It’s not one of the nobler stories from the Second World War, but it’s a very human one. For that reason alone, it deserves telling. Sometimes we forget that the good old boys we’re all so grateful to, were once just that – boys. Newly enlisted, not long from under the umbrella of parents and schoolmasters, and not yet burnished by the heat and steel of war, some of them did some pretty dumb things.
Our old friend Allen Donkin served in the Air Force as a cook. After a short leave, he and a friend were scheduled to depart by ferry from Sydney, NS on Oct. 14, 1942. They were headed back to their posting in Newfoundland, not yet a part of Canada; still considered overseas.
The night before, the pair skipped downtown, took a bender, and missed the boat. The military reported them AWOL. When they showed up, they booted them onto the next ferry.
Sometime later, while swaying in his hammock; either sleeping off the high seas or the alcohol, a senior officer entered. “Donkin,” he roared. “Report for duty. There’s German subs all over the place.”
“Sarge,” the young airman replied to the officer’s back. “I’m sick.” Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.
Later the officer entered again. Same message, but louder. Same response. This time the officer whipped out his knife. Cut the hammock down with Al still in it. “On deck. NOW!” he bellowed.
The next morning at roll call, a sergeant called him out of line. Ushered him into a small office where waited at least five senior officers, and not a smile among them. One of them picked up a sheaf of papers and began reading. There were a lot of words, but Allen understood. Service # 1186345* was being court martialled, charged with mutiny on the high seas. That was when he really woke up – perhaps grew up. They killed soldiers charged with mutiny.
“Sir,” he asked, heart pounding, “would you read that again, please?” The officer complied impatiently.
“Sir,” Al said again. “You’ve got the wrong man. My number is 1186354”
An inept clerk had reversed the two last numbers. Under Canadian law, there could be no correcting the problem. Allen got off on a technicality, and the commander, through gritted teeth, released him. A much wiser young man reported early for duty for the rest of his career.
It was the second time in very short order that Al’s hide was saved. The ship he missed, was the ferry Caribou, on its regular route between North Sydney and Port au Basque, Newfoundland. Forty miles offshore, German sub U-69 torpedoed and sunk it. 137 people died. Allen wasn’t one.
Saved by liquor. Saved by a technicality. And years later a third salvation: the day Allen Donkin asked Jesus Christ to take over his life as Commander in Chief. That day, for eternity, Airman #1186354 was saved by grace. He has since reported to his Commander in person. We miss him.