"When the war broke out in 1939, September the 3rd, 1939, I was on my way down to Halifax on active service in the navy."
My name is Donald McCree Cameron. And I was born in Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland. And I immigrated from Scotland when my parents came over here in 1929.
We were a military family. All my uncles and my dad was in the army, he fought in the Battle of the Somme in the First World War, lost an eye. He came back here, even though he was, had one eye, he was very up with the training and he joined The Toronto Scottish [Regiment] and he was an instructor down at the barracks in Toronto here. And he stayed in there for a while, until he passed away.
It was quite different when we came over here as a child and things were different altogether. Over there, the games were mostly soccer and cricket and here, we had baseball, skating and everything, which we didn’t have over there.
And I was in the army in . And I saw this fellow, walking down the street, and he was all dressed up in a uniform with a bandolier and the breeches there and the shoes and the things on his shoes, like Pancho Villa [a Mexican revolutionary, assassinated in 1923]. Oh boy, I had to look at that, so I got a hold of him. I asked him what he was in. He said he was in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals and he was going down to Spadina Avenue every Friday, and, for two weeks in the summertime, they went up to Camp Borden [a training base near Barrie, Ontario].
Anyhow, I went down with him and joined up and I was in the RCCS, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, up at Camp Borden and I went down every Friday to the barracks down there on Spadina Avenue. And I enjoyed it. And one day I saw this fellow walking down the street with a uniform on, a navy uniform. I asked him, oh, “how are you doing, Joe?” Joe something was his name. And I said, “where are you going?” And he said, “I’m going down to Halifax [Nova Scotia].” I said, “what are you doing down there?” He says, “well, I’m going to go on a ship, on a corvette [lightly-armed naval vessel].” Oh. And he said, “this time, we’re going down to Newport News [Virginia] down in the [United] States.” Oh, I said, “that’s good.” He says, “oh yeah, I like it.” So anyhow, that was that. When he came back, I asked him, I said, “how do I go about getting in the navy?” And he told me. And I transferred from the [army] in 1938, late 1938, into the [Royal Canadian] Navy. When the war broke out in 1939, September the 3rd, 1939, I was on my way down to Halifax on active service in the navy.
In the service, and especially in the navy, no two of one family were allowed to go on a ship. And this happened because down in the States, there was five brothers on a ship and the ship was sunk and they all died [the Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa, killed when the USS Juneau was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese submarine I-26 off Guadalcanal on November 13, 1942].
When you joined up, you had to go down to YMCA [Young Men’s Christian Association], at College and Dovercourt [in Toronto], and show them how you could swim. And well, I could swim but when they give me these uniforms, I thought, oh, geez, we had to swim with the uniform on. I said, "okay, fine," and I started at one end and I only got halfway through because this heavy uniform, damp uniform was bringing me down and I swam to the side and got out. I says, "well, I guess I didn’t pass." He says, "oh yes, you did, we just wanted to know if you could swim. When you’re on a ship, you won’t be wearing the uniform, you’ll be wearing your fatigues like pants and a shirt and stuff like that, you don’t wear a uniform too much when you’re at sea, only when you’re going ashore."
So I qualified for that. And then you had to do exercises in rowing every morning at the, you fell in on parade. There was different things to do and one was going on a cutter [a small naval training vessel] to learn, to know how to oar and another one was how to tie knots. And the fact that I was in communications, in the army, and I knew international code signals, they asked me to go into communications in the navy and that’s what I did. And when I come out, I was a yeoman of signals, a petty officer.
If you were in a convoy, you must realize that the war was on and you couldn’t have any wireless communications, because that could be picked up by the enemy. So the only way you could get anything was by communications by flags, you know, semaphore or by Aldis Lamp in the convoy or flags, international flags. Now, if you were in a convoy and it was spread over maybe seven or eight miles across, and if you can vision it, there’s maybe seven or eight ships in a line, one after the other. And they’re spread over about a mile and a half apart. Yeah, and you had two escorts in the front, two at the back, and one at either side; naval escorts taking this convoy.
Now, in this convoy, the two centre ships, one was the commodore and one was the vice-commodore. And all the messages that were sent from the escorts would go to either the one or the two. Usually in the daytime, it was done by the hoisting of flags. A certain flag meant a certain thing. A black flag meant that we have contacted a submarine and we’re going to investigate. Another flag would mean something different. So, if a flag went up, the commodore of the convoy would put it up and the next ship all the way down the line of the convoy would put a black flag up. When the last ship in the convoy got it, he took it down and it went all the way up and so everybody knew what was coming off.
When I was transferred from the barracks, HMCS Stadacona [Halifax] to the HMCS Ottawa [a Royal Canadian Navy corvette], I inquired what we are going to do and found out that we were escort vessel to take the convoys from Halifax over halfway across the Atlantic Ocean and turn it over to the escorts from the British Isles and they would take over from there.
I will say, I was glad I didn’t go into the submariners’ part of the navy because it was hell in one of those things to be down there. I couldn’t see being in one of those things, you were so close.
Well, you had the galley, and then they had the engine room and then the nest egg. And the smells of the diesel and the food and everything like that and the combinations, just terrible. They had to come at night if they could and put the snorkel up, so they could get fresh air. And until the snorkel came out, the only way they could do it was come up and the open the top to get out there and onto the submarine and get some fresh air. But then they got the snorkel and they just put the snorkel up and they could get fresh air down into the submarine.
They needed them and they did a lot of good for us, but they did a hell of a lot more for the Germans: 1943 was their best year for getting [sinking] tonnage of merchant ships. It was their best, of course they used to send out these packs of submarines called wolf packs and they certainly did a lot with that. I forget how many tons, thousands of thousands of supplies that were going over for, to keep England supplied - and we didn’t have as many ships to offset it as we could have. The Canadian Navy at that time, we didn’t have a very full navy but we gradually did when it come towards the end of the war.