- Written by Isabelle Bennett Isabelle Bennett
- Published: 01 February 2017 01 February 2017
Thomas Conrick dreamt of becoming a sailor ever since he was a little boy, which led him to enlist in the merchant navy during the Second World War. During his time in the navy, Conrick lost most of his friends and developed numerous health problems, yet he still recalls his experience at war as some of the best years of his life.
Now 89, Conrick shares his experiences with his family and through volunteering at the Calgary Military Museum.
Conrick was born in Montreal, Que. during the 1930s. Although his family didn't have a lot of money, they created a lot of happy memories. As the brother of six sisters, Conrick often felt as though he did not fit in and spent his time seeking for places he did. He recalls spending a lot of time out on the streets, playing ball and swimming. However, his interest with water did not end there.
“My dad had some friends where they networked with some of the big passenger lines that used to come into Montreal. Whenever they were in, they would call my dad and he'd take me to come and visit them. As a kid, all I could think about was sailing around the world and seeing all of the different ports,” said Conrick.
That opportunity presented itself when the Second World War broke out. Conrick was only 15 years old, but wanted to do his part anyway he could. He tried to join the regular navy, but was too young. The merchant navy however had no age limit.
“You don’t think about the danger or the fact that a submarine could sink you and you could die. You don’t think about them things ... you just think about doing your job.” -Thomas Conrick
Conrick did not receive any training prior to his service, but recalls his first sailing experience as his initiation to being at sea.
“It was an old ship that was captured from the Germans in the First World War, so it was around 30 to 40 years old, an old, old trunk steamer. It leaked like a sieve and the top speed was six knots. It took us 26 days to go from Halifax to Liverpool, England. Most ships could make it in about 15 days,” said Conrick.
Although Conrick admits he sometimes feared the power of the vessels he was in, he overcame his fears by knowing he had a job to do.
David Marshall, a history professor at the University of Calgary, said that this attitude was not uncommon. According to Marshall war time is a tough job that had to be done. Although there wasn’t a same idealism that existed during both World War One and World War Two, everyone knew it was going to be tough work that had to be done.
This mindset helped distract Conrick from feelings of homesickness, but it did not make him immune from the negative effects that his tasks would have on his health.
“You don’t realize it, but it’s hard. It’s wear and tear on your body. You’re on a steel deck, and it’s always moving. There’s a lot of stress on your body.”
Since his service, Conrick has had both hips replaced and experienced back problems and hearing issues as well. However, he finds these consequences favourable to the fate faced by many who served by his side. Currently, Conrick has devoted much of his life to sharing his experience at war with others. One way he does so is by volunteering at the Calgary Military museum.
“I lost some of my best friends ... they were sunk on various ships. That's the only bad memories I have. I was one of the lucky ones. I’m still here,” said Conrick. “I stand and watch and explain the various artifacts that are here as much as I can. I enjoy that. It keeps me busy. I think keeping busy, keeping your mind working, keeps you healthy,” said Conrick.
His wife, Lillian, feels he has extended the same knowledge to their three children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.