life and times
hiram who
birth of the auto
border cities
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Searching for Subs on the Detroit River

from Issue # 19: November 2001

By Tom Paré

Sitting on the seawall in the dark, a boy watched the Detroit lights dance across the tops of the murky waves that came alive as they approached the spiles of the railroad docks. The river announced its arrival with rhythmic lapping sounds as the water ended its mile and a half long journey to Canada.

It was the boy’s favourite place to be in the entire world.

1943 was a fine year for a ten-year-old boy. And it was a good time to ponder things like life and battle and triumph. It was surely a time for patriotic imagination.

The war, now in its fourth year, stirred manly thoughts and feelings as he looked out over the mystery of the darkened water. He wondered if enemy submarines lurked out there, perhaps to deposit foreign raiders or saboteurs on the Canadian shore. He thought it very unlikely, especially since this was the exact place that the Queen of England stood on her yacht and waved to crowds just a few years before. For assurance, he looked over his shoulder at the marquee of the Coronation Hotel, named in her honour.

The boy decided to watch for enemy activity anyway. At night the subs were known to surface. So far, none had been reported.

During the day, the boy warily scoured the white-cropped wave tops searching for oil slicks and periscopes. After all, this river would someday carry home all our heroes from the battlefields. There would be welcoming fireboats spraying the bows of the returning hospital ships and city bands would play, probably right where he stood. He read of such things in the war reports.

At the theatre newsreels, he saw huge boats sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge. And the boy remembered seeing a troopship entering the harbour in New York, passing right under the arm of the Statue of Liberty.

As he looked to the west, he imagined that the Ambassador Bridge would serve just as well as the Golden Gate and what better Statue of Liberty than the huge Penobscot Building, probably the tallest skyscraper in the world except, he guessed, the Empire State Building. For many years, he had watched the red blinking ball at the top of the Penobscot from his bedroom until he fell asleep. It was a symbol of safety to him during his very young life, just as the Statue of Liberty is the beacon for others in the world.

On this day, he watched the steamers Ste. Claire and Columbia leave their moorings, with a full load of passengers headed for Bob-Lo Island. He imagined them as massive troopships on the way to the battlefields, with troops hanging over the rails waving goodbye to families.

Within a couple of hours, the boats would return and pass under the Ambassador Bridge with a new load of passengers, this time undoubtedly carrying the wounded heroes. As the Ste. Claire reappeared under his Golden Gate, he silently cheered and stood erect as if at attention, with his hand on his breast. And when the Columbia followed shortly afterward, he was sure he saw decorated veterans, probably from France or Morocco.

Suddenly from behind him came the sound of a train as it chugged through the underpass at Wellington Street and made the turn westward along the riverfront. Although the locomotive bore the Canadian National Railway letters on its boiler, it was a certainty that the train was actually carrying fresh troops to relieve those soldiers returning on the steamers.

In war, the government couldn’t be too careful, he reckoned.

As the train slowly passed, the boy suddenly heard the sound of an engine and turned back to the river just in time to see a small boat racing to intercept an up-bound freighter. When the smaller ship pulled up to the starboard side of the vessel, he could plainly see the markings.

The interceptor was named the J.W. Wescott and it looked like it was throwing mailbags onto the deck of the larger boat. He thought that it was very clever to camouflage a P.T. boat as a mail carrier but in war, as with troop trains, you must be very careful.

When the small boat finished its investigation, it backed off the side of the freighter, which resembled a Canada Steamship Lines ore carrier, and raced back to shore where it laid in waiting for the next ship.

From under the Ambassador Bridge came the low rumblings of two more boats, and the boy recognized them immediately. They had come to haul the troop train boxcars across the river, where they would join the Americans for another allied attack, probably in Berlin or Munich or Tunisia. The flat black boats named the Manitowoc and the Pere Marquette loaded up and returned to their ports, awaiting further orders.

As the boy watched the waters of the river, the twinkling lights of the Detroit skyline started to come alive, and he glanced up at the Penobscot building turret to make sure that the red ball had resumed its watchful blinking. Behind him, he heard the hissing of the steam-engine locomotive waiting for a new load of troops.

He then looked westward, and satisfied that the Ambassador Bridge lights were working, he turned from his boats and his trains and his river and slowly walked up the street to his home, glancing back once or twice, just to make sure.

On this day in 1943, all was well in the Border Cities. The boy felt good about himself.

Tom Paré was born at the corner of Windsor and Wyandotte, where his grandfather operated a blind pig and bootlegging business. Tom writes “flash fiction” stories, dealing with his boyhood in Windsor along the riverfront. This remembrance is of his “importance to the war effort” in Windsor in the ’40s. Tom attended Assumption and Patterson high schools and resides in Traverse City, Michigan.



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