But I was quite tall for my age and one day a woman stopped me on the street. She had tears in her eyes. She said, “Why aren’t you in the army?” And I really didn’t know how to respond because she just took me completely by surprise and I realized afterwards when I explained to my mother that this poor woman probably had a relative or son or somebody who was killed in the war.
Frank O’Hara enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy in 1944 and served in Halifax, Nova Scotia as a signalman for the duration of the war. While in basic training in Montreal, he was asked to provide crowd control and police duties during the Zoot-Suit Disturbances in June 1944. He performed these duties again during the Halifax riots at the end of the war.
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One of the things I experienced when I first arrived in Halifax – I was sent down there to get a ship and so I was waiting in the barracks for a while, but the very first day that I arrived there was a – outside what they called the gates of Halifax. They had a gate that they would let up to let the ships in, they would form when they were forming the convoys. Just outside there, one of the Canadian ships was sunk by a submarine and so everybody, all the ships in the harbour, all the navy ships, were sent out to see if they could catch this submarine. I was not one of the ships but the guys afterwards were telling me about it. And there’re guys who had – a corvette [small, manoeuvrable, lightly armed warship] only had about 120 sailors on it as I recall and they were pretty small ships. And these guys were in the water. They had life vests on but the north Atlantic is very cold and the ships that were sent out weren’t allowed to go slower than about I think it was 12 knots, because if they can keep up a speed of let’s say 15 knots, then the torpedoes wouldn’t hit them. For some reason or other they just couldn’t aim the torpedoes well enough. So a lot of the ships couldn’t go really slow enough to really pick these guys up and they were throwing ropes over them and the guys too cold from being in the water even a short time, that they couldn’t hold onto the ropes and they could hear them calling to be saved but not one of them was saved.
The other riot that I experienced was when the war ended I was in Halifax and they had a riot in Halifax [Halifax V-E Day riots, 7 to 8 May 1945]. It was mostly the navy guys started it and they caused a lot of damage in the town so it was a pretty sorry sight. I was working down at the docks. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing. I was a signalman and they used to send me – signalman was my signals to do, they’d send us on sort of office kinds of things to do. And I was coming to the end of my period that I was working down at the docks and at the other side of the street where our – the place where we were staying, I don’t remember what they called it. Anyway, as I came across the street, a bunch of guys came out of the what they called the Pusser Wets [Pusser’s is a type of rum often issued to sailors in the Royal Navy]. That was the bar, the beer hall that they had for the navy guys. They had closed it but these guys had been beering up and they came rushing out of this Pusser Wets and there was a streetcar coming along. They climbed on the streetcar and the streetcars there were ancient things. Anyways, these guys climbed on the streetcar and they took it over. They kicked off all the passengers and the conductor and I guess one of the guys must have known how to use it or maybe it was pretty simple. In any event they went tearing down the street with this and so I followed, walked down the street because I figured they couldn’t go too long before they went off the tracks. Sure enough, at the first bend in the road, they went off the tracks. It didn’t tip over or anything. So they got off there and they proceeded into town. It was a short distance and the next thing they knew they got into a liquor store and they emptied the contents of the liquor store and everybody had these bottles and so on and everybody was drinking. It got worse as the day went along.
I remember one little small store, like a kind of a confectionary store. The man and woman standing outside it and the woman crying and she was saying, “Well they’re on our side aren’t they?” It was a very sad sight.