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Ernest Thornhill
Heroism in the face of Peril

Ernest Thornhill was born in Fortune. As a boy of 14 he first went to sea to earn a living where he continued to do so for the rest of his life.

In 1956 he had left Fortune and was living with his wife, five sons and one daughter in the town of West Dover Nova Scotia. In that same year he sailed as mate aboard the Halifax trawler, Cape Aguthas. On a voyage to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland - it was Jan.6th - they were overtaken by a severe winter storm. Their vessel went ashore near Portuguese Cove, Nova Scotia in this heavy storm. The vessel was battered against the shoreline. She was taking on water and all hope of saving the Cape Aguthas was given up. It seemed that the chance of saving the lives of the eighteen crew members of the vessel was hopeless as well.

It is a time like this when Heroism comes into play but Ernest Thornhill never gave thought to any of that. He was only interested in saving his shipmates as well as himself; raw courage; the will to live. It was this time that Ernest Thornhill volunteered to risk his life in an attempt to get to the shore with a line. It looked almost impossible but not to a young strong Newfoundlander who was game. They made the line fast to his waist, he bade his shipmates a farewell ‘goodbye’ and, without looking back, he plunged into the freezing pounding surf in a ‘do or die’ attempt to swim ashore.

This took super human strength. He was not a large man but very muscular. He took all that the elements could throw at him and pressed on toward the shore. In the struggle this heroic seaman fought the surf, the breakers and, after a terrific battle with all of the hostile elements, he reached the shore. Thornhill sustained a fractured leg, severe gashes in his arms and back from the pounding he received, while swimming the 200 or more feet to the shore line. However, after all of this torture to his body, he somehow found the courage and strength to secure the line around a boulder and eighteen fellow crewmembers pulled themselves through the surf and jagged rocks to the shore.

After receiving some welcome attention from the people of the cove - they were so happy to be alive and knew they all owed their lives to that young strong Newfoundlander from Fortune - they began to realize how much he was hurt.

He was taken to Camp Hill Hospital where he spent ten days getting his wounds attended to and enjoying a well-deserved rest after such an ordeal on a very cold stormy Jan. day. For the next three months he was confined to his home.

Like all good seamen he wanted to return to the job he loved best. On April 6th, exactly three months after the dramatic rescue, Ernest joined the National Sea Products Limited vessel Cape Brier as a ‘bosun’. He was asked a number of times ’Did you ever think of quitting the sea?’ He replied ’No. It’s the only thing I know anything about.’ The other 18 shipmates will always say they owe their lives to the heroism of Ernest Thornhill. They were later scattered among other ships in the company’s fleet.

For his bravery Ernest Thornhill was awarded the Silver Medal of the Royal Canadian Humane Society and the coveted George Medal, one of the top awards for bravery. Other gifts he received included a gold watch, presented by Mayor Kitz on behalf of the city of Halifax Nova Scotia; a wristwatch presented by broadcasting station CJCH and a cheque from his employers.

But the story does not end here. Some years later at the age of 37 years, Ernest Thornhill, still following the life of the sea, joined the trawler Red Diamond 111 operated by Booth Fisheries Canada company Ltd. Of Petite De Grat. While at sea, again in a very bad storm, he was struck by a heavy cable and knocked down to the deck. The cable had broken loose from one of the deck rollers that weigh in at 100 lbs. He received broken bones, fractures and internal injuries. The trawler was 250 miles south of Cape Race, nothing was going good for him, the helicopter was out of range. Mr Thornhill was transferred to a 21,000 ton Greek Liner the Queen Frederica, which had answered the distress call. While on board, the ship’s doctors amputated one of his legs. He was then transferred to the Hospital in Halifax, where shortly afterwards he passed away from complications and shock of the injuries.

And so passed away his life at sea that he loved so dearly, from his kindness.

From action, one of the great heroes of the deep, who so gallantly offered his life that others may live.


This brave young man gave his all for his fellow man. How great is that? If you haven’t been there and seen that, think about it for a few moments. You will have a better day just because your thought strayed to one of the heroes of Fortune.

© 2003 Bill Butt. Used with permission

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