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MY YEARS IN THE ROYAL CANADIAN NAVY   -   MES ANNÉES DANS LA MARINE ROYALE DU CANADA

1966

1967

1968

 

 

 

DESTROYER HMCS GATINEAU

 

Going to Sea

After a few months working at Naval Radio Station NRS Newport Corner, I finally received the news in late December 1966 that I was going to sea. My order was to report to destroyer HMCS GATINEAU (DDE-236) of the Fifth Canadian Submarine Squadron. At last ! My first ship and my first posting to sea. The GATINEAU at the time was the best submarine hunter in the Fleet.

 

 

I spent Christmas 1966 and New Year 1967 at the boarding house where I was living, located at the corner of Stannus Street and Gray Street in Windsor, Nova Scotia. On Wednesday morning 4 January 1967, I packed my kit bag, said goodbye to Mrs Whalen and to my friends, and headed for Halifax.

 

I remember it was a cold morning and water vapours were hovering over Halifax harbour as I proceeded to Jetty 4 and climbed the gangway of HMCS GATINEAU. After reporting to the ship's office, I was soon put to work in loading supplies onboard. The ship was getting ready to depart for Exercise Maple Spring in the Caribbeans.

 

The ship departed Halifax two days later and headed south. The ice that covered some parts of the ship soon melted as we entered the warm Gulf Stream within 24 hours of departure. The next two months were spent in sunshine as the ship operated in the Caribbeans with frequent stops at Roosevelt Roads and San Juan, Puerto Rico. We finally headed home and arrived back in Halifax on a warm spring morning.

 

Ships Divers (SCUBA) Training

Upon returning to Canada in March 1967, HMCS GATINEAU spent a few weeks tied up in Halifax and then operated off the coast of Nova Scotia. I took advantage of this period in home port to become a Ships Diver (SCUBA). The course lasted 6 weeks and was taken at HMCS Granby on the Dartmouth side of Halifax harbour. Over 60 sailors started the course but only 9 completed and passed the course. At least 15 to 20 sailors quit within the first week of the course because they were out of shape and could not take the physical part of the course. Many others quit when masking tape was added to cover the face mask and simulate a night dive. The final straw came for many when it was time to actually train in the harbour late at night and in the dark at the bottom of the harbour.

 

Each morning started with a 3 mile run and then a dive and a swim on your back in the cold water of Halifax harbour. All we had on were a suit, hood and flippers (no air bottles). The purpose of the morning swim was to train your legs to provide maximum propulsion using flippers (legs straight and no bending at the knees). We normally swam from the ship, up the harbour to Shannon Park, and then back to the ship. We used a dry suit for the first two weeks and then we switched to a wet suit for the remainder of the course.

 

As soon as we had returned from the 3 mile run, we had only a few minutes to get ready for the swim. This did not create any problem with the wet suit but it was another matter with the dry suit because help from someone was needed to put on the neck piece which made the suit "dry". When time was up, we had to jump in the water even if the dry suit's neck piece was not in place, which meant that cold water would enter the suit and the swim would be very uncomfortable.

 

As for the jump itself, it was made from the forecastle (fo'c'sle) of HMCS Granby. I did the jump in my own way by climbing over the railing, stepping on one of the lines tying the ship to the jetty, hanging upside down from the line and diving into the harbour head first while yelling "SCUBA". (not a good way for a diver to enter water but we did not carry any air bottles for the morning swim so it was OK to go in head first although there was a possibility to hit floating debris or floating ice if not careful).

 

Being a Ships Diver in the Navy is not a full time job. It is something you do in addition to your main trade which in my case was "RADIOMAN". Ships Divers were used on occasions to perform special tasks in the water or underwater. The two main tasks were the search for mines under ships and assisting in rescue missions at sea. In rescue missions, the diver would jump in the water with a horse collar attached to a rope and would swim to the victims while a boat was being launched over the side of the ship. If the diver arrived at the victim first, he would slip the horse collar over the victim's head and under the arms, and the victim would then be pulled onboard the ship.

 

A big part of the course was spent in learning the various search techniques for mines under a ship and not missing any area during the search, from the water line down to the keel and back up to the water line on the other side; and the entire length of the ship from forward to aft of the ship. Some search techniques involved multiple divers while other search techniques could be perform with only one or two divers. If there were mines, they had to be found, even in total darkness. But we also learned to work underwater and to perform many tasks in light and in darkness.

 

I remember being asked to cut a chain at the bottom of the harbour using a chisel and a hammer; or to take a 4x4 piece of wood with a saw, to bring it to the bottom and to return to the surface with the piece of wood cut in two. The challenge was not only to cut the wood; it was also to bring the piece of wood to the bottom and to secure it so you can cut it while preventing it from floating back to the surface. I finally succeeded in bringing the piece of wood to the bottom by putting it between my legs and pulling myself down to the bottom using a chain under the wharf. Once I had secured the piece of wood under rocks, I started cutting and all was going well until the piece let go and suddenly took off for the surface with the saw stuck in it. So I had to go up and bring everything back to the bottom so I could finish the task. Performing these tasks were important since there were possibilities that, as Ships Divers, we could be asked to participate in special operations if required.

 

At the end of the 6-week Ships Divers course, two of the 9 sailors who completed the course were invited to become Clearance Divers (Hard Hats) and I was one of them. I was very proud to have received this invitation but some serious thinking was required before deciding what to do. First of all, a clearance diver is a full time trade. By accepting the invitation, I would have to abandon my trade of Radioman and the exciting world of radio communications. On the other hand, becoming a clearance diver would be quite a challenge and an honour. A clearance diver is a naval specialist and a deep sea diver who regularly use explosives underwater. They can be used to remove obstructions in harbours and shipping channels as well as to perform dangerous naval underwater work such as removing unexploded ordnance or working on shipwrecks at depth exceeding 200 feet. After a few days of reflexion, I finally decided to refuse the invitation and to remain a "RADIOMAN".

 

This decision had an impact in my future. I had spent over 45 years in the wireless and radio communication field when I retire on 29 July 2011. However, to this day, I wonder what my career would have been like if I had become a Clearance Diver back in 1967. Some of my shipmates who became Clearance Divers eventually had exciting careers in the Navy as well as in the private sector, mostly in bridge and oil rig construction.

 

Nine sailors graduated from Ship's Diver Course 3/67. I am the first one from the left in the front row.

 

 

Because scuba diving was a part-time trade, it was something we did occasionally in addition to our main trade. Ways had to be found to keep up and exercise our diving skills whenever possible. One way was to go scuba diving on weekends. If a Diving Officer accompanied us and signed our diving log, we could claim diving pay which at the time was 6¢ per minute.  An average dive, including time on the surface and underwater, lasted about 2 hours. So we could make some extra money while having fun !

 

I remember diving in Halifax Harbour where the most common things we found on the bottom were paint cans discarded by ships over the years. We could also find full sets of dishes including plates, cups, bowls, etc... The most common cup I found was the famous coffee mug from the U.S. Navy. We could also find old beer bottles going back to the 19th century and other artifacts buried among thrash on the bottom. One of our favorite diving activity was to volunteer for the inspection of yachts. I spent many weekends checking the bottom of yachts over at the Armdale Yacht Club. I also dove in many coves along the south shore and eastern shore of Nova Scotia, as well as in Pictou Harbour were we went looking for cases of rum which had been thrown overboard before a RCMP raid. The water was very muddy and visibility was nil, so we never found the rum.

 

But some of the best diving I had was in the water off the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Barbados.

 

Naval Assembly - June 1967

1967 was Canada's centennial year. One of the major event that took place in Halifax was the Naval Assembly from 28 June to 3 July 1967. The entire fleet was reviewed and many warships and submarines from all over the world came to Halifax for this event. More precisely, 40 warships from 16 countries participated in the Naval Assembly. It was impressive to see all those warships lined up in Halifax Harbour and Bedford Basin, attached to buoys and covered with flags. HMCS GATINEAU was tied up in the middle of the harbour during the assembly and the ship's company participated in many events including a march of all sailors through the streets of Halifax with the sound of Heart of Oak filling the air. The next 7 photos were taken by my shipmate Ronald MacDonald during the Naval Assembly.

 

Naval Assembly - Halifax, Nova Scotia  -  28 June 1967 to 3 July 1967

 

Naval Assembly - Halifax, Nova Scotia  -  28 June 1967 to 3 July 1967

Naval Assembly - Halifax, Nova Scotia  -  28 June 1967 to 3 July 1967

Naval Assembly - Halifax, Nova Scotia  -  28 June 1967 to 3 July 1967

 

Naval Assembly - Halifax, Nova Scotia  -  28 June 1967 to 3 July 1967

 

Naval Assembly - Halifax, Nova Scotia  -  28 June 1967 to 3 July 1967

 

Naval Assembly - Halifax, Nova Scotia  -  28 June 1967 to 3 July 1967

 

Centennial Visits and Expo 67

Following the Naval Assembly in Halifax, HMCS GATINEAU continued to operate in the vicinity of Halifax for a few weeks. In late summer, the GATINEAU made official visits to Pictou, Port Hawkesbury and Sydney, Nova Scotia to celebrate Canada's 100th birthday. The ship returned to Halifax and departed again in early october 1967 to sail up the St. Lawrence River. She spent the remaining of October on display at Expo 67 in Montreal. The ship was tied up near Habitat 67 and was open to the public.

 

The ship's company had quite a good time during these few weeks, especially single sailors who had plenty of opportunity to meet girls and go on dates. Most sailors worked shifts of one day on, one day off, etc... While on duty, sailors made dates for the following day with girls who were visiting the ship; while off duty the next day, the sailors proceeded to the German beer garden on La Ronde island where the girls were waiting. What a great system to meet girls !!! It all came to an end when Expo 67 closed on Sunday October 29, 1967. The fun was over. The Gatineau went down the St. Lawrence river to rejoin the Cold War in the Atlantic ocean.

 

Above is a snapshop of HMCS Assiniboine ship's log. The ship was tied up at Jetty 3 in Halifax on Friday October 6, 1967. The entry at 0820 states "Gatineau" to sea. I am 99% certain that this is the exact time when Gatineau departed Halifax to proceed to Expo 67 in Montreal. Thank you Chris Styles for providing me a copy of the Assiniboine ship's log, illustrating this moment in history. 

 

Rescue Mission North of Bermuda

After the closing of Expo 67, HMCS GATINEAU left Montreal and sailed down the St. Lawrence River heading for Halifax. After a few days in Halifax, supplies were loaded onboard and the ship proceeded into the North Atlantic, heading for the waters north of Bermuda. Exercises began in heavy seas with Canadian and American ships, submarines and aircrafts, including the Canadian aircraft carrier HMCS BONAVENTURE. After about two weeks of exercises in bad operating conditions, it was with great relief that the fleet pulled into the harbours of Hamilton and St. George's, Bermuda for a few days of R&R (rest & recuperation). Then it was back to sea on Monday 27 November 1967 for more exercises in the North Atlantic.

 

In the evening of 30 November 1967, a Sea King helicopter, flying off HMCS BONAVENTURE, crashed in the sea while doing a low level turn on night training exercise. HMCS GATINEAU immediately switched to rescue mode and went looking for survivors. Since I was the Ships Diver on standby, I was immediately ordered to suit up and to proceed to the upper deck to participate in the rescue mission.

 

Shortly thereafter, a liferaft was spotted with two persons onboard. The ship approached the survivors but had to remain at a safe distance due to heavy seas. I jumped in the water with a horse collar attached to a rope and began swimming toward the liferaft. I was bouncing up and down and kept loosing sight of the survivors, so it was very difficult to maintain the direction of the swim. I noted that the mast of the ship was visible all of the times so I used it as a reference point to maintain my direction.

 

While I was struggling in the water with the horse collar, a boat was lowered into the water and the crew began their efforts to reach the survivors. Meanwhile, I kept swimming and making headway. The boat and I arrived at the liferaft about the same time and I assisted in transferring the survivors from the liferaft to the boat.

 

As the boat started to head back to the ship, I gave the signal to be pulled back onboard. It is only later that I noticed a large bank of barracudas swimming alongside the ship. Maybe they had been attracted by the blood from the survivors. I was sure glad to be back onboard GATINEAU.

 

The rescue boat returned to the ship and was hoisted up with the two survivors who were the pilot and co-pilot of the Sea King helicopter. They were in pretty bad shape and had to be transferred immediately to the aircraft carrier HMCS BONAVENTURE which had a hospital onboard. A jackstay transfer was quickly organized, HMCS BONAVENTURE came alongside HMCS GATINEAU, and the lines were secured between the two ships. The survivors were transferred to the aircraft carrier while I stood by as the ships diver in case someone fell overboard.

 

There is a sad ending to this rescue mission. Although the pilot (LT Leo Wolfe) and the co-pilot (SLT Brian Roberts) were rescued and recovered from the crash, two other members of the crew were killed in the accident and their bodies were never recovered. They were:

 

Tactical Officer - Commissioned Officer Clair Tully

 

Radio Navigator Rad Nav 081 - Petty Officer First Class Douglas Mander

 

 

MY YEARS IN THE ROYAL CANADIAN NAVY   -   MES ANNÉES DANS LA MARINE ROYALE DU CANADA

1966

1967

1968

 

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