This story takes us up north to Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula and involves a well-known East Greenwich resident. Our tale starts in 1942. Canada was under attack by marauding German U-boats that were sinking ships carrying vital supplies to Great Britain as they ventured down the St. Lawrence River and out to sea.
Faced with the Nazi threat of torpedoes (and spies), local residents endured blackouts plus increased military presence. One incident has a special connection to Robert Merriam, Founder and Director of the New England Wireless and Steam Museum on Frenchtown Road.
During the summer of 1942, Bob had worked at the Rheem Shipyard at Field’s Point in Providence between his freshman and sophomore years at Harvard. Before starting classes again, Bob decided to visit some New Hampshire school chums and his Canadian cousins. His transportation was a third-hand, 1928 Indian Scout motorcycle. “It was in good shape,” recalls Bob, “because during the Depression we took care of things.” He packed some of his father’s WW I army gear: mess kit, sleeping bag, a full-length black rubber raincoat and boots, goggles plus tools for roadside repairs. After stops in New Hampshire, Bob headed for his English-speaking cousins in North Hatley, Quebec.
“The Canadian Customs officers said USA motorcycles could only get one gallon of gasoline, due to strict rationing,” he said. “But my Scout would run on un-rationed kerosene if you primed it with a little gas. Presto! No more rationing problem. A little gas to start the engine each morning and I was all set.” With a one-gallon can of gas, Bob started out on the thousand-mile circuit around the Gaspe Peninsula. “I slept on the ground or under bridges, but who cared? I was young and on an adventure,” he mused. Little did he suspect the adventure ahead.
German U-boats were attacking shipping well up into the St. Lawrence River. On May 12, 1942, some 80 survivors of the torpedoed British steamer SS Nicoya came ashore at the village of Saint Yvon. Rumors remained rife about further attacks and spies. When Bob arrived at the village on September 6, there had been another scare the day before.
The German U-165, under command of Oberleutnant Zur Zee Rudolf Hoffman, had attacked the SS Meadecliffe Hall. The torpedo missed and plowed into the shore by the village, blasting a 7-foot wide crater and sending fragments everywhere, breaking nearby windows and scaring the daylights out of the residents. A passing Canadian Navy armed yacht, HCMS Raccoon, likely startled the U-boat skipper and caused him to miss his shot. The steamer safely passed on its way to Ogdensburg, New York. The U-boat stole out to sea (two days later other U-boats sunk the Raccoon off the Canadian coast. Heading black home, the U-165 hit a mine and sank in the Bay of Biscay).
The explosion had put the village on high alert. Bob Merriam innocently rode into town, clad in that black rubber raincoat, goggles, and boots, riding a black and red chromeless motorcycle with military gear strapped to the back: the perfect image of a Nazi spy to the people of this isolated village.
“A gang of fishermen dragged me off the bike while others rolled the Scout into a barn,” he said. “They were jabbering away in French and didn’t understand a word I was saying. I saw them studying a beam over the door as a place to tie a rope and string me up. It was clear what they intended to do, but I didn’t have a clue why.” Things were not looking good for Bob Merriam. Then fate stepped in.
Being good Catholics, the villagers summoned the local priest before they started the necktie party. “Of all things, he pulled up in a chauffeur-driven LaSalle limousine,” Bob continued. “Thank goodness he spoke English, having attended the seminary in Chicago.” He quickly got things straightened out. The priest took Bob to the next village, Grand Etang, where an English-speaking couple was staying at a fishing camp. “They got me a cabin and fed me a splendid trout dinner,” Bob recalled, “and the good father came back at midnight to help retrieve my motorcycle.” End of the story? Well, not quite.
The next morning, Bob’s hosts and the camp owner sent him off right into a rainstorm. He stopped inside a covered bridge to wait out the showers. Along came a trio of fishermen. You guessed it. They pounced on Bob and carried him off to a nearby house. “This time one went for the authorities,” Bob smiled. “The other two and the wife of one guarded me, but they did feed me a bowl of boiled cod fish eyes – apparently a local delicacy.” Before long, a Canadian soldier arrived from a nearby post. “He was a worldly fellow from Montreal who spoke English,” said Bob, “and again, quickly straightened things out. Off I went and completed my tour with no more arrests.” Bob Merriam returned to Harvard to finish his education and get on with life that included war service with the Army’s 3160th Signal Service Battalion in Belgium, marriage, and a career in marine electronics in Rhode Island.
Bob never forgot his adventure. In 1961, he asked the Canadian Navy for information on the Saint Yvon torpedo incident and that year, returned to Canada with his wife Nancy and their two children. They found a roadside marker in Saint Yvon commemorating the U-boat incident reading “Torpedo Alemande (sic) a Visiter,” or “the visiting German torpedo.” The local postmistress generously gave the Merriams a small fragment of the torpedo that had crashed through her uncle’s cellar door. In 1993, Bob donated it to the Naval War College Museum. The deed of gift records it as “the only German weaponry to hit and explode on the North American continent during the war.”
The torpedo’s remains are displayed at the Musee de la Gaspesie in Quebec. The Indian Scout was meticulously restored and now belongs to a collector in Massachusetts. If you visit the New England Wireless and Steam Museum and are lucky enough to find Bob Merriam in a storytelling mood, maybe he’ll share a little more about his Canadian adventure or one of the many other tales that encompass his long and very interesting life.
Join the Varnum Continentals for $35!
At only $35 per person annually, membership keeps you in the Varnum loop and supports our efforts to preserve U.S. history and educate the public. Members get a monthly newsletter and can also attend our monthly dinner programs that feature authoritative and engaging speakers on historic and military topics. CLICK HERE TO JOIN NOW!