LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
THE UNKNOWN SAILOR
Snt,—In the good old days, just after the so-called Great War, before the big motor-trawlers had quite ruined the small-boat herring- fishery, there were conger to be caught off Gallantry Bower—guileful, powerful opponents of sixty and seventy pounds. Squawking and wrestling in the pulling boat the eels would encurl you into the sea if the knife at their necks was not quick enough. Fortunately the knife was in the hands of. my fisherman as skilful in despatching conger as he had been with his R.N.V.R. gun during four years' war at sea. On the beach there was his son, Sunny Steve. As he helped to haul up the boat Steve debunked, with all the frankness of fourteen, any false pride one might have about the catch. Then he would dash back to his waiting donkey, nobble a tired tourist and escort him or her donkey-borne up the steep cobble-street of the village, talking and laughing as he ran alongside but, to himself, dreaming of going to sea. His elder brother, serving afloat, had died the last week of the war.
It was not long before Steve forsook his donkeys and turned up, just as Joseph Conrad did many years earlier, at the Red Ensign Club and Sailors' Home, Dock and Well Streets. Through the Red En- sign's good offices Steve was soon apprenticed to one of our great merchant-shipping companies. The sea was in his blood, but the village-school had scarcely taught him to write, still less to spell. Voyage after voyage he struggled with the elementary things he ought to have been made to learn at school. Shipmate officers helped him to master the mathematical terrors of navigation—the Line saw that its youngsters were looked after. And then the apprentice sat for his Second Mate's examination.
For about fifty years Steve's home-village had produced no merchant- officer, although in its more prosperow: days it had been a fine re- cruiting ground for the higher ranks of the Mercantile Marine. When it was known that the favourite donkey boy had really got his Second Mate's ticket flags were hoisted and guns were fired from the look-out and the rather astonished village hugged itself with pride and joy. Then came more voyages, learning, learning all the time until the Second Mate was due to sit for his Chief Officer's ticket. That. stiff exam was passed and at last the former donkey-boy went up for his Master Mariner's certificate.
At first shot Steve just failed to get his Master's ticket. The present war and the necessity of serving the line in distant seas postponed the possibility of sitting for another Master's exam, but the village never lost hope. Not so very long ago the local authority requested Steve's father to take evacuees into his cottage. My old fisherman appealed. Just that day he had heard that his boy, after two and a half years, was now homeward bound and was again to sit for his Master's ticket. Evacuees or no evacuees the one spare room in the cottage must be free for the son who would surely bring the highest honour of the sea back to the village. The appeal was pending when this telegram arrived from the steamship-line : "Deeply regret your son's ship sunk by enemy-action and no news of any sur- vivors." The Master's ticket had gone to the bottom, leaving broken hearts and broken hopes in the village.
Do people realise that the names of the officers and men of the Merchant Navy who gallantly go down with their ships are never published because to do so would give valuable information to the enemy? Members of the fighting forces know that when they die for their country their relatives will have the high pride, though slender consolation, of seeing their names in the lists of killed. In the Merchant Navy there is no casualty list ; no roll of honour in The Times for the cargo-carriers on whom our resistance so greatly depends. Just a young officer, probably on watch when the torpedo struck his ship, drowned anonymously. Can one praise enough the men who willingly make the greatest individual sacrifice of all and know that it will be recorded only as "Tonnage-losses for the month "?
I like to think there is a Valhalla where some Divine Being, with no fear of giving information to the enemy or bothering about further examinations, will say to the nameless little donkey boy with only a Chief Officer's ticket: "Enter, Master Mariner."—Yours, &c.,