“I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In . . . “

An Irish-American story of hope, from Elizabeth O’Reilly Jennings, long-time member of the LaRouche Movement.

August, 1941.  The world was at war.  Hitler had overrun most of Europe, and was knocking at the door of Britain.  The aristocracy that, not long before, had shrugged, even smiled,  at Hitler’s early triumphs against Russia, now quaked with fear as the Nazi juggernaut rolled across France and moved  toward London, the seat of the Empire.  Canada, subject dominion of the Empire,  had entered the fray, as had Newfoundland, not yet part of Canada.  Common folk in the USA anxiously and wearily hoped to sit this one out.  In the north Atlantic, a Canadian destroyer patrolled through a dense and hovering fog.   On its deck, a solitary seaman answered an abrupt summons to the command station at the bridge:


“Seaman O’Reilly — You are from St. John’s, in Newfoundland, are you not?”

“From Fox Harbour, Sir.  Then St. John’s.  Yes sir.”

“How familiar are you with St. John’s Harbour?”

“Like the back of my hand, Sir.”

“We’re being deployed on a special operation, involving several vessels, assembling at St. John’s Harbour, and proceeding from there.  We’ll be escorting a battleship from the Royal Navy, en route here from London.  This fog is not breaking!  Can you guide us into the harbour, and beyond?”

“I think I can, Sir.”

“You think you can?”

“I know I can, Sir!”


O’Reilly, 20 at the time,  had faked his age to enter His Majesty’s Service five years earlier, to  escape  remote and economically depressed Fox Harbour. He was equal to almost any task — but this was  different.  Strangely, fate had tapped  him on the shoulder.


From the forecastle, O’Reilly quietly directed the helmsman past the craggy cliffs, past Cabot’s  Tower on Signal Hill, into the broad harbour of St. John’s.  Dating back to John Cabot’s  explorations in 1497, the city claimed to be the oldest city in North America.  Out of the murk emerged another destroyer –no, two!  Within the hour, three destroyers  and some smaller escort vessels had assembled.  On signal, the flotilla steamed out of the harbor, towards open sea.  Fishing and cargo  boats bobbed in  the ships’ enormous wake.  Thousands of St. John’s townpeople crowded the wharves.  What was this all about.?  The fog was beginning to disperse.  From the heights, onlookers squinted through spyglasses and binoculars to witness  an enormous battleship emerge from beyond the horizon. It entered the cluster of ships.  Then, in convoy formation, all headed southward,  passing from view at Cape Spear.


Some 70 kilometers to the southwest, 17-year old Nora Duke stood on the grassy slope  overlooking Fox Harbour, gazing at Placentia Bay  beyond.   For weeks, she had pondered the new life soon opening up before her, in New York.   Nora’s mother Elizabeth, (nee King) soberly assessing her  daughter’s dim prospects in Fox Harbour, had purchased her fare to the big city,  to lodge with relatives in Brooklyn, while seeking employment.  Nora was torn between the pain of leaving tiny Fox Harbour and her childhood friends, and curiosity about entering New York City — the gateway, some said, to the entire world.


But today, it seemed,  the entire world  had come to Fox Harbour!   Ships filled Placentia Bay.  They seemed to be converging on Ship Harbour, the deeper haven just north of the shallow cove she called home. Walking carefully  around the nets and lobster traps at waters’ edge, Nora headed toward the small finger of land that divided the two inlets.  At its point, an armed  sentry in khaki uniform silently admonished her to proceed no further.  Yet , even from  there, she could see an enormous battleship parked in the bay, with  the American Stars and Stripes fluttering from  its mainmast.  It was the U.S.S. Augusta.  Peering southward, she saw another battleship steam up the coastline, accompanied by a dozens smaller vessels, all, displaying the British Union Jack.  This ship was  HMS Prince of Wales. Within  clear view of Nora’s observation spot at waters’ edge, the mighty ship dropped anchor.


Thus came together the two giants — British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and U.S. President  Franklin Roosevelt.   The lion of the Old Empire, and the champion of the New Deal.  From the decks of  the two ships blared martial music, echoing off the hills that rimmed Ship Harbor — God Save the King, and Stars and Stripes Forever.  On Sunday, a joint religious service on the Prince of Wales brought the crews of both ships together, to sing in chorus, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, Be Thou our guide while troubles last, and our eternal home!” 


The negotiations began in earnest.   Churchill, desperate for U.S. material and military support,  hoped to cement such support without undue disruption to the affairs of the Empire.  But FDR had ideas of his own.  His son, Air Force Lieutenant Elliott Roosevelt, witnessed the disputes, and discussed them,  heart-to-heart, with his Pop.  He left us a priceless record in his book, As He Saw It.    On the sovereign future of India and the other colonies, FDR was adamant, and Churchill had to acquiesce.   Elliott writes:


   “Churchill admitted, in that moment, that he knew peace could only be won according to precepts which the United States of America would lay down.  And in saying what he did, he was acknowledging that British colonial policy would be a dead duck, and British ambitions to play the U.S.S.R. against the U.S.A. would be a dead duck…”  


      “Or would have been, if Father had lived.”


Out of the discussions came a remarkable joint statement of principle, The Atlantic Charter, which we excerpt here.  Before the world, the two leaders pledged, that:


  “…they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;”

      “…they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement, and social security;…”

     “They hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling safely within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want…”

     “…they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force…”


There’s more.  Was Winston “crossing his fingers” when he affixed his name to this document?  We don’t know.   Either way, these astounding principles resounded throughout the world, inspiring subject peoples to finally stand up and shake off colonialism  They also became core principles of the United Nations, with the widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, as its first ambassador from the USA.


But what of Seaman O’Reilly?  And Nora Duke?  Nora soon landed in Brooklyn, took a job building rafts for the Coast Guard, and started life anew.  ‘Bernie’ O’Reilly emigrated to New York after the war.  Somehow, in that huge city, they found each other, married, and resettled in Boston.  Together, they  brought into the world four sons –’Bernie’ Jr., James, Dennis and Joe — and one daughter, Elizabeth O’Reilly.   She and her husband Joe resolved, in 2016, to realize the unfulfilled principles of the Atlantic Charter.  And,  having read this,  perhaps you will, too.

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