Veteran Stories:
William James Archibald “Bill” Black

Navy

  • Mr. William Black in Victoria, British Columbia, March 2010.

    Historica Canada
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"You copied Morse for four hours and you had eight hours off and you did other things in the ship."

Transcript

Every letter in the alphabet has a Morse Code [representation]. “A” is dit-dah: a period and a dash. “B” is a dash and three dots. And you learned all of these through just exposure. You sat there with earphones on and initially, it would be transmitted perhaps at maybe five words a minute. And it got to the point where you began to recognize, and you’d heard "B" before and said, "oh yes, that’s 'B'". You’d miss a few things but at the end of the, when you finally completed the course, you were copying at 22 words a minute, by hand. Subsequently, people were using typewriters and that, but what I was doing was by hand.

We learnt Morse Code obviously and the ships copied, there was a wireless station in Louisbourg [Nova Scotia] which sent out wireless messages to the ships at sea; each ship had its own call sign and you copied all of these things and the ships did not respond, or otherwise you’d give away your position. [As a telegraphist] You copied Morse for four hours and you had eight hours off and you did other things in the ship. You had to eat, you had to keep the place clean and that sort of thing. And you copied Morse for four hours.

They were five-combination figures and alphabet, in groups of five. And you copied that, you didn’t know what it was. We had coders onboard who broke the codes and passed the message that the ship were to alter course or to meet another ship or to go into a harbour or whatever, then that was all encoded in these messages.

Ships would come out of ports down as far south as perhaps Charleston in South Carolina and they’d come out loaded with supplies and they joined together and they moved their way up the coast and the Western Local Escort Group would meet them and convoy them up and at a geographical location, a latitude and longitude position, about 250 miles perhaps east south, east nor’-east of St. John’s [Newfoundland], out in the ocean, these ships all gathered. They formed a convoy under the direction of the local escort and then the [Mid-]Ocean Escort Group would come out from St. John’s and pick them up and take them across because the others were beginning to run out of fuel and then you’d go into St. John’s.

We slept in hammocks, far more comfortable than bunks. And a mess deck that would be essentially half the size of this room, there would be perhaps 15 or 20 men - boys. You learned to tolerate one another and you became like a family. If you were going ashore and said "geez, I haven’t got any clean socks - Tom, have you got any socks"; sure, here’s a pair of socks. You became very close friends. I still correspond and see people that I met, what’s that, 60, 70 years ago. Seventy years ago!

You become very close. Well, I was in [HMCS Annapolis], a four-stacker [ship with four funnels], an American destroyer that had been turned over to Britain and to Canada by the Americans. And we were in Halifax actually. I had gone ashore to see some friends and the news [of V-E, Victory in Europe, Day; May 8, 1945] come out while I was ashore and I came back and found that my pyjama bottoms had been hauled up to the yardarm by one of the other officers on the ship. I was commissioned by then and we sailed the next day.

We didn’t see the [VE-Day] riots in Halifax. We saw the results of them in Sydney, when we got to Sydney [Nova Scotia].

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