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N.S. veteran, 99, set to mark anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic

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When the annual Battle of the Atlantic ceremony takes place Sunday in Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park, retired Merchant Navy Captain Earle Wagner will be there, the 10 medals awarded to him for his service in the Second World War pinned to his blazer.

From an early age, Wagner says he knew he wanted a life at sea, just like his uncle before him.

“In grade six, I wrote an essay, and I wanted to be a captain in the merchant navy,” he recalls.

So when he was 17, Wagner went aboard his a fuel tanker as a merchant sailor, and found himself travelling the route from Nova Scotia down the American seaboard to Venezuela and back.

When war broke out, the Canadian government took jurisdiction over many merchant ships, including the one Wagner worked on, as part of the war effort to carry fuel, food, and much needed supplies to the Allied forces.

That’s how Wagner found himself at sea during a deadly period in the Battle of the Atlantic.

“On the coast of the United States was probably the most dangerous place in 1942,” he says.

“The Nazi submariners were sinking ships. In the first six months, somewhere's around 400 Allied ships were torpedoed off the American coast,” Wagner recalls.

Wagner says the German U-boats – often referred to as “the Wolf Pack” -- would seem to attack out of nowhere.

That year, the Allies lost an average of one 10,000-tonne ship every 10 hours for a month straight.

Wagner remembers passing through the horrific aftermath of such an attack at the break of day.

“I counted 14 ships, Allied ships, mostly tankers, that was torpedoed, and part of the superstructure was above the water,” he says, “I never forgot that.”

“There was only one ship that wasn't sunk, it was a cargo passenger ship, and it was burning and it was listing badly, and the lifeboat falls were empty where they had launched the lifeboats,” he adds.

Some 12,000 men and women faced the dangers of war serving in the Merchant Navy, and 1,500 did not survive.

“What most people don't realize was, casualty rates were highest in the Merchant Navy,” says Ted Barris, author of “Battle of the Atlantic: Gauntlet to Victory."

Barris has written extensively on the Second World War, and came to meet Wagner during a speaking trip to Halifax.

He says not only did merchant sailors brave the perilous waters of the Atlantic during the war, but those who managed to survive faced another battle back at home.

“Because at the end of the war, they were not recognized as veterans, and had to fight for 49 years to get veterans' status,” he says.

Wagner was among those who pushed Ottawa to provide Merchant Navy veterans the same recognition and benefits as their counterparts in the Canadian Armed Forces.

They won that fight in 1992, although it wasn’t until 2000 that retroactive benefits were paid out back to the end of the Second World War to the veterans who remained.

Wagner also ensured those who died in service were remembered with a special monument on the Halifax waterfront.

“War is hell,” he says. “Nobody wins in a war, we're all losers, really.”

The Battle of the Atlantic ceremony will be held with members of Maritime Forces Atlantic on Sunday starting at 10:30 a.m. at Sailor’s Memorial in Point Pleasant Park.

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