Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Remembering the Jervis Bay

If you drive the wrong way up 1st Ave West in Owen Sound, you will come to a small park. Even in the height of summer it sits in deep shade. It is the HMS Jervis Bay park, one of three memorial parks in the city.

The HMS Jervis Bay park commemorates a naval battle seventy five years ago this week. A naval battle that occurred in the cold North Atlantic. A battle connected to this city by one single casualty, Stoker A.M. “Jimmie” Johnson, RCNR.

On November 5, 1040, British convoy HX-84 came under attack from the German Admiral Scheer. Protected only by an armed merchant cruiser, a civilian colony ship called the Jervis Bay, converted and armed with Boer War naval cannons, the convoy was ordered to scatter and make its own way to England.

The Captain of the Jervis Bay, Fogarty Fegen, then turned towards the attacking German ship and with a combination of gunfire and smoke floats, distracted the attacker from the rest of the ships in the convoy, allowing them to escape. In the end, all but five ships made it safely to England. The HMS Jervis Bay, however, was sunk with 190 of her crew, including her Captain, perishing in the cold North Atlantic.

The death of Jimmie Johnson must have hit this city hard. All of a sudden war was very, very real. This was no longer some great patriotic battle. War and death came home and the city must have mourned.

In response, the city named a small park across from the cenotaph and the library after the Jervis Bay. Dedicated in 1941, the one existing photo shows a bright, sunny green space with pillars and benches.

Over the years, the park and the ship it honoured and the connection to this city has been forgotten. The park was overgrown with trees. Various light displays were placed in it, including purple dinosaurs, aircraft and soldiers. But that has begun to change.

This past summer, the city has kept the park tidier and neater than I recall it being in the past. The flower bed was moved forward, closer to the road, and planted in the pattern of the Naval Ensign, the battle flag of the HMS Jervis Bay. Other changes are promised.

For myself, the sinking of the Jervis Bay and what happened afterwards is a symbol of what we often do with important stories.

We forget.

We forget that there was a local connection to the Jervis Bay. We forget that Captain Fegen was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in action, a medal of valour shared by all who served on the Jervis bay.

In this seventy fifth anniversary year, I intend to go to the park at 2:00 PM on Saturday November 7th and remember. Anyone is welcome to join me. I wish it could be on November 5th, but I will be out of town, unfortunately.

The HMS Jervis Bay and her story is our story. All we can do is to remind ourselves of the words of the poet Lawrence Binyon; “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

Yes. We will remember them.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.