Veteran Stories:
Robert Hughes

Navy

  • Personnel of the frigate H.M.C.S. ROYALMOUNT, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, December 1944.

    Lt Franklin Roy Kemp / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-161254
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"We went into a bar there, myself and two or three of the guys from the merchant crew, we went into a bar there and sat down."

Transcript

On these ships that we were on, when we were in port, we could work on the ship and they would pay us 50 cents an hour, doing crews work: scrubbing decks or painting; or scraping rust off the thing, whatever. And also standing sabotage watch. They always got us to stand watch when we were in port and they would pay us 50 cents an hour for this. So we were right in with the crew, no problem. One other thing, the first ship I was on, that was a little troop ship. When we first went aboard, it was all new to everybody, the system having Dems [Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships ratings: navy personnel trained to man the armaments] on these ships. So we ate with the officers in what they called their wardroom, up on the top deck. So the crew took, they didn’t like this at all. So they went after the skipper about it, so the skipper came to me and he said, would you guys mind going down and eating with the rest of the crew? I said, not a bit, same food, we don’t care. So we did this. And after that, we got along fine. They even started teaching us French because most of them are French Canadian crew. So things worked out fine. But all through, I really can’t point out anything except that one instance where we did not get along with any of the crew. They’re still friends with us today, if we know and come in contact with each other. That’s the way it was. Most of them were all good guys. When we were going up the Scheldt into Belgium, there, you had to watch for aircraft there. As a matter of fact, one time, we counted I think it was 300 bombers of ours going across the [English] Channel. So there were aircraft in the air most of the time when you’re operating over there, and particularly going up the Scheldt. The Canadians freed the Scheldt and as soon as it was open, then Antwerp had to have supplies and stuff, so we started going up there with supplies and whatnot. We went into a bar there, myself and two or three of the guys from the merchant crew, we went into a bar there and sat down. We bought a bottle of cognac and we were sitting there drinking it. So this guy from the bar came over, and he said, how’s your cognac? And we said, fine, why? He says, well, did you try it, test it first? We said, no, why? And he says, well, you should test it because if it burns green, you throw it over your shoulder. If it burns blue, you can drink it. So we said, well, what’s all this about? Apparently they had run short of liquor at some places in there; and they were making cognac and they were putting everything in it, nail polish and all kinds of stuff. So this is why you were warned to test it first. And apparently this was true because I tested it, and it worked. If it was green, you didn’t drink it. If it burned blue, it was okay. Also, the first time I was in a bar there, the owner of the bar was a lady, which we called a madam. Not the same connotation as what we sometimes think of. She owned the bar. And naturally, I had to go. I looked all around and I couldn’t see any place that was marked. And that was my first trip up in there. So I went over to her and I said, do you have a men’s room here where we can go? And she says, sure, right through that door. And this was at the end of the bar. So I went in and there was a toilet in there, a standup urinal; and I was standing there and doing what I went in there for and all of a sudden, the door opens and a young lady comes in, whips up her skirt and sits down on the toilet. So I thought, oh my God, I didn’t see a name on the door, did I get in the wrong door? Anyway, after I come out, I went to her and I said to her, was I in the wrong place there? She said, no, why? And I said, well, a young lady come in to do what she’d had to do. She said, oh, where are you from? And I said, from Canada. She said, oh, because that’s part of their, that’s almost like part of their culture over there at that time. And in the streets of Antwerp, in the main street, right in the middle, they had these places where you could go to the bathroom; and what it was, it was a trough in there and it was open from here up and closed from here partway down to your shins. You would walk along there and you’d see a guy standing inside going to the bathroom and his girlfriend standing outside with her arm on this thing talking to him. [laughs] Really amazing, honest to goodness. But they were very good to us in there...
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