Veteran Stories:
James Graham “Boots” Burns


  • Bible received by James Burns in 1942, part of regular kit for all Navy Volunteer.

    James Burns
  • James Burns's Medal: Atlantic Star.

    James Burns
  • James Burns's Medal: Canadian Volunteer Service Medal.

    James Burns
  • Scottish Pound - currency

    James Burns
  • Trade Badge - leading torpedo man

    James Burns
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"Almost every night, the submarines would blast a freighter and most of it was carrying fuel. And of course, the sea for all around would be in flames."


My name is James Graham Burns. I was born in a small town called Kirkintilloch, just outside of Glasgow, Scotland. We came to Canada in 1926, soldier settlement from World War I, my father was in the First World War. In World War I, my father was in the engineers. And of course, back in those days, it was more horses than it was anything else but they pulled the supply wagons and some of the heavier armament. I don’t know too much about it because he didn’t speak about it and I never speak either until now. I’m getting kind of, I’m wondering why I’m speaking now. (laughs) But if it’ll help some of the younger generation to realize that there are better ways, then what I’m saying is worthwhile.

Once we got into Newfoundland, I worked in the dockyards, the naval portion of the dockyard in the electrical crew. I wasn’t there all that long until once again, I got into a bit of trouble and they put me on a, what they called a broken Fo’c’sle Corvette. It happened to be, and I had the choice. It was either I went to sea in this little bit of junk or I went to the place with the bars on it. And so I chose the old [HMCS] Matapedia is what she was called. And that was North Atlantic. We were on the Triangle Run, which was between Halifax, Newfoundland and either Boston or New York. And we escorted the convoys in that area.

And usually, we would pick up a convoy about halfway across. They were escorted from Northern Ireland heading our way, heading towards the, the next supply and we would then take them back, they would be picked up again from the other side.

I just forget what year it was now but then our little old Matapedia got rammed by a freighter in the fog when we were coming into New York harbour. Fortunately, we, we survived. I being the torpedo man, I had to set all our depth charges to safe so that if the whole tub did go down, at least my mates would have had a chance of survival. Because if the depth charges went off, that would have been the end of them all.

There was one kind of a comical thing there. I had a young fellow that was a nasty- that was supposed to be helping me and he was pretty scared. So when I come around the corner, he’s down on his knees praying and I thought to myself, and then I said to him, son, you’d better learn how to work and pray because the Lord helps them that helps themselves. Thinking back now, I probably was a bit harsh but then, that was me.

The worst of times, I guess it would be in the latter part or in and around 1943. Almost every night, the submarines would blast a freighter and most of it was carrying fuel. And of course, the sea for all around would be in flames. And so these are the sort of things then of course, unfortunately people were involved in this. And a lot of it was not exactly what you would tell as bedtime stories. So therefore, we’ll leave that alone.

When we were over in, well, pretty much in the, in the Channel, between the Isle of Man, and when we would get in close enough, we would never be allowed to dock because we always had high octane fuel onboard for planes. So we used to tie out into, in the harbours. But when we were in there, so that they could have a, a show, the troupes, these troupes that used to come around and put on little shows, what we used to do is we would clear out the hangar deck so that everybody could sit in the dry and we would lower one elevator just to the height of a stage. And then we would have one of these troupes come on. Now, we were pretty fortunate. We had an orchestra of our own, we had, when you stop to think, there’s 700 guys on one of those things, and so we had our own orchestra and we had a few comics. And I used to, believe it or not, and the old tubes are all gone and rusted up but at one time I was able to sing reasonably well and so I would sing a lot of the popular songs of that time, stuff that was ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ and, and a lot of the comical stuff. And so this we would set up. And then we would bring them onto the ship with small boats from all the other craft around and some from the shore establishments as well. And sometimes have a pretty big crowd. But this is one of the things that we used to do just to sort of break monotony.

We also used to play a fair bit of deck hockey. Nothing we liked better than to knock an officer on his backside. (laughs) And this was one of the things that was quite popular when the weather was half decent. In the old Corvette, we went out and we hit a bad one. We iced up very very badly, to where the old ship just couldn’t handle it, we were swaying back and forth and we were afraid we weren’t going to come back. So everybody was chopping ice. And chopped away our Carley floats and boats. And of course, we were way overdue coming back into harbour. We came into Halifax. And of course, the first thing we had to do was go and phone home because they’d already reported us all missing. And as one of the boys told me, he says - they used to call me Boots - and he said, Boots, you’ll never drown, you were born to hang. (laughs) He must have been right, I didn’t drown. (laughs)

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