The Canadian Consul to the United States in Detroit, Joseph Comartin, invited senior American military leaders in Michigan to the screening of "As If They Were Angels" at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial on Oct. 22, 2019.
The documentary highlighted the Feb. 18, 1942 convoy of three American ships that ran aground off the coast of Newfoundland.
The true inspiration of the story is the heroism and bravery of the residents of two small towns near where the shipwreck happened, Lawn and St. Lawrence, who rescued almost half the sailors from the two ships.
Comartin hosted his guests for a small reception prior to the screening and was awed by the actions of his countrymen. It demonstrates "the inspiration and pride we have as a Canadian, when you see the population coming out to save others, it's inspiring," he said.
Phoebe Wall Howard is the associate producer for the film. Like many others, she didn't know of the story until hiking with Terry Strauss, the film's director, and heard about her efforts in making the documentary. Howard immediately wanted to be a part of telling the story.
"I wanted to produce the story because it was unknown," Howard said, "I felt the film was revealing a secret."
Howard went on to say, "When you recognize the alliance between the U.S. and Canada, I think that adds to the passion and history. People fail to realize such beauty and elegance and honor. I think that says something that really transcends words."
Comartin found out about the story about three months ago when he was approached by members of his staff to help coordinate the partnership between the film team and the Patriot Theater at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial where the movie was shown.
Brig. Gen Rolf Mammen, Commander of the 127th Wing at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan, was one of the VIPs invited by Comartin to attend the screening.
Mammen said that when he initially saw the trailer in the emailed invitation, he drew parallels to the assistance that the Newfoundland miners and fisherman provided the sailors to the efforts that their fellow countrymen provided to foreigners who landed in Canada during 9/11 after American airspace was closed.
During 9/11, Mammen was a pilot for United Airlines on a flight from London to the United States. His plane was one of the first that had to land at Halifax airport in Nova Scotia.
He recounted the story during the reception prior to the screening and reiterated the kindness of the Canadians who opened up their community and their homes to help almost 9,000 people who were forced to land at the airport.
Strauss has a personal connection to the story. Her father was one of the American sailors rescued from the Pollux.
She has known parts of the story since she was young, but really didn't get a handle on the full details until she was older when she travelled to the reunion with her father for the survivors and rescuers of the tragedy held by the Lawn and St. Lawrence communities in 1988.
"I think it's a very important story. I think it's a very big story and it's a story that I believe needs to be known and needs to be honored and remembered," said Strauss.
One stark difference between that freezing February morning in 1942 and Sept. 11 was "there was so much heroism that happened in the film…it's not anything that I've seen at least with my experience with 9/11," said Mammen.
"It's a story about man's humanity to man [and it] resonates today," said Strauss. She continued to explain that this is especially important for us to remember today. "Our humanity is what's going to keep things going forward," she said.
Also in attendance were the Program Executive Officer Ground Combat Systems, Maj. Gen. Brian Cummings, and the Adjutant General of the Michigan Army and Air National Guard, Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers.
Strauss is currently working on efforts to expand the showing of the documentary to a wider audience. The documentary is slated to be shown at the Windsor Film Festival in November. To keep up with where the documentary is being shown, you can see their Facebook page at "As If They Were Angels."
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More on the history:
In the early morning hours of Feb. 18, 1942, the U.S.S. Truxtun, U.S.S. Pollux, and U.S.S. Wilkes, were headed to U.S. naval base in Argentia, Newfoundland.
During the voyage, the ships zigzagged across the North Atlantic trying to avoid German submarines and encountered a severe winter storm causing confusion with their navigation. The weather and confusion ended up forcing the ships to run aground off the coast of Newfoundland.
Two of the ships, the Truxtun and Pollux, were severely damaged and began breaking apart sending sailors into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic and onto the craggy rocks below the more than 200 foot cliffs of the coastline.
The Wilkes which was able to free itself from the rocks was unable to provide any rescue of the sailors from the other two vessels due to the wind and waves from the storm. A thick layer of ice coated the cliff walls making a climb up from the sea impossible without appropriate equipment.
Almost half the crews of the Truxtun and Pollux were rescued and lifted up the cliffs to safety by the Newfoundlanders, and then cared for in the resident's home.