HalifaxYesterday: Charles John Mayers: The Real Life Story Behind ‘The Flying Sailor’

By Joel Zemel

The common phrase, “truth is stranger than fiction,” is applied to incredible real-life stories which defy belief. What happened on the morning of 6 December 1917 to a 22 year-old merchant mariner named Charles John Mayers (1896-1959), is as true as it is incredulous: A man, swept up by the explosion and carried high through the air for nearly half a mile, was thrown back to earth and survived.

 

An award-winning National Film Board (NFB) film directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby entitled The Flying Sailor, has received an Oscar nomination for this year's Best Animated Short Film. The project has brought some well-deserved curiosity regarding the real-life story of Charles John Mayers to whom the film is dedicated. The Flying Sailor is a creative interpretive work that combines animation with real-world images and a beautiful musical score to tell the tale of Mayers' experience.

However, relating a more detailed historical account of the actual harrowing event as well as those situations which occurred after the film leaves off is this article's main purpose.

Although Charles Mayers was never personally interviewed by any newspaper reporters, versions of his story were printed in all of the local editions of the day. The following information is primarily from Mayers' first-hand eyewitness testimony during one day of the wreck commissioner's inquiry in the Exchequer Court of Canada on 21 December 1917. The proceedings took place in Courtroom #1 (now, #4) on Spring Garden Road, Halifax.

After the SS Mont-Blanc (France) and SS Imo (Norway) collided in Halifax Harbour, a fire erupted aboard the French ship. Her manifest listed tons of volatile picric acid, guncotton, T.N.T., as well as over 400 barrels of inflammable benzol on the open decks. Numerous rounds of ammunition for her two guns were stored fore and aft. At the point of collision on Mont-Blanc's starboard side, Imo had pierced the forward hold containing the picric acid and ignited a fire – which then quickly moved upward towards the decks via spilled benzol flowing overboard.

Only a handful of naval personnel in Halifax were aware of the T.N.T. aboard Mont-Blanc with the exception of her crew, who knew of all of the holds' contents. Yet virtually no one in the city had any idea of the bulk of the cargo or could possibly fathom the extreme volatility of those explosives.

The British cargo ship SS Middleham Castle (Master, Captain Kelly) had arrived in the port of Halifax on 24 November 1917 and was slated to depart for New York on 25 December following an overhaul at the Dry Dock. Charles Mayers, originally from Seaforth, Lancashire, was the third officer and on his first voyage with this vessel. He observed the collision and resultant fire from aboard his ship which was rafted together with two others off the Graving Dock, approximately 200 hundred yards south of Pier 6. Following the collision, Mont-Blanc made her way to the south side of the pier on her own power and beached on the shore, broadside to Middleham Castle. On a whim, Mayers decided to leave the relative safety of his vessel and head on his own towards the burning ship.

1917 Halifax Harbour Map, Joel Zemel Collection

 

During his inquiry testimony, Mayers told the Court that on his way to the conflagration, he soon began to feel extremely ill at ease. He likely noticed several loud but minor explosions of overheated benzol drums bursting on deck and taking off into the air like fireworks. When he was within 100 yards of Mont-Blanc, he thought it might be best to go back and seek shelter as he had witnessed ships explode in the past. So, he quickly turned around and ran as fast as he could in the direction of Middleham Castle.

He reached his ship and made his way up to the port deck where he stood with the second mate as they continued to watch the intense fire. Suddenly, the powerful 2.9 kiloton blast occurred and Mayers was swept from his ship by a powerful updraft. He found out later that the second mate survived and was not taken from the deck. However, the only other witness who knew he had returned to the ship, Chief Steward, Charles D. Silva, was Middleham Castle's only fatality.