An American saved by a Newfoundlander… is their tradition

Newfoundland and Labrador are one province in Canada but in many ways they are different regions altogether. Until the mid-20th century Newfoundland was a territory of the British Empire and known as the “Grand Cod Fishery of the Universe”. This land was settled by fisherman with an incredibly tough life hacked from this rugged landscape and the harsh Atlantic. They were people who made the best of what they had and formed a strong sense of community and sharing in order to survive. Newfies help each other and strangers at a moments notice. Tammy, my generous new friend and host, has adopted me like a typical Newfoundlander (although she is actually from New Brunswick), coming to the rescue of someone in need. Many Americans have been on the receiving end of Newfoundlander generosity.

She tells me a little about the island, not her native home, and it’s obvious she loves this land. And from all that I hear from her and read, I can see why. Newfoundland has a history of compassion, bravery, and generosity, all that is best in the human spirit. The “Rock”, as this land is known, even has some ties to my homeland, South Dakota, which makes me feel a strong kinship with this place.

She shares with me the story of a disaster that happened off the south coast in 1942. The USS Pollux and the USS Truxton both shipwrecked during a stormy night. More than 100 American sailors died in the tragedy but 46 were saved. Newfoundlanders climbed down rocky cliffs by rope to the icy sea that dark night, at obvious great risk to themselves, to pull men from the crashing ocean. The ships had spilled crude oil in the wreck and men were covered in it. Locals cleaned up the sailors, who were barely clinging to life, and brought them into their homes to nurse them back to health. One of the sailors was Lanier W. Phillips, the first black sonar operator in the US Navy. When a local woman, Violet Pike, tried to wash what she thought was crude oil from his skin he confessed it wasn’t and that was the true color of his skin. Having been raised in the south in the days before Civil Rights he expected a backlash for not disclosing his race but was amazed to find Newfoundlanders treated him like every other sailor, as a human being in need. Phillips was so moved by this event and his treatment from Newfoundlanders that he became convinced that all people, regardless of race should be treated equally. He returned home to become an active Civil Rights leader and marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. .

On the morning of September 11, 2001 just after the World Trade Center was hit by a hi-jacked aircraft and when other planes were known to be involved, the United States government put the nation’s airspace in an immediate lockdown in order to stop more attacks. Aircraft from around the world and country that were in transit to US airports were diverted to other countries until further notice during Operation Yellow Ribbon. Newfoundland and Labrador took in 75 planes loaded with passengers and housed and fed them for days. Gander, Newfoundland with its population of 10,000 people received just over half those flights and welcomed thousands of people into their homes during this time of need. Imagine the strain that added to the community in terms of water, food and housing, not to mention the emotional stress of the time. Surely one of the marks of a good neighbor is the way they help you in a time of crisis. America has the best of neighbors in Canada.

While doing a little “google-ing” (I use it as a verb), like I do about all places and things that interest me, I stumbled across another tragedy that happened in Newfoundland in March 1953. And this one had close ties to home for me. An American Convair B-36 military airplane, a bomber known as the “Peacemaker” crashed into a mountainside during bad weather near Nut Cove, Newfoundland. The plane had left the Azores on the morning of March 18 with a planned flight time of 25 hours across the Atlantic and over Newfoundland on its way home to South Dakota. It encountered bad weather and for reasons that aren’t clear hadn’t moved to a higher altitude (as their flight plan had dictated) to clear the mountainous terrain of Newfoundland. The aircraft crashed into a nearly 900 foot mountain less than 100 feet from clearing its peak. All 23 airmen on board were killed instantly, including Brigadier General Richard Ellsworth. Nearly all my life I have lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where Ellsworth Air Force Base is a large part of the community, and sadly I haven’t known who the base was named for until now. What a great big small world it is.

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