Ruth Birdsell (née Stengel), Don Birdsell's wife, circa 1943-45.Don Birdsell
Stoker 1st Class Don Birdsell, Royal Canadian Navy, circa 1944.Don Birdsell
The ship's company of the Royal Canadian Navy minesweeper HMCS Trois Rivieres, 1945. Stoker 1st Class Don Birdsell is in the middle of the photograph, just to the left of the gun barrel, marked with a small "x".Don Birdsell
Reunion for the ship's company of HMCS Trois Rivieres, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1990.Don Birdsell
Don Birdsell in Chilliwack, British Columbia, October 19, 2010.Historica Canada
"I can remember the night before, after I was informed I was being drafted to the Three Rivers, that someone in the barracks told me it was a French ship. And I said, my God, what am I going aboard that for, I don’t speak French."
From [HMCS] Cornwallis, after my stoker course, I was drafted to Halifax [Nova Scotia] and I was on what they called border repair party [damage control and repair] there for, oh, I just don’t recall the length of time. But then I was drafted aboard a ship called the "Three Rivers," [HMCS] Trois Rivières [minesweeper and escort vessel]. I can remember the night before, after I was informed I was being drafted to the Three Rivers, that someone in the barracks told me it was a French ship. And I said, my God, what am I going aboard that for, I don’t speak French.
But, anyway, I reported the next morning and there was four stokers reported the next morning. And it was not a French-speaking ship at all. It just had the French name, Trois Rivières. And I got squared around. All I had, of course, was my hammock and a big sea bag with all my belongings in it. The next morning, after we got straightened around, the engineer officer came down into our mess, the stokers’ mess, he says, anyone here ever had any secretarial experience? And nobody said a word. I said, the only experience I’ve had, I said, I was a timekeeper with Brenland Contracting Company. He says, just what I’m looking for. And he said, come with me.
And from then on, for the next year and a half or so, I was what they called [an] engineer’s writer. I worked in his office, which was midships, lower midships, the place where he slept, his cabin and everything. And it was my job to order all the stores through his signature to keep the ship running. And my busiest time is when we pulled into port, wherever it was, especially in Halifax, just to get up the stores and order all those stores that was required.
I can remember the first time when I went from Halifax to Saint John [New Brunswick], I wrote my mother and said, you can’t imagine the size of these waves (because the only time I’d ever been on the water was out on Lake Erie, on a fishing tug). And I said, one moment you’re up at the top, you can see for miles, the next moment, all you can see is water. We had all the stokers in our mess and, as I recall, I think there was something like either nine or ten. The two cooks were in our mess, two officer stewards, and what they call a sick bay tiffy [navy medic]. He was the medical type. And they all were billeted in that mess. So it got pretty cramped, especially when you hung your hammocks down there.
And the thing that I remember quite distinctly is that we’d sling our hammocks, fore and aft; and my feet would be facing aft, but the guy next to me, his feet would be facing forward. So we slept all the time with someone’s feet in our face. And that got kind of nauseating at times, if you can imagine. It was quite interesting when we drew our food from the galley that come down on the trays, big deep trays and then we’d have to share with each other.
We each had locker. It was only about, I doubt if it was three feet square and three feet tall. It was against the bulkhead. Each member there had his own locker, that’s where we kept our personal gear.
I was on patrol for quite a while up off Labrador, and did a bit of escort duty up to Iceland and back. Most of the time, it was just on the escort duty or patrol duty along the coast, and mid-ocean convoy. We had to go out one time and, one time I recall, when the transatlantic cable, there was something went wrong with that and we escorted a ship out there that brought the cable up from the bottom and they repaired it. And I was out I think something like seven or eight days on that.
The ship did get a mention. They’d won this battle honours by trying to get all the subs out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence before the big convoy went over. There was a convoy formed up at just south of Halifax. There’s 125 ships involved. The length of the convoy was 10 miles and the width was two miles. And we did a patrol off of that convoy for a couple days before they actually took off. There was quite a bond developed between a person and his ship, you know. It was our home really.