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ON THE BOOKSHELF – Hard Aground: Untold Stories From the Pollux and Truxton Disaster

In 1942, crossing the Atlantic Ocean was a dangerous enough trip. There was a war on, and German submarines were a legitimate threat, known to patrol provincial and Canadian waters. Add in a bitter February winter storm, with the usual strong winds, and this was a perfect recipe for disaster. Three American warships ran aground in the pre-dawn hours of February 18. The small convoy had been patrolling when they got caught in a raging blizzard and ran aground less than three miles apart, within eight minutes of each other. The Wilkes freed herself, but the Truxtun and Pollux could not. Author Bett Fitzpatrick has most skilfully crafted a vivid and raw story based on eyewitness accounts of survivors and rescuers, and using historical research and archival records. The author has obviously poured a lot of time, energy and dedication into this book and it truly pays off for the reader who invests in it. I sat safe and warm in my house while reading it, but thanks to Fitzpatrick’s skill I still felt the sharp teeth of the biting cold reaching out to me, deep and unwelcome in my very bones. It was easy to vividly envision the men trying so desperately to save themselves and each other under extremely precarious conditions, climbing a 200 foot cliff in a winter storm, and the heartbreak and fear of the rescuers who did their very best to help. Men were floating in the water, covered in crude oil and dying. They called for their mothers, and one man died with a name on his lips that they suspect might have been his mother’s. It was simply horrific enough to read about, and it brought back memories of another book I once read called Death on the Ice. There were photos to go along with the narrative that helped put a very real face on those involved in the disaster. One of the more gripping pieces that stood out to me was that of Lanier Phillips. Phillips was African American, and back then there were some ports in other countries where they couldn’t go, as they were in danger for their lives simply for being black. There were four black sailors stranded on one of the ships, terrified to go ashore. Once safely ashore, the ladies helping washed him to get the crude out of his eyes and ears. One the women said, “this crude is in his pores” and Phillips corrected her, saying ‘that’s my skin colour’. He thought he was done for and would be killed, but instead he was treated like one of their own. His story is actually available on YouTube: and I encourage you to watch it. I love true stories, especially Newfoundland stories, and this one is right up there with the best of those types of books. It left me wanting more and I appreciate the reference notes in the footers because I do intend to read those as well and learn more. Frankly, I think these types of books can and should be taught in schools. They are an important part of our history and we can still learn so much from them. That said, I don’t like giving 5 star reviews because I don’t believe any book is “perfect”, but if I was going to do it this one would probably be it. Pick up a copy and you can thank me later!

Ashley’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Book columnist Ashley White is a mother of two and a self-confessed bookworm. She is passing on her love of reading to her children, and is active in local book groups and her community, including through volunteer work at the Port aux Basques Salvation Army. You can email Ashley at

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