Of horror and heroism
John U. Bacon’s new book, The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism (HarperCollins), hit shelves November 7. George Will describes the book as “an astonishing episode of horror and heroism,” and David Maraniss calls it “absorbing from first page to last.”
This excerpt focuses on the book’s central figure, Joseph Ernest Barss. After being wounded in World War I, he returned to Nova Scotia to rehabilitate his paralyzed left foot when a ship blew up in Halifax Harbour. After spending three days helping victims, he decided to attend the medical school at the University of Michigan, where he started Michigan’s hockey program, completing one of the most remarkable journeys of any Michigan Man.
The Great Halifax Explosion
In my class at Michigan on the history of college athletics, we emphasize that the future is not pre-ordained by forces so powerful we are helpless before them. Individuals matter, and moments matter.
For proof, you need look no farther than Joseph Ernest Barss, one of the most remarkable Michigan Men of the University’s long, rich history.
Barss’ ancestors lived in Massachusetts but wanted no part of the American Revolution. Like some 60,000 other American refugees who escaped to Canada, the Barss family moved to Nova Scotia. In the War of 1812, Barss’ great-grandfather, Joseph Barss Jr., became the most notorious privateer in Canadian history, capturing, sinking, or burning more than 60 American ships, making him America’s most wanted man.
Joseph Ernest Barss was born in 1892, the son of Baptist missionaries, and grew up in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He started reading newspaper headlines at age four, became the best door-to-door salesman at his father’s grocery store by 12, and graduated cum laude from Acadia University at age 19. He only stood 5-foot-8, but lettered in football, hockey, baseball, and boxing.
“He was sort of a stocky fella, big thighs, who carried himself very straight,” his son, Dr. Joseph Andrew Barss, told me in 1999. “A tough guy. His ankles were so strong, he didn’t have to lace up his skates.”
After graduating in 1912, Barss started a promising career with Imperial Oil in Montreal. He did not want for ambition, talent, or charisma, and seemed to have everything.
But he came from a line of people who had something else: a profound sense of purpose. His ancestors attacked enemy ships on the high seas, built fortunes in business, started universities, and went on missionary trips to India. And that essential piece was something Barss lacked. His letters give the unmistakable sense that he did not find the “good life” fulfilling.
But it did. Two days after he wrote those words, on June 2, 1916, a German shell sent Barss flying. The doctors diagnosed Barss with nervousness, hand tremors, and complete paralysis “of left foot and up the leg to three inches above the ankle joint.” A year later, a doctor reported that Barss’ injuries were likely to be “indefinite.”
He returned to his parents’ home in Wolfville in 1917 to continue his self-directed rehabilitation program, which entailed walking all over Wolfville with a cane, trying to sell Victory Loans, and prove the doctors wrong. But instead of obsessing about all that he’d lost, he was trying to figure out what to do with his life. He knew he didn’t want to run the family grocery store in Wolfville or work for a corporation in Montreal, and he certainly didn’t plan to remain a soldier. But he didn’t know what he wanted to do — or what he still could do.
* * *
On the morning of Thursday, Dec. 6, 1917, the crew of the Mont-Blanc was eager to get inside Halifax Harbour – and with good reason. Five days earlier stevedores in Brooklyn, N.Y., had loaded it with a staggering 6 million pounds of high explosives, 13-times the weight of the Statue of Liberty. The touchy cargo was headed into World War I to attack the Germans.
A Norwegian relief ship named Imo was just as eager to go in the opposite direction to New York. The two ships engaged in a dangerous game of chicken, which ended at 8:46 a.m., when Imo struck the Mont-Blanc’s bow, knocking over barrels of airplane fuel. Fire swept across the decks, sending the Mont-Blanc’s crew scurrying to their lifeboats, while Halifax longshoremen, office workers, and schoolchildren watched the ghost ship slip perfectly into Pier 6 at the base of the city.
At 09:04:35 a.m., the Mont-Blanc erupted, leveling 2.5 square miles of Halifax, rendering 25,000 people homeless, wounding 9,000, and killing 2,000 more — all in 1/15th of a second, less time than it takes to blink. It was the world’s largest manmade explosion prior to the atomic bomb. In 1942 J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team held a conference at California-Berkeley to study Halifax, accurately concluding that the atomic bomb would be only five times more powerful.
* * *
Because Barss knew basic first aid, he answered the call for help in Halifax, hopping on the next train just a few hours after the explosion.
“No reports could exaggerate the terrible damage and loss of life,” he wrote his uncle. “We couldn’t get within three miles of the city for the whole space in between was a blazing mass of ruins. People were killed everywhere, all over the city, and there was hardly a whole ceiling or pane of glass in the city or within a radius of five miles.”
Barss was assigned to Camp Hill Military Hospital, where he immediatey “got to work — and believe me there was plenty of it to do. Poor, wounded people everywhere. On the beds, between the beds on the floor, in the corridors, on mattresses and blankets, everywhere they could find a place to put them, and still they were coming in.
“And the wounds were terrible. There was every kind I ever saw at the front, but a great majority had head wounds. Hundreds of people lost their eyes. In one of the operating rooms where they took only eye cases, the surgeon took out 100 eyes the first day, and then handed [the patients] over to the next man to operate.”
Barss worked with almost no sleep for three days, when the beleaguered town received relief from an unexpected source: the people of Boston, who had fought against British North America in 1776 and 1812. As late as 1911, the Speaker of the House took to the floor of the U.S. Congress to argue vigorously for the annexation of Canada – and received hearty cheers for it. These two countries had recently become allies in the Great War in name only.
Yet it was Boston, not Montreal or Toronto, which sent two trains and two ships loaded with 100 doctors, 300 nurses, and $1 million worth of supplies (about $20 million today) – all without being asked. It was enough to break a 141-year pattern of animosity and aggression, and spark a century of peace between the two neighbors. Boston’s overwhelming generosity even converted the great-grandson of Canada’s most notorious privateer.
“You know we have always been a trifle contemptuous of the U.S. on account of their prolonged delay in entering the war,” Barss wrote. “But never again! They can have anything I’ve got. And I don’t think I feel any differently from anyone down here either.”
Barss also changed. Three days helping people reclaim their lives quenched a thirst that nothing else had reached. On the long train ride home, it came to him: He wanted to become a doctor. But how would he get in without the academic prerequisites, any money to speak of, steady hands, or two good feet?
His uncle Andrew Townson solved one problem by giving his nephew $100 to pay for a year of school. Barss decided to go to Ann Arbor, sight unseen.
“Darned if I know why he went to the University of Michigan,” his son said, “but it’s always been a first-class school.”
In 1919, Joseph Ernest Barss attended classes from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. each weekday, and from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays. He confessed to his aunt, “I felt pretty discouraged for a while but things are coming a little easier now, and I hope to get through OK in everything.”
On Feb. 16, 1920, Barss’s uncle died, leaving his nephew the considerable sum of $10,000, or $128,000 in 2017 dollars, at a time when public university tuition was a fraction of what it is today. His uncle’s final gift was his future.
Barss spent some of his limited free time singing in the First Congregational Church under the leadership of Lloyd C. Douglas, who would go on to write The Robe, which sold 2 million copies and became a movie starring Richard Burton. He also skated at the Coliseum, a three-sided building on Hill Street, where he limped his way around the ice, “until the tears ran down his face,” his mother wrote to a friend.
Barss was becoming a new man, with a new mission and a new name: Joe, because that’s what his professors read off the roll. During his first semester at Michigan’s medical school, in the fall of 1920, he went on a blind double date that “neither of us wanted to go on,” recalled Helen Kolb, an undergraduate from Battle Creek. “But we had a wonderful time. I never thought anything serious would come of this date, as Joe had so far to go to become a doctor.”
When Barss and a classmate, Bob Breakey, picked up their dates the next day to go to the football game, Barss brought Helen two big mums and a box of Whitman’s chocolates. The man seemed to have a plan, and “worked very hard to be invited to my home for Christmas,” Kolb recalled.
Barss asked Helen to marry him soon after that invitation. The couple wed in 1922 and had a son, Joseph Andrew, in 1923, and a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1927.
Shortly after their wedding, Barss did something even more surprising: he became a naturalized American citizen. If anything demonstrated the distance the two nations had traveled since the Halifax Explosion, it was the simple, small decision of Joseph Ernest Barss, descendant of one of the most infamous Canadian privateers, to become an American.
Even while Barss was starting a family and attending medical school in peaceful Ann Arbor, he was still occasionally haunted by the Great War. Helen was startled to discover that this otherwise poised man would get choked up whenever he heard bagpipes, as it was bagpipers who led his unit into the trenches and back out, with the soldiers carrying the writhing victims of shells, gas, and bayonets behind them. Helen also watched her husband drop to the ground whenever he heard a whistle or a loud bang, a survival instinct he had learned in the awful days when enemy shells were falling all around him. Through the steady support of his family and his friends, and his own strong spirit, Barss gradually was able to let his memories of war recede, and with them the hand tremors and insomnia that had plagued him for years after the shell found him. At last, he could allow the simple pleasures of civilian life to take their place.
Encouraged by his progress skating, and eager to contribute to his adopted school, Barss paid a visit to Michigan’s athletic director, Fielding Yost, to pitch him on starting a varsity hockey team. Yost didn’t know much about hockey, but he knew a good coach when he saw one. Yost agreed, on one condition: Barss had to serve as the program’s first coach.
Back at home, Barss attached a thermometer outside his bedroom window, which Helen checked every morning. If it was too warm to skate on the Coliseum’s outdoor rink, she simply rolled over and let her husband steal a golden hour of sleep until he had to go to class. But if it were cold enough for the team to practice, Helen would stir her bone-tired husband out of bed to get him to the rink on time. After everything he’d seen in France and Halifax, however, Barss was not likely to complain about a little fatigue.
During the five years Barss coached the team, Michigan won two league titles. Their success motivated Yost to buy the building, build a fourth wall, and install artificial ice, all just before the Great Depression would make such expenditures impossible. This is why only Michigan and Minnesota have been playing hockey west of the Alleghenies since 1923.
When he graduated, Barss moved his family to Riverside, Ill., where he became chief of surgery at the Hines Veterans Hospital in Chicago. He went on to set up a private practice in Oak Park, Ill., Ernest Hemingway’s hometown.
“He sure gave me a good upbringing, in terms of character and honesty,” Barss’ son said. “He was absolutely true-blue. He was very aware of what was right and what was wrong. My dad was a helluva guy.”
In 1966, at age 74, Barss took his wife, Helen, his son, and his grandson Joe back to Nova Scotia. He wanted to show them where he had grown up and gone to college, where he had recuperated, where Mont-Blanc had blown up, and where he’d helped victims at Camp Hill Hospital.
But he didn’t tell them how he had left Acadia University a confident young man with no sense of purpose, returned from the Great War a broken man searching for one, and went to Halifax for three long days, where he found his life’s mission – then pursued it at the University of Michigan.