East York legionnaire recalls wartime as merchant mariner

Merchant mariner William O'Leary poses with Angie Gualitieri, Royal Canadian Legion president at the Pape Avenue branch.
Merchant mariner William O’Leary poses with Angie Gualitieri, Royal Canadian Legion president at the Pape Avenue branch.

In 1944, William O’Leary lied about his age and enlisted as a galley boy in the Merchant Marine. He was 15 years old.

“I’ve sailed all over the world,” said O’Leary, who embarked from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, on a ship carrying food, ammunitions and coal to Allied forces at the end of the Second World War.

En route to Odessa, Russia, his ship travelled through the North Atlantic, a playground, he said, for German U-boats that were notorious for picking off slow convoys of ships heading into and out of Canada.

“I’ve seen an oil tanker hit and the whole sky light up,” O’Leary said.

Sailing past Turkey, and into the Black Sea, O’Leary’s ship arrived in Russia and anchored there for two weeks to unload barrels of fish.

Children swarmed at the base of the ship begging for scraps of food. The crewmen gave food to the children, but dock security confused it for stealing.

Without warning, O’Leary recalls, security officers shot and killed three boys and he watched as their bodies were loaded onto a cart and hauled away.

Today, O’Leary lives in Lindsay, Ont., but is a member of the Royal Canadian Legion on Pape Avenue. On a recent visit to the legion he nursed a beer, rubbing his temple every so often.

The details aren’t as clear, he said, but he’ll never forget what happened during the war.

“I did things I’m not proud of,” said the former altar boy. “God will forgive me.”

After the war, O’Leary returned home and married Rita Campbell. The couple was married for 60 years and has five children.

In 1948, he became a peacekeeping officer for the UN in Germany. He was there for two years, and during that time visited the infamous concentration camp Bergen-Belsen where Anne Frank had been imprisoned.

O’Leary folded his arms across his chest and rubbed them, saying that he and the others felt cold at the infamous camp.

“I can’t explain the way we felt; a feeling came just came over you,” O’Leary said.

It was from Bergen-Belsen that O’Leary took his only war souvenir – a tattered children’s shoe.

He said he had many Jewish friends back home and wanted to share what he saw in Germany.

But the shoe never made it back to Canada. O’Leary said someone stole it.