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‘A man married to the sea:’ a look at Digby resident Fred Ells’ 95 years

Fred "Bunkie" Ells, on his ninety-fifth birthday.
Fred "Bunkie" Ells, on his ninety-fifth birthday.

DIGBY, N.S. - As he looks down at his birthday cake, Fred Ells shakes his head and says, "B'ys, isn't it great to have friends like you."

I in turn reply, "Fred, it's our pleasure."

Frederick Kempton Ells was born Apr. 3, 1922 in Baxter's Harbour, N.S. His father was a fisherman and farmer and his mother Elizabeth was the post mistress for over 30 years.

Fred is one of 8 children. The family home is gone now, but every time Fred talks about his seaside home, I can picture it.  

In 1941 at the age of 19, Fred decided walking miles each day to pick apples wasn't his idea of excitement. So, he signed up to due his duty and joined the navy.

Fred made nine crossings of the Atlantic during the Second World War. He has many stories, some that leave you in awe, and others that make you smile along as he tells you about his wartime exploits.  He served on several ships including the HMCS Mayflower, the HMCS Granby and HMS Loch Achanalt.  

One story in particular is from when the war ended. Fred came aboard his vessel, docked in Scotland, and woke up his sailor mates, to tell them the exciting news. They then hollered back at him, telling him to "put a sock in it and get in your bunk.”  

Fred's ship and its crew stayed on in Scotland to receive a re-fit in preparation for the Pacific war which still raged on.  Before the refit was completed, VJ-day (Victory over Japan) was proclaimed.

After serving four years, Fred was given a handshake and sent on his way. He returned to Baxter's Harbour to the familiar comfort of his home and family. Fred then worked out west driving trucks and helping to set dynamite and other explosives for an open pit mining company. This didn't last long – the gunpowder and other explosives affected Fred’s health, and he yearned for the sea.

Ells' family, taken on the family property in Baxter's Harbour.

He returned to Nova Scotia and went back to sailing, making numerous trips to the Caribbean and in particular the Turk Islands, where salt was produced. Fred would go down to get a load of salt and return to Brier Island to sell it to fishermen.

During the 1960's, Fred decided to be a fisherman. He bought himself a boat and went to work. He always fished alone and never had a crew. During one of his "drags" with the net, he hooked on an anchor in the Annapolis Basin. Knowing it was too heavy for him to haul up alone, he requested the help of a fellow fisherman and his boat. The anchor was successfully hauled up, and can currently be seen at the intersection coming into Parker's Cove.

For most of his 50-year fishing career, Fred lived on his boat all year long. For a brief time he had a mobile home in New Minas, but he soon returned to his boat.  His boat is named The Growler, which came from the sub-marine class of the same name. The vessels were built in New Jersey, where his brother was one of a team of men who constructed these wartime boats.

Right around this time Fred found out he was a father. Some time during the 1980's, a woman from the United States contacted Fred to tell him she was his daughter. Born just after the Second World War ended, she was adopted by an American couple.  Unbeknownst to Fred, his daughter was born in the now infamous Chester "Ideal Maternity Home,” better known as the location of the "Butter Box Baby" scandal.

Fred has never married but has mentioned he came close a couple of times. He truly is a man married to the sea.

I met Fred at the end of his fishing career. My husband Tony and I owned and operated a little café in Digby. Fred wandered in one day and wanted to know if we had pancakes. That was that, and Fred became a regular, usually in twice a day for breakfast and dinner. We’d get the laptop out and bring up his favorite song, "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight," sung by Tina McBride, which has become one of my favorite songs. We’d watch films together – some of history and navy stories from the war – during the quiet times at the café. Our dining guests would sometimes overhear Fred's stories and many left a paid tab to cover Fred's next breakfast.  

We decided to close our café and fell into semi-retirement. We still keep an eye on Fred. Tony goes down to the boat several times a week to share a ration of rum and listen to Fred's wartime stories. Most of them now are repeats, but every once in a while we still hear a new one.

Ells receiving his certificate from the Town of Digby, acknowledging his 95 years, from Digby Mayor Ben Cleveland.

For Fred's ninety-fifth birthday we had him come up to the house for a glass of his favorite wine, "Peeno Greeno," as he calls it, and a steak dinner. Before we could tuck in, Mayor Ben Cleveland came by to wish Fred a Happy Birthday and presented him with a certificate from the town, acknowledging his 95 years.  

You could tell that Fred was quite tickled with this. He plans on placing it in a place of prominence aboard his vessel.

Fred still lives alone on his boat 12 months of the year. I do believe he is happy and comfortable with his decision to do so. He paints it and does all other necessary maintenance of his boat on his own.  

We’ve been in touch with Earl Robertson, also 95, who is one of Fred’s navy buddies. We are we are planning a little road trip to see him in P.E.I. with Fred next month.

Fred has a very special place in our hearts, and is always welcomed "aboard" our home. There are not many men or women who are still alive and able to share with us their time in history.  

My husband and I are very honoured that Fred has allowed us to be part of his life, and to share his story with us.


Written and submitted by Margaret Gray

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