Home News Canada Friendship between survivors of Second World War naval disaster honoured

Friendship between survivors of Second World War naval disaster honoured

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Harry Hurwitz, right, is escorted by Jean Gallagher at a ceremony honouring Canadian peacekeepers held in Beaconsfield, Que. (Normand Sauvegeau photo)

They were comrades in arms who survived the sinking of their ship and a German POW camp during the Second World War.

That experience forged a friendship between Harry Hurwitz and Raymond Meloche that only ended with the latter’s death last year.

That 74-year bond will not be forgotten, as a plaque telling their stories is being permanently installed in Heroes Park, in the Montreal suburb of Beaconsfield.

With Meloche’s death, Hurwitz, at 97, is the last survivor of the April 29, 1944, sinking of the HMCS Athabaskan, a Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) destroyer that was patrolling the English Channel.

Meloche died at age 93 in May 2017.

The 22 inch by 22 inch plaque with text and photos was unveiled during an annual ceremony at the park to honour Canadian peacekeepers. It was the idea of Jean Gallagher, president of Veterans UN/NATO Canada, Montreal region, who served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 27 years.

READ: THE ROLE OF JEWISH CANADIAN SOLDIERS IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR

Gallagher had been visiting Meloche at Ste-Anne’s Veterans’ Hospital for several years before his death and often took him to Heroes Park.

Gallagher met Hurwitz at the Remembrance Day ceremony there last November and learned of how close the two men had been, and how he missed his old comrade.

Gallagher and Hurwitz, who lives in B’nai Brith House, started spending time together, reminiscing about their time in the navy.

Hurwitz, who is still quite healthy and definitely sharp, attended the ceremony and was surprised and touched when the plaque was revealed. His thoughts, however, were with his comrades aboard the Athabaskan who did not survive.

Hurwitz, who came from a family of 13 children in Lachine, Que., enlisted in the army in 1939 and later switched to the navy. Meloche, one of six kids from Montreal, joined the RCN in 1942.

They met that year during basic training. The two able seamen were both gunners on the Athabaskan.

The two friends will keep these images engraved in their memory all their lives.

It was still night and the destroyer was near the French coast when a torpedo from a German warship struck (Hurwitz recalls being hit twice). The captain ordered the crew to abandon ship and Hurwitz and Meloche jumped into the water. The Athabaskan sank 28 minutes later.

Hurwitz was wearing a watch that his mother gave him as a bar mitzvah gift, which stopped as soon as it got wet, forever marking the time. Hurwitz kept the watch, with its hands stuck at 04:28.

A hellish scene ensued, as the huge vessel was ripped apart and set ablaze, when the ammunition it carried exploded. The screaming of the horribly wounded and dying around them was never forgotten by Meloche and Hurwitz.

“The two friends will keep these images engraved in their memory all their lives,” the plaque reads.

Hurwitz, Meloche and some other sailors floated on the water for six hours, holding onto a broken masthead, only to be captured and taken aboard a German warship.

The Athabaskan death toll was 129; 83 men were taken prisoner, while 44 were rescued by the nearby sister ship, HMCS Haida.

We are the next generation of veterans. We need to carry on their legacy.
– Jean Gallagher

Except for the last few weeks, the two men were together as POWs. Hurwitz was released one year to the day after the sinking. Meloche was freed on May 2, 1945.

After being released, Hurwitz learned that his brother, Sgt. Samuel Moses (Moe) Hurwitz, a revered tank commander who earned both the Military Medal and Distinguished Conduct Medal, had died of his wounds on Oct. 26, 1944, while in German custody.

Standing with the aid of a walker and under an umbrella as the rain came down, Hurwitz’s said at the ceremony that he feels “sorry for the relatives of the ones that went down.”

Gallagher explained why he took on this initiative: “We are the next generation of veterans. We need to carry on their legacy.”