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The Wreck of the SS West Jaffrey On the cold winter night February 8, 1942 the freighter, SS West Jaffrey, moved along the coast of Nova Scotia. It travelled at eight or nine knots toward the port of Halifax, en route from New York, to join an Atlantic convoy going overseas. The ship’s captain stayed close to land in an attempt to evade German subs. Frank Nickerson told the story of the wreck of the West Jaffrey to Samantha Haley, a history student at Yarmouth Consolidated Memorial High School in April, 2005. The West Jaffrey hit something, Frank Nickerson thought it may have been the ‘Peter Stuart’, a rock named after the ship that hit the rock in 1892. The West Jaffrey, a 10,000 ton freighter, hit the ledge and started going down right off of Outer Bald Island. Knowing the freighter was sinking the crew of about thirty men scrambled the decks and cargo areas to get rid of the TNT. They started opening all the crates marked “explosive” and throwing them overboard. Once the explosives got wet they were no longer a threat. The crew managed to escape the ship before it went down with all the cargo. Fighter planes, tanks, trucks, food made up the cargo. Within a day or two a tow ship from Halifax arrived and tried to move the West Jaffrey, but was unsuccessful. It was not possible to budge the ship. In the following day, for a period of several weeks, ‘lighters’, barge like crafts, began to salvage some of the heavy equipment on board. “Living on the Tusket Islands, there was always a lot of salt herring and salt pollock. Butter and sugar were harder to get your hands on, and how much depended on the size of the family.” Frank was about ten or eleven at the time and recalls his father, Gordon Nickerson, rowing out in his dory to Outer Bald Island from their home on Deep Cove Island. “Gas engines were quite uncommon then”. Frank and his father went out to the wreck and got two or three dory loads of food. “The food was in gallon-sized cans, the labels had washed off in the wreck, but it was food you couldn’t ask for anything more. It was free food in wartime.” The West Jaffrey has a lot of canned good aboard and a freezer full of beef. Frank, thinking back to a few times when opening the cans, recalled: “One never knew what they were opening. You had to shake the can around and take a guess as to it s contents. You would open a can that sounded like potatoes for supper and be stuck eating a gallon sized can of peaches that night. Once we opened what we thought was maybe tomato soup or something of similar texture and it turned out to be a gallon of fingernail polish. With not many girls on the island, especially none that painted their nails, we sent it to Candlebox Island the following week for the lighthouse keeper to give to his daughters”. The polish would have been used to paint on the equipment as it would keep machinery protected, shedding the water off of it. Going to the wreck, Frank recalls that all along the shore near the giant, grey, steel freighter were the crates that were thrown overboard. “Explosives were not something a lot of people knew about at the time. All that was left in the crates were little shavings of what appeared to be heavy sawdust but smelled sour. It was the remainder of the wet TNT. The children were picking up artillery shells on the shore and making bonfires and throwing the shells in and running. It took about five minutes for them to heat up enough to go off. They would climb up the ladder on the side of the ship and slid across the steel decks that were dripping of oil. The wheelhouse was quite big and had a lot of brass”. There were not a lot of things like compasses by the time Frank got around to the wreck as a lot of people had gone to the ship to get what they could. “The West Jaffrey was there for a couple of years before it broke up. The ship was full of oil for the longest time, like an intravenous line dripping oil into the ocean. Birds were getting full of that bunker sea and the authorities came and lit her up to burn off the oil. It was nothing but a ball of flame and black smoke for at least a week”. At the time of the wreck, there was much speculation locally as to how and why the ship hit the ledge off the Tusket Islands. Some believed that the Captain deliberately ran aground. A New York newspaper, shortly following the wreck, reported that Lee Thomson, a survivor of the torpedoed ship SS West Jaffrey had been picked up and brought to New York. On September 14, 1954 during Hurricane Edna with winds up to 160 Km/h reported in Yarmouth, the wreck of the United States freighter West Jaffrey was washed into the sea from its landmark position off Wedgeport.
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Wreck of the West Jaffrey February 8, 1942
Frank Nickerson