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Thursday, 7 December 2017

Remembering Chief Machinist Mate John Cleveland Wells—Died Accidentally December 7, 1917

John Cleveland Wells was born on April 29, 1887, the fourth of nine children raised in the home of John Shelley and Mary Ann (Munroe) Wells, White Haven [Whitehead], Guysborough County. Sometime prior to 1911, John Cleveland relocated to Boston, MA, where his father had resided prior to his marriage, completed training in marine engineering, and obtained employment in the Boston shipyards.


During the early months of 1917, tensions between Germany and the United States increased dramatically, primarily due to concerns over the safety of American ships at sea. Perhaps sensing that war was imminent, John enlisted with the United States Naval Reserve Force (USNRV) at Boston, MA on February 21, 1917. Less than two months later, he was called to active service following the United States Congress’s April 6, 1917 declaration of war on Germany.

John was assigned to the USS Comber as a Chief Machinist Mate, 3rd Class. A new vessel initially built as a commercial fishing trawler, the Comber was commissioned into the US Navy on April 19, 1917. Refitted with mine-sweeping equipment, the ship conducted patrols in the waters around Naval Districts 1 (Portsmouth Naval Yard, Kittery, ME) and 2 (Newport, RI). John worked in the boiler room, ensuring that the plant provided propulsion, electrical power, water and steam to the vessel’s various systems.

Several months after John’s enlistment, his mother, Mary Ann, passed away at White Haven on August 20. His service record makes no mention of a leave of absence, suggesting that John continued to serve aboard the Comber throughout the summer and autumn of 1917.

On the evening of December 2, while on shore leave, John started to board a trolley car at the corner of Sumner and Washington Streets, Quincy, MA. When the car suddenly started, John was thrown to the ground. The back of his head struck the pavement and he was rendered unconscious. Rushed to a nearby doctor’s office for immediate attention, John was quickly transported to City Hospital, where staff determined that he had suffered a fractured skull.

John remained unconscious for several days, the force of the blow having ruptured his right meningeal artery. While surgeons performed surgery in an effort to stem internal bleeding, the operation proved unsuccessful. At 9:00 p.m. December 7, 1917, Chief Machinist Mate John Cleveland Wells “died as a result of an accident not in the line of duty.” His remains were transported to Nova Scotia, where John was laid to rest beside his mother in St. Lawrence Roman Catholic Cemetery, Mulgrave.

Bantry Publishing’s “First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume I” contains a detailed description of John Cleveland’s family background and military service, along with stories of 71 other individuals who died from causes related to military service during the war’s first three years.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Remembering Able Seamen James Irvine & Samuel Gordon Breen—Accidentally Killed December 6, 1917

James Irvine Breen was the born at Spanish Ship Bay, Guysborough County on December 10, 1893, the fourth of Mary Jane (Spears) and William Henry Breen’s seven children and the couple’s third son. A fourth son, Samuel Gordon, joined the family on September 10, 1896. William earned a living at sea and at least three of his sons followed his example. Creighton, the second-oldest, James and Gordon, the youngest, all enlisted with the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR) during the First World War. James led the way, enlisting with the RNCVR at Halifax on January 28, 1916. Gordon joined on July 16, 1917, while Creighton enlisted in May 1918.

Able Seaman James Irvine Breen
Able Seaman Samuel Gordon Breen
James and Gordon served out of Halifax aboard HMCS Musquash, a privately owned vessel variously described as a tugboat and minesweeper. As the Canadian Department of Naval Services chartered the ship, its owners hired and paid the crew, an arrangement that placed the men in a different category—Class 2A, “crew of hired tugs”—than a majority of other RNCVR volunteers.

The Breen brothers worked below decks as “stokers,” fuelling the steam engine with coal and assisting with boiler maintenance and repair. It was hot, dusty work in an enclosed space that placed the men in great danger, should the vessel strike a mine or be targeted by a torpedo. Unfortunately, no details of the Musquash’s service are available. The ship first appears in historical records on the morning of December 6, 1917, when it was moored at Pier 8, near the dry dock wharf in Halifax Harbour.

At 8:45 a.m. that morning, the French cargo ship Mont Blanc, laden with benzol, the high explosive picric acid, TNT and gun cotton, collided with the Norwegian freighter Imo as the Mont Blanc made its way into port. Damaged and afire, the Mont Blanc drifted toward the Halifax shoreline as its crew quickly abandoned ship. At precisely 9:04 a.m., its cargo exploded, devastating the nearby Acadia Sugar Factory and the adjacent dry dock where the Musquash lay at anchor. The blast’s impact significant damaged the vessel, setting it adrift and causing an onboard fire.

As the Musquash drifted into the harbour, the presence of ammunition aboard raised fears of a second explosion. After HMS Highflyer, a Royal Navy ship, brought the vessel alongside, two of its crew bravely boarded the burning Musquash, threw its ammunition crates into the water, and opened the galley doors to allow a fireboat to extinguish the flames below deck. Tragically, nothing could be done to save the crew. Able Seamen Irvin and Gordon Breen perished during the incident, the coroner later attributing their deaths to “shock due to injuries in the explosion.”

James’ remains were transported to Liscomb, where he was laid to rest in St. Luke’s Cemetery. For unknown reasons—perhaps difficulty in identifying his remains—Gordon was buried in Section Q, St. John’s Cemetery, Fairview, alongside other sailors killed in the explosion. Sadly, little over one year later, their father, William, passed away, leaving their mother, Mary Jane, to pursue the issue of appropriate headstones and maintenance of their final resting places.

The unusual nature of their RNCVR assignment may explain the difficulty Mary Jane faced in obtaining Imperial War Graves Commission headstones for the graves. Neither was paid from naval funds, nor had they been formally “called out” for “active service”—they worked aboard a privately owned vessel that was chartered by the Department of Naval Services, not “commissioned” into service. Mary Ann’s persistence, however, eventually resulted in the appropriate markers for both graves. Military authorities also issued Memorial Plaques and Scrolls bearing their names to the brothers’ widowed mother.
Able Seaman James Irvine Breen's headstone, St. Luke's Cemetery, Liscomb, NS
Able Seaman Samuel Gordon Breen's headstone, Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, NS
Bantry Publishing’s “First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Volume I: 1915 - 1917” contains a detailed summary of the Breen brothers’ story, along with profiles of 71 other Guysborough County military personnel who died in service during the war’s first three years.