Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The 1976 Summer Olympics...

The summer of 1976 will remain enshrined in my memory, as one of the best ever. I had just been posted to Montreal, to meet up with my first operational ship. HMCS Fraser (DDH 233) was a St.Laurent Class DDH. This acronym infers that the vessel is a helicopter-carrying destroyer. She had been deployed to Montreal as part of the security forces which were there to patrol the Olympic venues and escort the athletes as they were bussed from one location or the other. One has to remember that these were the first Olympic Games to be held after the 1972 games in Munich, where Palestinian terrorists slaughtered 11 Israeli athletes. Tensions were running fairly high.

We were also tasked with providing jetty security for the area where we were tied up. We were tied up outboard of another DDH, HMCS Skeena. We had an AOR or supply ship, HMCS Protecteur, tied up astern of us.

HMCS Fraser:

HMCS Skeena:

HMCS Protecteur:

A typical DDH carries a crew of about 340. With an aircrew, you can normally add another twenty bodies. DDHs are designed to carry one Sikorsky Ch-124 Sea King helicopter. These aircraft are built here in Canada and for as much as they are relatively long in the tooth, are still employed for ASW, PAX transfers, OTHT (Over-the-horizon-targeting), mail runs, reconnaissance and of course, search and rescue missions.

HMCS Fraser accompanied by her CH-124 Sea King helicopter:

I arrived onboard Fraser, a brand new OD (my actual rank was Ordinary Seaman/OS, though we were referred to as ODs (ordinary dicks). Just like anywhere else in life, when you're the newbie, you start at the very bottom rung of the ladder. We were considered lower than whale shit and Junior Sub-Lieutenants. I was awestruck by her as I crossed the brow area. I stopped on the gangway, dropped my gear and offered up my best and most military salute to the Quartermaster (QM), Corporal-of-the-Gangway and Officer of the Day (OOD).

I reported to the OOD, introduced myself and advised him that I was reporting for duty. "Well Prudhomme, I didn't exactly think you were on a camping excursion... Quartermaster?"

"Yes, Sir...?"

"Find out who the duty RP is today and pipe him to the quarterdeck!"

"Aye, Sir... Duty RP!"

Seconds later and the upper deck speakers crackled to life: "Able Seaman Bell... Lay aft! Able Seaman Bell!"

I stood there, trying to soak it all in. I was on a ship. A destroyer. MY ship. I had been wearing the uniform for a few months now, had earned my Naval Operations trade qualification and was entitled to wear my Naval Ops cap badge, but I still hadn't felt like a real sailor. A sailor without a ship, was no sailor at all. Now... finally... I felt the part. My thoughts were interrupted by a young matelot who rounded the corner from the QM's shack.

"Officer of the Day, Sir...?"

"Aaaahhh... Able Seaman Bell. This is Ordinary Seaman Prudhomme. He's an RP who has just been posted to us from Slackers (Halifax). Bring him down below to the Cox'n's Office and get him started on an In-Routine, would you?"

"Yes, Sir!... Straightaway!" Then turning to me: "Dave Bell", he said sticking out his hand. "Welcome aboard... you'll like it here, she's a good ship! Grab your gear and follow me..."

And off we went. We rounded the corner which led to a doorway. Opening the door, it led straight to a hatch which would lead us one deck down to Burma Road. On the old steamers (St.Laurent Class destroyers), there was a passageway which led from the VDS well at the very after end of the ship, all the way forward to No.2 Mess (where the Bosuns lived...). This passageway was commonly referred to as Burma Road. As we proceded forward, Dave was rattling off the various compartments we were passing.

"That's 8 Mess, that's where the stokers hide out... This is frame 56, watch your head as we go through...NEVER run through this doorway, you'll kill yourself... This is the ship's laundry... This is the ship's canteen stores...This is the Master Seamen and Below's Mess... It's our Mess where we eat and entertain... blah...blah...blah...".

As if there was ever a chance in Hell that I was going to remember any of this, beyond the first few seconds of having heard it... I remember being struck by how clean everything was. How every piece of brass shone like a miniature sun... how the decks gleamed, how the firefighting gear was stowed so perfectly, the hoses straddling their cradles, the hold-down devices painted red against the immaculately white bulkheads... I smelled a sickly sweet smell, which I was later to learn was the unmistakable odor of jet fuel (JP5), which the ship carried to fuel it's onboard helicopter. On we went, past the pay office, the wheelhouse flats, 4 Mess and finally we stopped. We were standing in front of the Cox'n's Office.

Now, the Coxswain or Cox'n, is the Senior Enlisted Rating on the ship. He is in charge of the lower decks as far as matters of good order and discipline go. He is basically God. Our Cox'n was Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Bob Wibberley. He burst out of his office and looked at the two of us. Sizing up Bell he then shifted his attention to me, glowering. He looked me up and down, hauled back and punched me a good solid one in the arm. I staggered back a couple of steps, totally caught off guard and not having a clue as to how I should react. "Geeeezzz, Chief...what was that for?!?!??" "Well Goddamnit, Prudhomme... I couldn't think of a nice thing to say to ya, so I just had to hit ya!!", he boomed. He then turned to Bell: "You make sure this young fella gets situated up in 1 Mess, then come back to get an In-Routine card... Clear?" He cocked a fist in Bell's direction and smiled.

Bell smiled back: "Right away, Cox'n!!"

"There's a good lad", the Chief grumbled. Then looking around at the small crowd that his outburst had drawn: "What the Hell's the matter with you lot? Don't you have any chores to set to? Perhaps I could find you something to keep you gainfully occupied in this man's Navy??? These are the Coxn's Flats and unless you're a Cox'n or are polishing brass here, CLEAR MY FLATS!!" he roared. Everyone scattered. He then spun on his heel and disappeared back into his office.

"Holy shit... holy shit", I mumbled. "What the fuck was that all about? Did you see that?? I didn't do nothin'! I'm properly turned out, I spent hours on my shoes last night... Why did he drive me in the arm???" I was halfway amused, halfway horrified. What the Hell had I gotten myself into. Dave just laughed. As we arrived in 2 Mess at the foot of a ladder he said: "The Cox'n's a great guy". Don't fuck with him and he's the best man you'll ever know. He's fair and he's funny, as you've just seen".

I supposed he had a point. I certainly hadn't been expecting anything like that and in truth, his broadside had surprised me more than anything. I had no doubt that if a mountain of a man like Chief Wibberley ever wound up properly and meant to do me harm, I wouldn't have all my parts... let alone be standing. I began to see the humour in this... Already I had often heard the old refrain regarding the military: If ya can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined!

We climbed up the ladder and there I was... Home. "Wow... we're pretty far forward here, aren't we?" "We", Dave said gleefully, "are in the bow of the ship. The other side of that clamshell door in the hatch going down to the Bosun's paint locker and the anchor compartment. There is also a ladder that leads to the foc'sle. It's kind of our front door... Believe me, nobody bothers us here at sea!"

I got sorted out with a bed and a locker. I claimed a the top bunk on the port side, second row in, aft. There were 18 bunks and lockers in No.1 Mess. I beleive three or four of them were empty at the time. between the bunks, there were small storage receptacles which acted as dividers and allowed space for storing your 'war bags'. These were referred to as 'buggery boxes'. There was a small settee area on the starboard side of the hatch opening. Just aft of that, there was a small door which led to a small storage compartment for the ship's canteen. Almost directly overhead, were the muzzles of Fraser's 3"50 twin main gun mount. A fact I would be made keenly aware of in future travels. A locker on a ship measures about 6 feet high, 12 inches wide and perhaps 12 inches deep. There is one metal shelf at the top of the locker, for storing personal effects. Any additional shelving, such as to create compartments for storing your clothes, has to be hand made. First lesson in creativity. Empty milk boxes which contain the heavy plastic bags used in the mess' milk machines, when stacked one on top of the other, make a fine shelving unit.

Under your bunk, you had a boot locker. This is where you stowed your sea boots and civilian footwear. It might hold three pairs of shoes and a couple of cans of beer. This became known as BLT Beer, or Boot Locker Temperature Beer. Problems arose as soon as I tried to stow my gear. I had brought every piece of kit that I had ever been issued. Winter and summer dress. I would have a Hell of a job finding room for everything, unless I had my own private yacht. I was pretty much screwed. I was incredibly fortunate that my wife, daughter, family and in-laws all lived in Montreal. I would have to store some of my kit ashore and have it shipped home after I had found us an appartment in the Shannon Park Married Quarters. But that would have to wait until we returned to Halifax.
I had arduously studied layouts of our destroyers prior to coming aboard Fraser, so I wasn't completely lost. But there was so much I had yet to learn. I decided to go topside on the foc'sle to see the view from there. I ascended the ladder and as I poked up through and looked aft, I saw I was staring at the business end of the 3"50 gun. Wow! I stepped out onto the foc'sle and took in the view. Looking forward, I was looking down the St.Lawrence River as it coursed by Montreal's Bonsecours Market. The current here had to be at least 12 knots.

I could see the old Man and his World emplacements from Expo '67. I could see St.Hélène's Island, the Jacques Cartier Bridge and La Ronde. Not too far away from us, I could see the locks at St.Lambert. As a very young boy, I would walk to the river's edge from our home on Birch Street and stare through the chain link fence, at the ships going up the locks, bound for the Great Lakes. These instances would fuel my dreams of travel on the high seas. Now, here I was... 16 years later. I had come full circle at last.

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