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George Piercey, Page 1

George Piercey

George Piercey was born on 15 April 1889. As a member of 'D' Company of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (Military Service #3906), he served in France during World War I. On 8 May 1936 he was awarded the Royale Humane Society's Bronze Medal and a certificate for bravery in recognition of heroic and gallant deeds performed in December 1934. He later became the Lighthouse Keeper at Green Island, Fortune Bay. In 1983 he received "The Freedom of the Town Award" - a plaque designed to honour War veterans of Fortune.

A slight, active man, Piercey lived to the grand old age of 92. He died on 4 July 1990, mourned by a large circle of relatives and friends. He never considered himself a hero, but only a man who did what had to be done. To the end, he was still able to recall vividly the shipwreck which earned him the medal of bravery.

George Piercey's Bravery

At the time of his struggle with death, Piercey was a cook on the 33-ton schooner B.C. McGrath. Also on board were George Elford, owner and skipper, and mate John Woodland. Early in December 1934 the little schooner left its home port of Fortune for Bay d'Espoir, to pick up a cargo of drums for Miquelon. Their trip proceeded without incident until they left Miquelon to return home to Fortune.

The schooner left Miquelon at 4:00 am in favourable weather but three miles out of St. Pierre they encountered a storm which Piercey described as 'a hurricane of snow and wind.'

According to Piercey, one big sea came in over the stern of the boat and twisted the rudder post as you would twist a green dogwood branch. Without a rudder the little craft drifted towards the rocks. In an effort to regain some control the Captain threw a cable over the quarterdeck to act as a rudder but it proved useless. Every wave of the turbulent sea took the boat closer to the dangerous shoreline. Miraculously, they cleared Pass Island in Hermitage Bay and shot out into the mouth of the tickle. Minutes later heavy seas swept the vessel to within 50 yards of the mainland, where she grounded close to a small rock. With the high seas continuously pounding the craft, it was obvious to the crew that she would soon break up. Piercey said that 'It was like a blinding snowstorm at the time. Big seas came in over the deck and threatened to wash us overboard. The dory was smashed to pieces.'

The only hope of escaping death was by jumping from the bow of the boat to the rock, a distance of about four feet. In the blizzard-like conditions of wind and snow, visibility was not good enough for them to correctly judge their distance from the mainland. At first they thought the rocks they had grounded on were part of the mainland. However, they soon discovered differently.

After jumping to relative safety on the rock, they learned that their rocky haven was still separated from the shore by a stretch of viciously churning ocean. The water was still up to their waists as it swept over the rock. Under such conditions, it was very difficult to keep from being swept off their feet.

'It's no good attempting to swim ashore as we would only drown,' Captain Elford said.

Piercey was not a strong swimmer and Woodland could not swim at all. Elford suggested that if they could somehow manage to secure a line, they might have a chance of reaching the shore. So Piercey volunteered to try.

They knew their abandoned ship could break up at any minute but it was the only place to get a rope. Somehow, Piercey managed to complete his task successfully and returned to the rock with a heavy rope. This turned out to be just the first indication of his bravery.

The next step was getting the rope to shore. Shivering from the cold and from fear, Piercey tied one end of the rope around Woodland and coiled the other end over his own shoulder. Muttering a quick prayer, he plunged back into the frigid waters of the Atlantic.

'The sea was mad, mad, mad. The distance I had to go was about 60 fathoms. I got beat and battered near the shore because the tide used to heave me in and out. But I made it. I thanked God I was ashore and I resolved to save the others.'

Through blowing snow, Piercey could barely make out the rock where Elford and Woodland still waited. Undaunted, he began working to get the first man ashore.

'I tugged but I felt Woodland holding back,' Piercey recalled. 'He didn't want to get into the water. I tugged on the rope harder.' Finally, he felt the rope relax, indicating that Woodland was in the water.

Piercey pulled Woodland to shore as fast as he could and set him up against a rock, exhausted and half-drowned, with the rope still around his waist. Just Elford was left now. Taking the free end of the rope, Piercey dived into the icy waters again. The undertow made his trip out to the rock a little easier. Elford tied the rope around his waist. With Elford beside him, Piercey made his third trip through the violent sea to shore. One huge wave threw Piercey hard against the rocks and he came up 'gushing blood and vomiting.' Still, they were relieved that all three men were now safely ashore. Just as Elford was getting out of the water, the stranded vessel gave up the fight and began breaking up on the rocks. Thankfully, they had escaped in time.

The next obstacle they faced was getting off the beach and striking out for civilization, or at least some sort of shelter from the storm. First, however, they had to find a way up a snow-covered, slippery cliff that rose straight up from the beach. It looked impossible but there was no other way out of their predicament. Taking one slow step at a time, and helping each other along the way, they somehow managed the treacherous assent, finally reaching the top. Pausing only long enough to catch their breath, they struggled on through waist-deep snow. After a while, the shadowy shape of a building put a little hope in their valiant hearts. Unfortunately, it was nothing more than an ice house.

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