A view into the past: Corvette porthole donated to Naval Museum of Halifax

From left: RAdm Brian Santarpia, Commander MARLANT and JTFA, Jennifer Denty, Roger Litwiller, and CPO1 Tom Lizotte, MARLANT Formation Chief. Photo by Joanie Veitch

Joanie Veitch
Trident Newspaper

A porthole from the wreck of HMCS Trentonian, the last corvette lost in the Battle of the Atlantic, was presented to the Naval Museum of Halifax on Dec. 8, 2021.

Author and naval historian Roger Litwiller made the donation of the porthole, which is one of two that were recently recovered from the wreck by a dive team from the United Kingdom. 

A small gathering to mark the significance of the donation included Jennifer Denty, museum director, Kyle Houghton, a university student who is cataloging the museum’s artwork, Rear-Admiral Brian Santarpia, Commander Maritime Forces Atlantic (MARLANT) and Joint Task Force Atlantic (JTFA), and CPO1 Tom Lizotte, Formation Chief of MARLANT.

“We’re thrilled to be able to add this to the collection and humbled to be thought of as the proper caretaker for the artifact,” said Denty.

Speaking to the small group assembled around a temporary display table on the second floor of the museum, along with a framed print of Trentonian and a photograph of the ship’s company, Litwiller recounted the chronology of how the portholes came into his possession. 

The story began with an email he received in May 2021. A member of the dive team that took the portholes from the wreck had done research online and found Litwiller’s website on Canadian naval history; Litwiller has also written a book about HMCS Trentonian, White Ensign Flying, published by Dundurn Press in 2014.

“I got this email from the fellow saying ‘I’m a diver here in the UK. We did a dive on Trentonian in the spring and, despite my warnings to the crew, two of our club members came up with portholes from the wreck’. He managed to talk them into handing them over,” Litwiller said.

Gesturing to the bent and broken porthole, Litwiller said the diver told him he had two of the ship’s portholes — one that “was kind of busted up” and another in “excellent” condition. 

After further questioning, Litwiller determined the damaged one came from the “starboard aft”, the area of Trentonian that had been torpedoed. 

“The damage to this one was from the torpedo, from the explosion… the force to wrench it like this was phenomenal,” he said. “That tells a whole story all on its own.”

The ship’s company of HMCS Trentonian circa 1944. Photo courtesy Naval Museum of Halifax

The story of HMCS Trentonian

Following the ship’s commissioning in Kingston, ON, on Dec. 1, 1943, HMCS Trentonian was fitted out in Nova Scotia, and went through work-ups before being assigned to Western Approaches Command in March 1944 to escort convoys across the North Atlantic to the west of Ireland and Great Britain.

On Feb. 22, 1945, while escorting a convoy across the English Channel, Trentonian was torpedoed near Falmouth, killing six sailors and wounding 14 more. The torpedo struck the back right side of the ship, near where the life rafts were stored.

One of the men killed was John McCormack, a 19-year-old stoker from Belleville, ON, who had transferred to the ship just a few weeks before the torpedo hit. Formerly a sea cadet, McCormack was at Kingston when Trentonian was commissioned and was thought to be the youngest sailor on the ship.

“He had just done the Christmas exchange with the CO (Commanding Officer). His was one of the stories that haunted me when I was writing the book. Every one of the survivors I interviewed talked about John McCormack and how he was just a kid.”

McCormack wasn’t actually the youngest on board the ship, which Litwiller discovered when doing interviews for his book. 

“Bill Shields was the youngest. He had lied about his age to join the navy, so that Christmas when John McCormack was given the honour of youngest sailor, Bill was really the youngest, but couldn’t say anything.” 

William Shields died at age 93 in Oakville, ON, on June 6, 2020.

Protecting historical shipwrecks

The waters off the coast of Britain and Ireland are home to thousands of shipwrecks and considered war graves for the sailors who went down with the ships. While the UK has enacted laws to protect wrecks of historical significance — specifying that artifacts must not be disturbed or removed. Canada has yet to enact similar protections.

The portholes were recovered by a UK dive team before passed over to naval author and historian Roger Litwiller.

“Pilfering and looting of our wrecks is carrying on all the time. An artifact like this has such huge historic significance. I’m just glad they contacted me. My biggest fear with artifacts like this is that they end up as a lawn ornament in somebody’s garden or sitting in a scrap heap to be melted down.”

Litwiller is donating the second porthole to the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston, which recently moved back to the Kingston Dry dock property, a National Historic Site and former location of the Kingston Shipyards Co, where HMCS Trentonian was built.


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