An afternoon with Max

Merchant Marine veteran, Bay Roberts resident celebrates 90th birthday

Nicholas Mercer
Published on November 9, 2012
Max Mercer of Bay Roberts, who served with the Merchant Marine during the Second World War, celebrated his 90th birthday on Oct. 30. He is shown here displaying a photo of his uncle and namesake, Max James Mercer, who was killed at Beaumont Hamel in 1916.
Photo by Nicholas Mercer/The Compass

Max Mercer of Bay Roberts is briskly moving around the dining area of the Bay Roberts Retirement Centre with the help of his motorized wheelchair.

It's one of the joys of his life now.

He often rides from the personal care home, which is found at the top of Country Road, to Sawdust Road, about half-a-kilometre away.

"We tell him we're going to get him snow tires," Max's eldest grandson Aaron quips.

It's Oct. 30 and not even the grey, foggy skies of the outside world can put a damper on Max's spirits. After all, it's his 90th birthday. There are smiles and handshakes amongst guests as they enjoy a sandwich or various delectable cookie treats.

Max does not have much time for food as he zips from table to table, greeting each person individually.

Once a turn, he shifts his head and says, "now don't you tell anyone that I was a boat-builder."

Max doesn't want to be represented as something he wasn't, having built just a single vessel in his 90 years.

Kisses and hugs

He is surrounded by family and friends on this day. His daughter-in-law Susan is making sure Max meets everyone, while Keith, his son, is chatting amicably with some of the older gentleman. Max's two grandsons, Jonah and Aaron, have just settled in to play a board game on one of the centre's couches.

But this is not a day for a simple handshake. Every person Max meets gives him a kiss on the cheek, followed by a squeeze.

Max just offers a smile and a how-do-you-do.

Keith asks his dad if he would like a cup of coffee, or a drink from the various soft drink containers.

"Got any Screech?" Mercer asks with a laugh.

As the novelty birthday candle numbers are lit, one's eyes drift to the image on Max's cake. It is an old-fashioned two-masted schooner sailing on an ocean of perfect blue water.

The vessel is much like the one Max was a deckhand on during the Second World War, as a member of the Merchant Marine.

The Bay Roberts resident was aboard the Agnes, which he described as the biggest two-masted schooner in Newfoundland at the time. Max's brother, Bill, was also a mate on the vessel, which moved freight between various ports-of-call around the province and to docks in Montreal, Halifax and Sydney.

"We used to haul a lot for Hudson Bay," Max recalls.

Infested waters

Although he did not see any wartime action, danger was always present, since the waters around Newfoundland's long and rugged coastline were known to harbour German submarines.

The dreaded U-boats sank four ore carriers near Bell Island during two attacks in 1942, killing 60 men. And the Sydney to Port aux Basques passenger ferry SS Caribou was also torpedoed and sank in October 1942, resulting in the loss of 136 people, including 10 children.

It was part of a deadly and brutal campaign by the Germans to choke off the supply of materials and personnel to the Allied effort in Europe.

"We called them infested waters," Max reflects.

Surrounded by his son and two grandsons, Max leans back in his dark blue easy chair, and ponders whether the Germans would even turn their guns on a schooner.

"We weren't worth it, I suppose."

At the time, he was not fazed by the threat of being torpedoed, noting, "We weren't nervous at all."

Uncle Max

When the topic of the First World War and the Battle of the Somme is brought up, tears start to wet Max's eyes. His uncle and namesake, Uncle Max James Mercer, was killed at Beaumont Hamel.

"Uncle Max" was only 19 when he and his fellow soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment entered the communication's trench alongside St. John's Road on July 1, 1916. He would not return, as the regiment was nearly annihilated by German machine guns.

Of the roughly 800 men who entered the fray that morning, less than 70 answered the roll call the next day. The remainder were either killed, captured or wounded.

After the war

When peace was called in 1945, nothing really changed for Max. He was still on the water, and he was still running freight from different ports around the province.

He remained on the seas until his 50s, and later became a tinsmith before retiring at the age of 57.

Max first started his life on the water at the age of 15 when went to Labrador with his father.

"Whatever I wanted to do, I done," he say.

The Merchant Marines struggled long after the war ended, with Max and his comrades fighting for the right to receive benefits as military veterans.

After a long battle, they were officially recognized as veterans in 1992.