February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate the many achievements and contributions of Black Canadians, past and present. Randolph Hope was one of many who served his country in the Second World War, as part of the Canadian Merchant Navy. While many Black Canadians were subjected to discrimination at the time, Mr. Hope explains that he was spared this experience, which he attributed to the environment of camaraderie and threat of danger on the ships.
Mr. Hope has reached hundreds of Canadians through his story of military service on The Memory Project’s online archive. This transcript has been edited for clarity. His audio interview is available on The Memory Project website.
I first joined the merchant marines, it was in 1944. And what happened, I was working in the sugar refinery down here and we used to go up at dinnertime and have a lunch break. So well, the sugar refinery sat right by the wharf there; it was a big company, big building by the wharf. And the boats used to come in there and tie up. I was up there one day, on the roof, looking out at the ships coming in; and I said to one of the fellows that was with me, I think his name was Fred McIntyre, I said, “Fred, you know, I think I’ll go and try to join one of them ships and see the world.”
When I joined the ship, we had what they called DEMS [Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships]. [On] these DEMS, we had Oerlikon guns [anti-aircraft and anti-submarine autocannon] and [M2] Twin Brownings [anti-aircraft heavy machine guns]. And they were there to protect our ship. Now, our ship also carried torpedo nets to protect us in case the Germans or Japanese fired torpedoes at us. Those were no help because the person would just blow the net wide open and come on in. It just gave us false security. You say, oh boy, you know.
It’s just like [Winston] Churchill said: if they had have stopped the merchant navy, most likely Germany would have won the war. And that is true, because we took light ammunition, the food and everything else. And you know, and not only that, but we supplied food and stuff to Russia on our Murmansk Run. If you could have stopped the merchant ships going to England, they’d have won the war.
I remember I was in Liverpool and the American army coloured guys were there and their army was all discriminatory. And that didn’t stop until I got into Labrador here in 1951, I think. That’s a question a guy asked me when I was up on the [Parliament] Hill there. You know, one of them politicians. They said, “Did you ever run into any discrimination in the merchant navy?” I said, “I’ll tell you this.” I said, “When you’re on a ship, everybody don’t look at your skin, they don’t look at it.” When a ship got torpedoed and you’re on a life raft or on a boat, and the guy happened to come up and if he was black or French or whatever, and you reach down to help him out of the water, you don’t say to him, oh, I’m not going to get him up, he’s not one of us. No. There was no discrimination. We were a real tight group of people. And that’s the way it always remained all through the war. And that’s what I liked about it.