…As If They Were Angels tells a harrowing historical story that most Americans have shockingly never heard before. On February 18, 1942, the US Navy suffered one of its greatest non-combat casualties losing 203 young sailors in two shipwrecks on the icy coast of Newfoundland. Filmmaker Terry Strauss’ father, Henry “Hank” Strauss, was one of the 186 survivors who lived to tell a tale that was covered up by the Navy during wartime. After watching this touching and illuminating documentary, I feel that this story of heartwarming heroism needs to be heard now more than ever before.
In my enlightening interview with Strauss, we discussed what she learned while making this film over the past 30 years. We addressed the Navy’s embarrassment over the disaster and their appreciation to the rescuers. We also marvel over the way the current young generation of Newfoundlanders pays its respect to those sailors and rescuers.
Before jumping into our chat, here are a few things you should know about the extraordinary event. The USS Pollux was carrying supplies from Maine to a US Naval base in Argentia, Newfoundland. It was accompanied by the USS Truxtun (an older WWI vessel) and the USS Wilx (a flagship with new radar navigation) for guidance protection. In the midst of a ruthless storm, they tentatively traveled through German “wolfpack” territory. As Mother Nature roared, the USS Pollux and Truxtun crashed into the rocky cliffs of Newfoundland’s frosty coast. It would take a miracle to save these stranded souls.
Most of the young sailors died trying to swim ashore through crude oil and freezing temperatures. Against all odds, a couple of men succeeded as they climbed up the frozen cliffs and were fortunate enough to stumble upon two compassionate communities known as Lawn and St. Lawerence. Comprised mostly miners and fisherman, its citizens were determined to save as many lives as possible. These families took wounded Americans into their homes and cared for them until help arrived from the Navy. In 1988, the American survivors returned to Newfoundland and reunited with their rescuers. It was at this reunion where Strauss began filming her emotional and eye-opening documentary, …As If They Were Angels.
“I’m always amazed at how big a story it is and how very, very little known it is.”
I really enjoyed your film. I had never heard this story and I’m surprised too because it was such a moving story. It was touching to see everyone telling their truth and their experience and the different people and places that have been affected by this event.
Terry Strauss: Thank you very much for your response because one of the things that amaze me, even though I’ve lived with this story for a long time, is when I step back I’m always amazed at what a huge story it is. How meaningful and how significant it was for the population of Lawn and St. Lawerence. Which is at this point fairly large, with generations after generations, both American and Canadian. I’m always amazed at how big a story it is and how very, very little known it is. They will tell you even in Newfoundland there are places where people just don’t know the story. It is remarkable to me considering the scale of the disaster and the scale of the heroism.
When did your father first share this story with you?
It’s funny, my sister and I were just talking about when our father told us. My sister is four years older than I am. She says it was in eighth grade, so I would’ve been nine. I knew my father was in the war, but I would guess that he probably didn’t talk about the shipwreck much. I read some of the letters he wrote while he was still in the Navy. They were constrained about details and information. My impression is that the story started being told after the book, Standing Into Danger, was published in 1979 by Cassie Brown from Newfoundland. I know that while writing the book, she reached out to a lot of the Americans, asking people to tell her their stories and what happened.
I do know in ’88 when I was shooting the reunion, which I was so fortunate to be there because it was the first time the rescuers and survivors saw each other after 46 years. They were together so briefly during the actual disaster. Traumatized on both sides, I would imagine that there wasn’t a lot of recollection prior about who they met, who did what, or the number of people involved. They never even told their wives, or their wives just found out a few years ago.
It was just as traumatic on the Newfoundland side. A tremendous tragedy happened on their shores. The fact that their response was so heroic risking their own lives to save the American sailors, the after-effects of that were equally heavy from the amount of death, the trauma, and people they couldn’t save. Even with all of the amazing humanity displayed and the number of lives they saved, you saw it in the film, no one talked about it.
“…with all of the amazing humanity displayed and the number of lives they saved…no one talked about it.”
It seemed like at the time the Navy intentionally kept the incident under wraps so it wasn’t known that a non-combat disaster occurred. Did you ever reach out to them in the process of making this film?
No, I did not reach out to them. Part of the reason is that it is such a huge story. I really wanted it to be told in the words of the people who experienced it. That was important to me. To let the storytelling come from the people who lived it. So the storytelling of the Navy comes solely from the people who lived it, who were there at the time. The Navy certainly has been responsive to the communities of Lawn and St. Lawrence. I mean the Americans who donated the local hospital. Every year they’ll have services with representatives from Argentia, and the U.S. base, which is still there.
My dad wrote an article for Oceans Magazine after the reunion and it was excerpted in Reader’s Digest. My dad got so many letters from people saying that they never knew what happened. They had brothers, uncles, fathers who were lost and had never gotten the true story from the Navy. This was after 1988, Double Day had intended to publish Brown’s book in both Canada and the US. Somehow it was blocked from being published in the US. I don’t know the details on that. Certainly, there are other stories of what happened and why the Navy didn’t do this or didn’t do that, I think it’s pretty easy to understand that this is a big embarrassment for the Navy.
The film shows that FDR wrote a letter expressing his gratitude to the Newfoundlanders. Once this film comes out you’d think humanity would overshadow the embarrassment.
Yes, one would think.
“Somehow it was blocked from being published in the US. I don’t know the details on that…”
Have you been able to keep in touch with the Newfoundlanders? Did you frequently visit Newfoundland for interviews?
The material that I shot during the reunion in 1988 was the only material I had to work with for a while. In order to get the film made and find some interest, my dad and I made a short film out of that material. He then made speaking engagements which gave me an additional 20-minute piece to include.
He moved out to California when he was 96 and spent his last two years out there. Here we worked at getting the film transferred to video and then I did another interview with him. Unfortunately, he died and it took me a little while to get back to it. There was just no question, I had to finish it.
Before he passed, the town of Lawn asked my dad to do a Skype session with their students. So at 97, he did his first Skype ever with these students. They had a lot of questions to ask. Some of the kids that you saw in the film had participated in that Skype. That session also gave me a chance to reconnect me with some of the people I had lost touch since the reunion. It also let me make new connections with others, whose fathers and uncles had been involved in the rescue. That allowed me to return a couple of times in 2016 and 2017. I shot HD video interviews with the people who still have a lot of knowledge, interest, and regard for the story because they are all connected.
It was also interesting how there were so many sketches because there is only one set of photos taken of the events, which is amazing because times were so different, you wouldn’t even capture anything on film.
No. That was incredibly fortunate.
I’m assuming, it was the sailors and the kind people of Newfoundland who illustrated their story to capture these events.
Well, actually, there are some pen and pencil sketches that were done by my father while he was recovering in the hospital and also when he was taken back to the base. Some of those sketches were made right at the time by my father. I realized that because I had those, that it would be nice to take some of those moments where there were no visuals and the story was very intense and meaningful and vivid. I also got in touch with a woman who does storyboards. I looked at different artists and I picked the one that I thought would work with the other images I had. The artist was Tanya Zaman and I sent some of the descriptive documentary pieces hoping that she might be able to illustrate. I think she did a fabulous job.
“…sketches that were done by my father while he was recovering in the hospital and also when he was taken back to the base…”
Yes, she did. I didn’t even think they were done by a third party, especially the one hanging in the home of one of the rescuers.
That painting was done by Nancy Malloy from Newfoundland. It was commissioned by Gus Etchegary, the man telling the story by the painting. That was based on what he saw and what he remembered. He just wanted to make sure that it was captured in the reality of what it was for him. It is one of the challenges you have with imagery with historic work, so I actually think we were lucky to have all of that – the sketches, the art, and everything.
What was the thing that surprised you most or did you discover anything new? Is there something that really shocked you while finishing the documentary?
That’s a really good question and it’s hard to answer because I really did know the story and I learned so much of it over time that I don’t know really so much shocked. I think it was quite a wonderful moment that the young man who saw the shipwreck first for the Pollux, which was the most remote shipwreck, was one of the people that my father happened to also meet at the reunion. But I like leaving that to the film to tell that story.
Definitely. That was a very touching moment to see how the story will carry on and how it has become a part of their culture, especially in that small community.
It was really, really amazing and so gratifying, I don’t know how to express it enough, the fact that the kids are so aware of it and so connected to this story. That the younger generations…teenagers who are so busy with so many other interests and longings and everything else…the fact that this continues to have a deep meaning for them and that they’re connected to it, that just gave me a tremendous amount of hope. So much a story of man’s humanity to man. We’re all connected. So I think from that standpoint a lot of it is just about the lessons you learn when you’re young, right?
“…the fact that the kids are so aware of it and so connected to this story.”
Right, and there were so many young boys on the mission. It was so sad to hear how they were just babies themselves, crying for their moms.
When you connect to what happened there, it really is heartbreaking. And the other side of that coin is its just incredible what human beings are capable of doing from the heart and from a sense of empathy or identification. That that can happen is quite extraordinary that they would risk their lives as well because they were watching people lose theirs.
That is why I really love the title too. That’s the first thing that really grabbed me. When you hear the story and see how everything unfolded it really is a miracle that so many lives were saved given the amount that was lost. The way it was done too. It’s not like they landed in a place where people had these supplies and could do it. It was slippery and icy and they made do with what they had on hand. It was a miracle that they even made it up a cliff to find people to help them. Every little step is a miracle in and of itself.
Every little step took something extraordinary.
Honestly, this unbelievable World War II event has all the makings of a gripping, inspiring, and action-packed epic blockbuster starring all the hunky Hollywood Chrises. However, in an era when CGI and spectacle rule the big screen, it is refreshing and incredibly touching to discover a part of our history through a more intimate and personal narrative. …As If They Were Angels beautifully encapsulates the legacy of the brave souls. Hopefully, it will live on and continue to inspire future generations.
…As If They Were Angels (2018) Directed, Written & Produced by Terry Strauss. Narrated by Peter Coyote. …As If They Were Angels screens at the 2018 Mill Valley Film Festival.