You are going to read about the story of one man, yet also the story of so many who were called to sail the seas in wartime and who continued in peacetime. The memoirs of Lt. Cdr. Joseph C. Marston, RCN, CD, DSC, edited by his son J.C. Marston, Jr., will appeal to veterans and their families, but also to history buffs. His notes captured daily happenings onboard the various ships on which he served. It includes memorable characters and descriptions of the ports of call. Appearing in its pages are the many cultures and even cuisines he encountered as well as the very serious training for day to day safety onboard and in dangerous, wartime waters.
The meticulous notes Commander Marston kept in diaries from the start of his career at sea in the 1930s at age 15 are the stuff of family stories that might have been shared by veterans. Fascination with the sea for the young Joseph began early. The memoir chronicles his early years, when young men could sign on for adventure in the service of their countries.
The natural progression, it seems, was first reading about the possibilities open to boys in publications such as Modern Boy. The stories were exciting and also educated readers on the ‘mechanics of the various contrivances’ as Marston Sr. penned. Next up was to join the Navy League Sea Cadets which later became the Royal Canadian Navy Sea Cadets. The timing coincided with the start of the Great Depression. That immersion summoned all his resources – learning to get along, learning new skills, adding to the drum and bugle band as his father had given him some trumpet lessons. The various activities meant to keep young men and boys busy and out of trouble while developing took place in Vancouver. Much of that activity occurred at Brockton Oval, an area located inside what millions know and enjoy annually as Stanley Park. At the time the crowds were less and they shared the greens with a resident herd of buffalo that grazed at twilight!
Young Marston’s peers went on to become naval commanders, or went into merchant service. Many of these advanced to ship’s masters, coast pilots and business executives in the shipping world.
The book offers an accurate historical yet first person account from one man’s pen and memorable moments. Yet, it puts a great deal into context for the times and about the people in them.
“I only wished he had given more details and especially of his feelings and personal thoughts in the accounting of the facts of the day. If I had known all this before I began the 20 year editing work, I would have asked so many questions of him,” says Marston Jr.
We had a peek into the timeline of the Commander’s life, in a recent interview with J.C Marston, Jr. After his own retirement from a full life in public service, he was designated by the family to fully and finally organize the windfall of words. He found their father’s life to be so engaging and his recollections both written and added to late in life, historically accurate throughout the manuscript.
Marston Sr., committed to life on the seas with his auspicious embarkation on the Empress of Canada. Despite his youth, he finagled his way in, using his cadet credentials, as a deck messenger. The ship ran between Vancouver and Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manilla and Hawaii. He stayed on with the Canadian Pacific Line for two years. Moving to the Donaldson Line with an accompanying step up in rank, he sailed between Glasgow and Vancouver and also Montreal.
For this leg of his career he needed a sponsor which he got through a female family member. With a successful interview for this next position in 1933, he spent the next six years up until World War II there and concluded his time with the rank of 2nd Mate. His next leap of faith was onto the Nisbet Lines and onwards.
Duties and Danger
The ships that carried Marston Sr. bore the names SS Moveria, SS Parthenia, SS Sulairia, SS Garcia, SS Corrientes, SS Blairspey and the SS Jolee.
With the onset of active war, his ship’s course ran into the first German U-boat Wolf Pack attack. The pack shifted from the established strategy in which a single U-Boat would pick off enemy ships. Instead, they marshalled their routes to notify all U-Boats in the area to mass and bombard convoys. He was on the ill-fated Blairspey when it became one of the first casualties of this tactic. Even though the ship was attacked twice and sustained damage, it didn’t sink. Mercifully, it was kept afloat by the supply of lumber from Quebec it was carrying.
During the heaviest war years from 1940 on, he served on the HMCS Spikenard and he took Officer’s Training for a time in Halifax resuming duties in what he calls the ‘Four-Stacker Years’ This time of 1941-1943 was when Britain and the USA signed the “Destroyers for Bases Agreement.” It saw a transfer of 50 mothballed World War I vintage four-stack destroyers from the US Navy to the Royal Navy. The term itself refers to the four funnels which distinguished these destroyers from other warships. Odd looking, out-of-date and hard to handle, they both offered help in the war effort and caused much havoc for all who worked on them also.
Sailing On into Civilian Life
Perhaps, for others, the book – which is set soon for publication – will help fill in gaps. It features well curated photos and an appendix with essential details of the many ships mentioned and of course as happens with first person accounts, countless surprising moments that bring readers along for the sail.
On its pages we can feel the dedication by ordinary citizens who had a passion to serve their country. These men, and in many unsung cases, women, served as military members on land, in the air and in this particular account of life at sea. Many went on to use their skills and discipline and love of the work in civilian roles.
Lt. Cdr. Marston was one of these who stayed on the sea but in civilian service. In effect, there is nothing particularly ordinary about the account of his life, although it represents the very many who chose this life and so also impacted so many Canadian families, the economy and the security of our nation.
The memoir’s editor J.C. Marston, Jr can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch for the announcement of the memoir once it is published later in 2022.
By: Helena Kaufman