The survivors of the German submarine attack on the British passenger ship Athenia returned to the British Isles, Canada, and the United States to heroes’ welcomes in the waning days of summer 1939. But the headlines quickly faded, superseded by news of German conquests on the Continent, the British Army’s retreat from Dunkirk, and the London blitz.
Athenia survivor David Jennings returned home to begin his senior year at the University of Toronto, albeit a few days later than planned. (See blog post: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 3, Aug. 16, 2015.) While Canadians answered the call of their government to serve as soldiers, sailors and airmen, Jennings completed his engineering degree and in the summer of 1940 and went to work at a local de Havilland Aircraft Company plant.
Restless to take a more active role in the war, he volunteered for pilot training in the Royal Canadian Air Force, but was rejected when doctors discovered he had perforated ear drum. His medical condition did not concern the navy, so in early 1941 Jennings enrolled in a newly opened short-term course to train Volunteer Reserve sub-lieutenants for the Royal Canadian Navy. His decision to attend the Royal Roads facility on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, would shape the remainder of his life.
One evening during his training, Jennings accompanied an officer from the school on a blind double date. In the middle of the evening he and the officer decided to switch dates, which is how Jennings met Patsy Drexel, the vivacious young woman who would become his wife. Given his intense training schedule and deployment following graduation, Jennings managed only five or six dates with Drexel but it was time enough for David to propose and Patsy to accept. They were married February 21, 1942.
During the war, Jennings served as an engineering officer in the Royal Canadian Navy. He was deployed primarily aboard minesweepers, first accompanying convoys in the Pacific and later in the Atlantic, occasionally sailing past the spot where the Battle of the Atlantic began that fateful evening of Sept. 3, 1939, when Athenia was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Despite the constant threat of submarines and mines, Jennings went through the duration of the war without ever having to again abandon a sinking ship. He retired from the navy as a lieutenant-commander at the end of the war in 1945.
When Jennings and his wife came home after the war, David’s mother told him that family obligations would mean he could never be his own man if he stayed in Toronto. With Patsy’s family roots in western Canada, the young couple decided to move to Vancouver. Jennings took a job working as an engineer with a company that built boilers, but it was clear to him that western Canada’s natural resources presented untapped opportunities.
Within a few years, Jennings identified some potential partners and together the young entrepreneurs established the Columbia Engineering Company to focus on serving forestry related industries. Working with clients, he helped to develop control systems for the process used to make particle board. The company’s systems proved very successful and Jennings traveled the world helping to set up particle board factories.
David and Patsy had two children, who remember a home often filled with music when they were growing up. While they all washed and dried the dishes after dinner, David often sang the Scottish and Irish songs he learned as a child in Toronto. The children recall that their father was a calm and loving man, with a wickedly dry sense of humor. In contrast, Patsy was very outgoing, loud and funny.
David and Patsy Jennings were married 38 years until her death in 1980 at age 60. David died in 1995 at age 77.