pull him aboard, but stayed outside of their reach.

Then Cassidy stopped swimming and treading water and told his mates that he wouldn’t come aboard because he feared the lifeboat would capsize. All was quiet except for the sound of the water slapping against the sides of the boat and Cassidy looked at his mates, waved, and then wished them good luck and said “goodbye.” He then turned and swam off into the darkness, never to be seen again. The overloaded lifeboat managed to stay afloat for five hours when they were finally rescued and taken to Reykjavik, Iceland.

Within days of the sinking, the story of the selfless hero from Newcastle, New Brunswick was being told in newspapers across England and North America. “It was the finest thing I ever saw,” Captain Mackenzie said as he related the story to the press. Back home in New Brunswick, the Cassidy family and the entire province hoped and waited for news that somehow their hero had survived, but hope turned to acceptance and then recognition for a hero. By October 25, 1941, the newspapers were reporting that a community movement was underway to have British Government recognize Jim Cassidy’s heroism by awarding him the George Cross, but nothing was ever materialized.

The convoy SC-41 eventually made it to England, but before the second escort group arrived, the U-552 sank its third ship of the day, the Motor Tanker Barbro. The 6,325-ton Norwegian tanker was loaded with 9000 tons of fuel and when two torpedoes struck her at 23:27 hours, her cargo burst into flames. A second U-boat, the U-69 attempted to finish her off with a third torpedo, but it didn’t detonate upon impact. Both U-boat captains and the surrounding ships watched helplessly as the entire crew of 33 men died in the inferno. The convoy had lost four merchant ships and a Corvette to the two U-boats along with the lives of 83 men. James Howard Cassidy, like so many other heroes of WW2, was soon forgotten, and he only memorial to his life and heroism is his name engraved on the cenotaph monument in his hometown and the national monument in Halifax. Cassidy’s name was never entered on the RCMP honour roll, because he had resigned from the RCMP to serve in the Merchant Marine. He had no way of knowing that had he stayed in the Mounties, he along with every other member of the RCMP Marine Section would be absorbed in the Royal Canadian Navy when the war was declared. Had he died at sea as an RCMP member of navy, his name would have been entered on the RCMP honour roll and his heroism would likely have been recognized. Though the Pink Star was absorbed into the US Merchant Marine, and was registered under a Panamanian flag, Cassidy’s name is listed on the merchant mariners killed on US operated ships during World War II. But he received no recognition from the US Government for his bravery.

He could have been recommended for the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal of bravery, but he wasn’t. Had Cassidy been in the navy, his selflessness would likely have been honoured, but he was in the merchant marine and it took over 60 years for the men of the merchant marine to receive formal recognition and be accorded the rights and benefits of veterans. James Howard Cassidy simply became a statistic. Possibly someday he will be recognized posthumously by his home town or one of the agencies that could have recognized him when those who knew him could have appreciated it.

The fact is heroism is timeless and although nearly 70 years have passed, the fact of selfless heroism should be recognized.

Reg. No. 12314, ex-Able Seaman James Howard Cassidy

On Sept. 19, 1941, the Pink Star was torpedoed in the North Atlantic while in convoy en route to Iceland. Unwilling to overcrowd the only remaining lifeboat, Second Officer J. H. Cassidy waved a farewell to his ship mates and swam away through icy waters to his death. Speaking of Second Officer Cassidy’s self-effacing heroism, the Pink Star’s captain said, “It was the finest thing I ever saw.”

James Cassidy was born in Newcastle, N. B. on November 12, 1912. On Nov. 13, 1933, he engaged as mess boy on the RMS Bayhound, then a vessel in the RCMP Marine section. The following year he re-engaged as an ordinary seaman being later transferred to the patrol boat New Brunswick in ‘J’ division as the cook deck hand. During his service, which ended in April, 1939, he also served on the Ulna, MacDonald and Alachasse cruisers. When the Pink Star was destroyed, twelve of the crew of thirty-six were lost; the survivors were picked up by a British Man-o’-war and were eventually landed safely in Reykjavik, Iceland.


Source: Miramichi Leader – July 17, 2009

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