Veteran Stories:
René Bertrand

Navy

  • Picture of Mr. Bertrand taken in ​​the winter of 1941-1942, probably aboard the minesweeper HMCS Vegreville. Mr. Bertrand recalled it was very difficult to take pictures because cameras were forbidden on board at the time, until 1944.

  • Picture of Mr. Bertrand taken in 1943-1944 while on board of the HMCS Kitchener on convoy in the North Atlantic.

  • Fall 1945. Newspaper clipping showing Mr. Bertrand (left with a child) with crew members of HMCS Ontario.

  • HMCS Ontario, 1945. After serving in the Bay of Bengal against the Japanese, the crew was sent to Singapore. In August 1945, the crew was deployed to Hong Kong to rescue British civilians who had been taken prisoner by the Japanese. They were more than 1,000 sailors on board.

  • Contemporary picture of Mr. Bertrand.

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"Everyone was nervous, everyone was scared, and everyone became restless, however there was total respect. That's what I really liked in the navy; the respect from the guy next to you. It was team work."

Transcript

I walked about eight or ten feet and then he said to me: ‘Hey, come back here! Bertrand, come back here!’

I walked back towards him. He said:‘I'm sorry.’ He said: ‘How old are you?’

‘I was born the 15 of March, 1923.’

He says: ‘I am sorry but we'll need proof of age.’ Well, I said: ‘That's incredible!’

Then: ‘You come back, you're always welcome. We're open every day, blah, blah, blah'…’

So, I went back home to L'Orignal (Ontario) by bus and as one might expect, I hadn't spoke to my parents about that yet. My father was a kind and gentle man who I love and I loved but he was angry with me due to the thing with the college. He didn't like that.

So I worked in a store belonging to one of my uncles, a sort of grocery store, iron workshop, but the idea to enlist never left me. One of my friends, a guy named L’Écuyer from L'Orignal, had enlisted in the navy, he had finished his training in Montreal and was on his way to Halifax, then he came back to our town. When I saw him I said, 'Good god Henri, how did you get in?'

'It was simple.' But he was two years older than me. So then he said, 'In Montreal, he said...' That was in 1941, they were chasing recruits. The men in the navy were all volunteers. So Henry – we called him Hank L’Écuyer – he said: 'Good god, go to Montreal. They are running in the streets and when they see a strong young man they say, 'Why don't you join the navy?' You'll be able to see the world. You'll travel everywhere!'

As for me, my job was to... They gave us a digger. We called them fathoms (unit of measure used by the navy) in the navy. A fathom was about six feet. So they would say 'six fathoms.' But you know- you had to adjust your detonator in the depth charge- there was a tube – for the 'sea fathom' about 40 feet, let's say. At that pressure it fired, so that was my job – to adjust the detonator and to fire. I had a firing string with a detonator inside. We would wait from the bridge. The lower bridge gave the order to the signalmen behind us and they would say: ‘Okay, fire!’

We had two depth charge throwers on one side and two depth charge throwers on the other and two rails behind us. Behind us there were rails, which were railings, and the depth charges were placed upon them. They would drop a depth charge on each side. They would only need to remove the break and the depth charge would drop into the water. When giving the order to fire, he would yell: ‘Full ahead, full steam, both engines!’ We would jump from zero to 10-20 miles an hour. The depth charges were dropped, and they had, let's say, about 50 feet before hitting the bottom and exploding. So, you see, it wasn't close to the convoy. That is because we chased after what we believed was the submarine, their direction and then the officers would try to guess. So, because of that, there were other escorts, sometimes there were three of us (destroyers) out in front. However, it was necessary that none of them (the destroyers) exploded the others either. They couldn't be in front of each other. When the charge exploded beneath the water, the explosion would rise up at about 50-60 feet out of the water. At least. If a ship found itself in the vicinity, it would definitely lose its rear, that's for sure!

Everyone was nervous, everyone was scared, and everyone became restless, however there was total respect. That's what I really liked in the navy; the respect from the guy next to you. It was team work. If he didn't do his job, you were in trouble.

Then we would light up a cigarette and boy, was it ever good! It was tough. It was very tough. If a convoy was attacked, it was a terrible thing to see.

We bombed the coasts that were supporting the advancing troops, by pushing the Japanese back towards the North. We didn't drop many bombs. It was almost a pleasant war (in the Pacific).

From time to time, the Japanese would be in difficulty. They were losing. There were planes from time to time, they called them 'Zeros' (Mitsubishi A6M Zero Japanese fighter plane). And from time to time, a Zero would fly by above us and it wouldn't be long before we opened fire. The plane would go higher up, it would leave or our men would shoot it down.

Two British, we were with the British Indian Fleet at the time. So, like I mentioned, nobody fired at us. It wasn't bad, fellow... Our allied planes would give us a target in the jungle – a certain degree of longitude, a certain degree of latitude, where there were Japanese troops. We would stick to the coasts of the Bay of Bengal for about 2-3 miles and then we would open fire (laughs).

Our job was to go into the concentration camps where the Japanese had imprisoned all of the civilians. They were all British, it was a British colony, Hong Kong. It was pitiful. Everyone there, they were almost skeletons, no fat on them at all. They were moving skeletons.

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