The Forgotten Merchant SeamanChan FongRMS Empress of Russia - WWII
Chan Fong, Merchant Seaman on the RMS Empress of Russia - 1941Convoy TC 12BIt was Monday morning, August 25, 1941, and the final preparations were under way for the departure of Convoy TC 12B from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Three troop transports, RMS Empress of Russia, QSMV Dominion Monarch and the SS Stratheden, docked at Piers 21, 22, and 23, would transport 4,667 military personnel, that included troops of the 3rd Canadian Division, including Quebec, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia Units, American Red Cross Nurses, civilian American aviation workers, United States Navy Warrant Officers, and Australian and New Zealand airmen to England. The Stratheden was flying a white fishtail with a blue cross and indicated the ship would serve as the flagship of the convoy.The piers bustled with the noise of organized chaos and confusion as the last of the military personnel boarded the ships. Canadian soldiers that arrived on transport trains earlier that morning were the last to the boarding ramps as dock workers loaded last minute supplies and equipment. On the Empress, dark smoke rose from the three stacks, a sign that departure was imminent. The American Red Cross nurses, dressed in their khaki uniforms with the Red Cross on the sleeve boarded the Empress, arriving from the Nova Scotian Hotel where they were staying while waiting to embark. The Stratheden had arrived in Halifax on August 15th at 7:20 pm and disembarked 3,970 men, mostly Air Force for further training in Canada, some RCAF, disability cases, returned soldiers and a number of West Indians. Their arrival. For the locals, this was the nosiest arrival to date as solders were heard singing and cheering their safe arrival.Early on Monday morning as the ship prepared for departure, troop trains were arriving with troops for embarkation on the Stratheden. In total the ship would transport 3,253 military personnel and eight civilians. The Dominion Monarch had arrived in port on August 16th with Australian and New Zealand airmen. Having charmed the locals with their accent and tales of Australia during their time in Halifax, they would now depart Halifax en-route to England with 447 military personnel. The Empress of Russia was the last of the three liners to arrive. It was the first time the Empress had been in Halifax and had arrived on August 24th at 9:40 am and disembarked some civilian passengers. The crew of the Empress included Chinese and they were seen in their sailor uniforms. On the ship’s departure from Halifax, it would transport 944 military personnel and fifteen Jamaican tradesmen. Chan Fong, Merchant Seaman - RMS Empress of RussiaChan Fong, a 41-year-old Chinese Seaman was a crew member on the Empress of Russia. Today, with the passage of time, little is known of this Merchant Seaman, other than he was born in China and was a married man. When he joined the crew of the Empress is unknown. Pre-WWII, the Empress sailed between Hong Kong and Vancouver and it is possible he joined the crew as a seaman during the 1920’s or 1930’s. It is also possible, he joined at the outbreak of WWII when Chinese were recruited to serve on transport ships. He was not on board the Empress of Russia when it departed Halifax. At some point amidst the final preparation for the departure of the ship, he was taken ashore and transported to the Halifax Infirmary on August 25th. He likely had experienced indigestion and pain for some time and symptoms would have become severe enough that the medical officer on the Empress decided he should be hospitalized ashore.Admitted as a patient, it was discovered that he was suffering from serious carcinoma of the stomach (cancer). Chan Fong died the following day on August 26th. W Alan Curry, MD, signed the death certificate, and the Steam Ship Agent signed the certificate as Informant. His body was attended by Snow and Company Ltd, Halifax, and Chan Fong was buried in the Camp Hill Cemetery on August 29, 1941, in an unmarked grave.The Research:During research of WWII casualties, the Association discovered the Nova Scotia death certificate of Chan Fong which recorded he was a “Seaman on the Empress of Russia”.All other searches to locate details of Chan Fong’s service in the Merchant Navy were to no avail. Chan Fong’s name is not recorded in the Second World War deaths of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, despite serving on a Canadian ship, the RMS Empress of Russia, operated by the Canadian Pacific SS Co Ltd, and owned by Canadian Pacific Railway, which was requisitioned by the British Admiralty to serve as a troop transport in WWII.Aware from the death certificate that Chan Fong was interred at the Camp Hill Cemetery and unable to locate his gravesite, the Association contacted the Cemetery Administrator for the Halifax Regional Municipality, on January 30, 2023, to determine the location of his burial.A response the following day provided the details of the grave location and advised Chan Fong was buried in a city-owned plot in Section 2-R, confirmed there was no headstone or marker and offered to stake out the location. On February 6, Wartime Heritage was advised the grave had been marked with a small flag.The Association completed a Non-Commemoration Report with the Commonwealth War Grave Commission to advise that Chan Fong, a Second World War Merchant Seaman currently has no headstone marking his grave. The Wartime Heritage continues its research of Chan Fong.The RMS Empress of RussiaThe Empress of Russia was operated by the Canadian Pacific Steam Ship Co. Ltd and owned by Canadian Pacific Railway. The ship had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty twice during the First World War, and then ran the liner route between the war years; much of it between Vancouver and Hong Kong. The ship was again commissioned by the British Admiralty as a troop transport in World War II. Initially, she carried Australian and New Zealand Air Force recruits to Canada sailing from Auckland to Vancouver, via Fiji and Hawaii, to deliver the Airman for flight school training under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) early in 1941. In March 1941, she was refitted at dockyards on the River Clyde in Scotland.The Empress was in Convoy WS 8A which departed the Clyde on April 26, 1941, for various ports in the Far East and Mediterranean. On May 31, 1941, the Empress, along with the MS Abbekerk , a Dutch merchant vessel, the SS Aronda (Troopship), SS Sobieski (Troopship), and SS Strathaird (Troopship), departed Durban escorted by HMS Hawkins. The ships arrived at Aden on June 10th after which the troopships/transports proceeded to Suez independently.The RMS Empress sailed in Convoy TC 12B from Halifax, Nova Scotia and arrived in the Clyde on September 1, 1941. Convoy TC 12B was escorted by HMCS Annapolis, the HMCS Assiniboine, the HMS Harvester, the HMS Havelock, the HMS Richmond, the HMS Ripley, the HMCS Saguenay, and the HMCS St. Laurent.
QSMV Dominion Monarch
RMS Empress of Russia
Troops disembarking the RMS Empress of Russia, September 1, 1941
Sources and Information:Bonnie Murphy, Cemetery Administrator for the Halifax Regional MunicipalityNova Scotia Archives (Nova Scotia Births, Marriages, and Deaths)Nova Scotia Archives (Nova Scotia Archives)wartimes.ca (Convoy TC.12B - 26 Aug 1941 - Halifax to Clyde)RMS Empress of RussiaBackground photo: Halifax Harbour WWII
Location of Chan Fong’s grave -Wartime Heritage Photo 2023