Veteran Stories:
Alan Sutherland

Navy


  • The Memory Project, Historica Canada
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"And all the rest of the sailors on board were all ‘green’ sailors from Saskatchewan, had never been to sea before, including myself."

Transcript

Let me tell you. The first corvette was HMCS Wetaskiwin, built on the west coast in North Vancouver. And our captain was Lieutenant Commander Windermere. And he had retired from the Royal Navy and had a farm over at Duncan on Vancouver Island. And when the war broke out, of course, they called him up; and he was our captain. The first lieutenant was a stockbroker from Vancouver who had never been to sea before. The sub-lieutenant was also from Vancouver; he had never been to sea before. They must have been sailboat men, I don’t know. The navigating officer was an RCNR [Royal Canadian Naval Reserve] man from the merchant navy. The chief ERA [Chief Engine Room Artificer, in charge of the ship’s engines] and the chief stoker [maintained the ship’s engines] were both from the merchant navy. And all the rest of the sailors onboard were all ‘green’ sailors from Saskatchewan, had never been to sea before, including myself.

When the ship was commissioned, we went on a shakedown cruise [testing the ship and crew’s performance] up into the Queen Charlotte’s and I don’t know whether you’ve ever heard of the Queen Charlotte Islands, but the water can get pretty rough up in there at times. And this, of course, was in January when this ship was commissioned, so we ran into lots of rough weather; and we came back, everybody was seasick, except those from the merchant marine and the captain, and then we had to come back to North Vancouver for some summary repairs. And then we were sent over to Victoria, commissioned and, at that time, the second corvette was built called the HMCS Agassiz and she joined us in Victoria. And the two of us set out for the east coast. We got down off the Oregon coast and we ran into some really bad weather. And we were in the bad weather for about three or four or five days, I forget which; and it was so rough and the seas were so bad, our bridge was damaged. We put into San Diego, went into the U.S. navy base in San Diego, to do some repairs to our damaged bridge. And the United States, of course, was not at war so, the German Consul raised so much trouble that we had to leave. We were allowed 24 hours and we had to leave. We then had to go all the way back to Vancouver for repairs.

Every ship that we was on, we had two or three signalmen [communications and lookout], then you always had one who was the senior signalman; and I started out as I told you an ordinary signalmen, then a leading signalmen and then a yeoman that signals, which is a petty officer. And you’re in charge of the signalmen onboard; and also, you’re responsible for signals between your ship and other ships to the other ships. And also you’re responsible to the captain for all his messages. We have a wireless room as well, we had a senior telegraphist and that but, I was still responsible for all his messages to the captain.

A signalman’s job, especially a yeoman’s job at night, when you’re standing watch and you’re trying to send signals to your, one of your other escorts, and you have a tiny blue light and you’re trying to read his signal with binoculars in a rough sea. There was no radio communication between ships, so everything was done by signals at night or in the daytime, but either day or night by flashing lights. You send them Morse Code.

When I was on the [HMCS] Niagara, we had to oil at sea [re-fuel] and it’s a pretty rough weather in the North Atlantic and the idea is this tanker, this 10,000 galloon tanker with oil, fuel, we would signal her that we had to fuel and she would steer a course and we’d try and come up near her, would fire across a gun line, across to her, and then if it was received, then we would pass a line and then we would pass a hose over to her. So we could oil at sea, you know, keep it going. But what happened was that we had a terrible time trying to come near her after we fired across the gun line. It got so bad that the old man got so mad that our helmsman [steers the ship], he was so mad, he went and jumped up on the chart table and started jumping up and down. And finally the signal came across from the captain of the big tanker, you steer a steady course and we’ll come near you. [laughs] Can you imagine a 10,000 ton tanker?

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