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WAR STORIES:As a young seaman and during my first voyage, I used to find sitting in the mess deck during down time and after the showers and the last of the daily beer ration was being consumed; that the stories really started to get interesting. Just about any topic you could mention was being expanded on, but for the sake of this web site I will try and stick to the "war stories"...
The flight deck became our second home while at sea. We would spend long hours up there ranging, launching, and replenishing aircraft. Our " fly's" as we were
reffered to, were responsible for forward. middle, and after parts of the flight deck. Fly-1 had the forward end. These guy's were the launch experts. Fly-2 was mid ships. We controlled movement, and start-ups. Fly-3 was aft and they carried outlandings, and rescues, as well as Fire Bottle stand bys. Each piece of equipment assigned to the fly's, was as important to their personal safety, as it was to the safe operation of the aircraft they were assigned. An item as simple as a ring bolt in the deck could save your life.
We had one Air Bosn who was of a small stature and always ready to do his share of the work, although he was only 90 lbs soaking wet, Jimmy was a guy who could be seen with chains around his waist to give him added weight while navigating a pitching flight deck. One day, I can recall seeing him heading forward with a fire bottle on a wheeled unit, the deck was pitching and everytime the bow dropped Jimmy would be airborn and full out behind the fire bottle until the bow came up, and then he would push for all he was worth to try and gain a few inches of deck before he went airborn again. Two or three of us would follow at a distance just in case he headed over the side. Keep in mind that when you work in close quarters with people you tend to look out for each other when it matters most. After the fueling, Jimmy had to return that fire bottle to fly-3 and that was another interesting movement. Going aft he was actually trying to stop the bottles forward movement by dragging his feet. This always facinated me because the movement of the ship never changed, just the direction of travel of the fire bottle. I always wondered why he didn't just fly back with it the way he was used to going forward. Your mind can play tricks on you I guess, and Jimmy was not going to let that Fire Bottle go off the stern of the ship.
Welcome to the flight deck:
Just as it is on any new job, people will go out of their way to make you feel at home. Air Bosn's have their own methods and one can only think back to a place called "Top Stores" for a bitterreminder of that first experience on the flight deck during night ops. Top stores was located at the after end of the island starboard side adjacent the funnel uptakes and just below flyco. The ships crane was a great vantage point for viewing the nights catch.
Top stores was a narrow space with seating on both sides. Getting a seat in there was a real battle at times especialy during inclement weather, but if you were new; no problem. Senior guy's would stand aside to allow you access but once the hatch was closed the welcome party began. The fly PO's never paid much attention to this area and screams unless followed by a loud splash usually went unnoticed. There is something to be said for sunbathing in the nude on a war ship full of men, but when your spread eagled between 4 ring bolts and covered with organic materials, such as musterd, honey, ketchup, etc in the middle of the night. It lends new meaning to the word centered out. Once the word got out people flocked from all sorts of areas to pay their respects, until a call to flying stations broke off the entertainment. Released from your confines you worked without benifit of a shower for the remainder of your watch, and dependant on your demeaner ,gave top stores a wide berth until you earned your place amongst your peers.
LOYALTY: to the crown, the government, the nation and the service. In Canada the armed forces are servants, not the masters of the people. The sailor is also proud of his loyalty to his messmates and shipmates, as evidenced by this old naval saying: "messmate before shipmate, shipmate before soldier, soldier before dog."In those days of course, soldiers were carried in warships, but when the fighting was done they were a hindrance to the ships company. I mention this fact only in passing on a bit of tradtion but it also is a good lead in to a story about two times we carried soldiers aboard the Bonaventure. Once was to Jamaica and the second time was to Narvik Norway. One trip involved the ROYAL CANADIAN REGIMENT, (RCR'S) a very proud and noble group of soldiers not even thinking about what fate awaited them at the hands of my 2delta1 messmates. The other was the ROYAL 22e' REGIMENT.
The first thing these soldiers noticed upon entering our mess was no shortage of towels, ropes, belts, even small pieces of string. We had attached everything so that it would swing with the roll of the ship. Sitting around and watching something do that can have a very diverse affect on your mind. Sick sickness is all in the mind, this is something our medical doctors keep telling us and although we know of sailors who get sick each and everytime a line is dropped, it is really something to see soldiers turn green and refuse to walk out of the ship's heads because they have no strength left to pull up their pants. These poor few soldiers assigned bunks in 2delta1mess I am sure will never forget their experience and the Bonaventure will always be a reminder to them of why they chose dry land.
THE SHIP: 1957-70
By the early 50's, the RCN had realized that Magnificent was going to need a successor. She was slow, her aircraft were begining to show their age, and her straight deck made landings difficult. There were several surplus vessels available, including USS Tarawa, and HMS Hermes, but the RCN had its sights set on HMS Powerful. She was a Majestic Class light fleet carrier laid down for the RN in 1943, and was basically complete, but was in mothballs in Belfast after the end of WWll. Many military-types had argued against acquiring Powerful because of her short, straight flight deck (only 207m/680') and relatively slow speed, both of which would makeoperating jets very difficult. However, the British apron-strings holding the RCN were strong, and on April 23, 1952, the Canadian government approved the $21 million purchase and refit of HMS Powerful.
To partially deal with the size limitations, the RCN had the carrier completed with an angled flight deck (a British inovation of a few years past), canted 8 degrees to port. This provided a longer run without sacrificing forward parking space, and allowed the removalof the unpopular crash barrier. So in Belfast, on January 17th, 1957,HMS Powerful was commissioned into the Royal Canadian Navy as HMCS Bonaventure. Also included in the refit was a newly-developed BS-4 Steam Catapult. This baby was situated port side forward and was right over the forward mess decks 2Delt1 & 2 Delta2. If you were in a deep sleep during the start of the launches I can garuntee, that you never missed the moment the Tracker hit the end of the flight deck rail. The noise and the shaking that followed the launch did, however, after a while become predictable and you could brace yourself against it. Air Bosn's never got much sleep at sea and really never required that much. We found other more dangerous places to fall asleep, like lying on the flight deck, manning your chalks under a roaring Aircraft engine just a few minutes away from taxi. A sharp "hey" followed by a swift boot in the ass had you up and alert ready to abandom ship at a moments notice. Geez, talk about an adrenalin rush, full awake, staring at a guy in a yellow jacket named "Hippo"with two wands and a full headset with goggles just after dreaming about being home in slackers with your girl in your arms. One guy I won't mention his name, pissed his pants and was not able to fall asleep easily for a month.
Sound Advice:I will never forget the trip we took to Bermuda and sailed right into the eye of a storm. We had stuff lashed down all over the ship and in the hangar a whole bunch of foam cans under a cargo net. One of the DDH's with us had a chopper problem and it had to fly over to us as it could not make it home. We had to arrange space in the hangar and C2 Harkins was the man chosen to get the job done. Along with a bunch of us to handle the work he proceeded to the hangar and instructed us to take the cargo net off the foam cans. Bad mistake! the foam cans became projectiles and started flying all over the place. A bunch of us jumped into the lift well to escape being injured. 3 or 4 guy's tried to go out the port side hatch into the passageway. The spare cat rail was lashed there and was opening and closing in time with the ship. One unfortunate Air Bosn stepped inside the rail as he headed for the hatch. Bam! the rail caught his foot as he went threw the hatch. The rest is history. We learned a valuable lesson that day, one we never forgot.
The Storm. Anyone who has ever been tagged as a flight deck sentry during a storm can relate to the fear of going over board during one; but how about being told you have to do a round or two of the aircraft lashed to the flight deck. Geez, was this C2 nuts. "don't worry we will have a rope around your waist and if anything happens we will pull you in".. thanks Chief but you can't see anything out there. As I felt my way from Tracker to Tracker adjusting lashings that had loosened I never expected that anyone else would be on a deck that was doing what this one was doing. From out of no were I am staring at the belt buckle of a guy 6' 11" tall. Hughey Ireland dropped from a Tracker hatch right in front of me. To say I was startled would be an understatement. Huey wanted to go back to the island and I was his ticket home, I guess he followed the trail back to the hatch because I never missed a step.
Jack Soble Fly-1: One of my fond memories of the Navy was "channel fever night" The Bonaventure had the best ones as some times we even had a stage set up. (usually located by "dino" the flight deck mobile crane). Channel fever night for those who don't know was the night before we landed in slackers (Halifax harbour) after a long cruise. There usually was loads of talent on aboard and somehow the beer and boot legged "grog"(rum) seemed to flow. If I remember correctly we could see the lights of slackers but had to spen time degauzing as the ship picked up a magnetic charge as we sailed, and we had to get rid of this charge before we docked to avoid an explosion. I believe that was why we done it, either way it made for a great excuse to havea party or "banjon".
Terry Farrell: I have a short story about my time on the Bonnie and under the Cat. I was not an Air Bosn but I did get to sleep (if you call it sleep, under the Cat) It all took place in 1962 when I was a Steward ( I know that is a dirty word) with 870 Squadron, the Banshee's out of HMCS Shearwater. We went aboard for 5 days but that was all I ever wanted under the Cat. I do mean it, I guess because I was a lowly Steward and only there for 5 days the mess chief gave me the upper most bunk, I don't think anyone slept there under normal conditions, but things were a bit full that trip. Anyway I didn't get much sleep during those 5 days. When I was lying in my rack; if I lifted my head more than 6 inches I would hit the rails of the Cat, and I know that most of you would not know just how loud that Cat was when it launched a bird. I can tell you that it is very loud indeed. That time spent on the Bonnie gave me a deep appreciation of just what all the flight deck crews and trades did aboard the old girl. Bravo Zulu.
Until next time
Bob Norris: When I was first drafted to the Bonnie, I was a low life OD (ordinary seaman) and knew nothing about what life would be like at sea. When I got on the ship and found my way to 2Alfa mess (as it was known when I was aboard) I noticed an empty top bunk and claimed it right away.
You guessed it; it was the one right under the cat, just in front of the Howda. In fact if I wasn't careful I would bash my head as I tried to get into my bunk, which was the fourth one high. On my first cruise I found out why this bunk was empty.
It shook and bounced a few inches every time a tracker was shot off the catapault. I got used to it after a couple of weeks and never had to fight to keep my top bunk. I had a great time on the Bonnie; She was a great ship.
I can recall one time riding brakes on a tracker after a landing sequence. We had to move them forward to refuel. I had never done this job before and was quite taken with all the gauges and switches a pilot has to memorize and activate as he flies around. Above was an escape hatch which we opened just in case of an emergency.
While reaching for the hatch lever without looking up I accidently activated a fire bottle in the starboard engine. Everything came to a halt on deck and the next thing I knew a CPO2 was looking strangly at me from the flight deck. He kept his vigilance while cocking his head sideways for a better look at my face. This struck me kind of funny although I knew I had done a big no no with the fire bottle.
He motioned to me to exit the aircraft. Once on the flight deck he explained in a very pleasent voice that the expellent can cause suicidle tendancy's in anyone coming in contact with it. He then had a PO and Leading seaman escourt me to sit bay where I was sat on a bench for about 2 hrs while being observed by the sick bay tiffie.
I always wondered why no one on the flight deck was taken down because on the starboard side we had a chock walker and a lasher as well as the CPO2 himself. All three of them would be more susceptable to the discharge than myself who was inside the aircraft.
A Sailor's fate is sealed
"Dear Mom and Dad,
Have just finished a hard day at boat rowing. We take another inoculation tomorrow and am I looking forward to it, Oh Boy! We had rifle drill all week. Gee, to think I used to like playing with guns... I heard we will be drafted to the ships in March...That's about all there is to say so write soon, love, Fred."
When Fred Mills joined the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in 1938, the 17-year-old could not foresee that one year later, he would find himself clinging to a piece of frozen debris in the dark seas of the Atlantic. His ship, HMCS Fraser, would be split into three pieces after the British cruiser, HMS Calcutta, bore into her.
The Winnipeg-born Mills was sent to HMCS Naden in Victoria for basic recruit training and after arriving in Esquimalt, he met another young navy hopeful, Brian Hanson.
"We went through all basic training from tying knots to climbing ropes. They even taught us how to make up charges and blow up stumps," said Mr. Hanson, 81, adding that he was never able to climb the rope in training. In the spring of 1939, they were both posted to their first ship- HMCS Fraser. Mr. Hanson said as boy seamen on board Fraser, the two acted more as observers than anything else.
"As boys, we didn't take part in much. You were allocated to lookouts or simply did what officers told you to do," he said.
In August, Fraser and her crew set sail from Esquimalt to Halifax and made record time when they arrived 14 days later. During its transit through the Panama Canal, Canada declared war on Germany. Arriving in Halifax, Fraser had only two days to fill up her tanks before she was sent to sea in a convoy. The British built destroyer served as an escort group command vessel and played a major role in the anti-submarine war.
"It was time to get on with it," said Mr. Hanson, reflecting the mindset of most sailors during that time. But months at sea in dangerous war conditions took its toll.
"Dear Mom and Dad,
I received your first purchase of cigarettes and you don't know how welcome they were. I still have my fingernails, but I smoke quite a bit. My nerves are all right. I'm getting used to the raids by now...I can't tell you about the ship because the censors won't allow it and besides it isn't very nice. I'd like to forget it...Fred"
In June 1940, Germany had forced the evacuation of France. Thousands of ships fled the harbour at Dunkirk, England to help the French. Fraser was amidst the mayhem and was ordered to head off to Bordeaux to rescue refugees trying to escape. Two other ships were given the same orders: HMCS Restigouche and HMS Calcutta.
It was night time and all three ships proceeded along their course without lighting, which could give away their location to the enemy. Fraser changed her course to take position at Calcutta's stern, but Calcutta assumed Fraser was on another course. The two collided, splitting the smaller Fraser into three pieces. The bridge, still containing sailors, remained on the bow of Calcutta all the way to England.
At the time of the collision, Mills was on the bridge as the lookout and Hanson had just come off his watch and was taking a nap. Mills was pitched into the sea and Hanson was stuck down below.
"Suddenly I'm wide awake standing in the corner and I can't figure out what's gone on," said Mr. Hanson.
He was stranded where the ship was cut open and waves of water were gushing in. He chose to ride a wave out to sea, and swam to a neighbouring ship for rescue. The young Mills was scooped from the sea by Leading Seaman J.R. Ross in Restigouche.
Both Hanson and Mills had spent a few hours bobbing in the freezing cold water ingesting the spilt fuel oil before being rescued.
Out of Fraser's 163 crewmembers, 47 died that night.
Hanson recovered the next day after a night of vomiting, but a wounded arm forced Mills to take several months of recovery time at a Naval Hospital in Plymouth, England.
"Dear Mom and Dad...
The nurses here are all swell, one gave me a silver Catholic charm of St. Christopher and made me promise to wear it. What a laugh, what we need is a suit of armour...Au revoir, with love to all, Fred"
With a brush with death behind him, Fred Mills carried on his career. He was promoted to Leading Seaman after completing a submarine detector course, and his fellow shipmate Hanson was moved to Able Seaman.
The replacement ship for Fraser was HMCS Margaree and most of the survivors from Fraser, including Hanson and Mills, were posted over to her.
On Oct. 22, 1940, during a mission to Halifax, 400 miles off the coast of Ireland, another fateful collision took place.
Margaree was without lights and radar, leaving it blind in the rough and dark seas of the "sub-zone" or "no man's land", where there were no planes to protect them from the German U-boats. A 12,000-ton freighter called the Port Fairy was heading for Australia with a shipment of aircraft parts and did not see the smaller Margaree. It smashed straight into her, ripping her apart and sending her bow crashing to the seabed.
The ship's captain and 141 of his men were lost that night, including 19-year-old LS Fred Mills.
"There wasn't a sound, nobody yelling, they went straight to the bottom," said Mr. Hanson, who was in his compartment at the time and rushed to the bridge the moment he felt Margaree lurch.
He remembers a merchant ship coming alongside to rescue the 30 survivors, and was given orders by an officer on Margaree to throw down a rope. It came down and two men were ordered one after the other to climb it, but both failed and fell to their deaths between the two ships. Hanson was the third man ordered up the rope.
"I climbed right from the word 'go', I climbed up like a monkey," he said. "[In basic training] I couldn't climb a rope worth a darn."
Dear Mom and Dad...
I have a good poem for you:
Dear Old England
A sailor stood at the Pearly Gates,
His face was scarred and old,
He stood before the Man of Fate for admittance to the Fold.
St. Peter said 'What have you done to gain admission here?'
He said 'I've been in England almost a bloody year.'
The Pearly Gates swung open wide,
St. Peter rang the bell
'Come in and chance yourself a harp,' he said
'You've had your share of hell.'..."
Brian Hanson remained in the navy until 1945, when he was deemed medically unfit due to a growth in his knee and deafness in one ear. He joined the army reserves for the next seven years and also worked in Dockyard in CFB Esquimalt as an electrician, becoming an administrator until his retirement in 1972.
This story was taken from the Esquimalt Lookout and is worth adding to this site...
I am probably the youngest person to ever 'serve' on the Bonnie. In 1968 the Bonnie sailed from Shearwater to Belfast and my Dad. - Lt. Herbert D. Mercer took me with him because I went to boarding school in Scotland and the Bonnie was docking in Belfast a few days before school opened in September. I was 12 years old. During the week on board, I bussed tables in an Officers Mess for the morning and spent the afternoons with the RC Chaplain. When I went to come back to Halifax for Christmas, I had no entry visa from Belfast - (Dad forgot to declare me to immigration in Belfast - oops!) - so here was a 12 year old, leaving Prestwick explaining to British Customs how I came over on an aircraft carrier to Belfast in September! Not sure they really believed me but I have never fogotten the looks on their faces! - and I did make it home for Christmas.
Leslie Blair Mercer
I do have some old photos from Cornwallis and some off the Bonnie,have movies but they are faded and would give anything to get them restored ,but I do not know where I can get them done, got some great shots at sea on our way from England to Cuba, what a storm, was on the flight deck , which was out of bounds at the time because of rough seas but I needed to get the movie of the Bonnie hit the huge waves, acutally I even thought of riding one right into it but the wind was so strong could not manouver past the island, finally got tired of trying and was the only hand on the flight deck,finally abandoned my stupid venture .Was on the Bonnie when we went overseas and picked up survivors off Shannon Ireland in a plane crash. I do have the Crowsnest from that event. Was hauled away from London England as ship was called to sea to backup the Cuban Crisis. Has a great time, met a lot of great guys and cannot remember C1 Master at Arms , I always liked him, forget his name but some of the guys did not like him. Was just an OD at the time , favorite P2 was a great guy PO2 Hinder,Ibelieve that since 40 years have gone by my favorite buddy is no longer with us.. If the entire crew could get together we should have a great time..Do not know if Stadcona is still around as I am thinking of taking a trip to Slackers sometime in the next six months. I was in Restigouce Division I Jan 1962, had a great time. Joined HMCS Chippawa the Peg.
I went aboard the Bonnie in the early 60’s as a very young, wet behind the ears, OD. I worked in fly one as an AM and my PO assigned me the task of responding with a wheeled 50 lb CO2 unit in the event of a crash on deck. My training consisted of reading the instructions on the bottle. Up to that point I’d never actually seen a CO2 extinguisher used. A couple of weeks into the cruise we had a crash. This tracker landed too far to the port side and dropped its wheel down into the sponson. The prop dug into the deck and there was all kinds of sparks, noise and banging all occurring at the same time. Being well trained with this cumbersome wheeled unit, I grabbed it and responded to the crash. When I got to the plane there wasn’t any fire and no evidence of fuel spillage so I just stood there for a moment trying to think of what else I could do. I turned around to ask someone and to my surprise, I was the only one on the flight deck. Everyone had the brains to run and get out of the way but in my ignorance I ran towards the crash. I actually arrived before the props stopped turning. Since all AM’s were highly capable of knowing what to do next I decided that it would be prudent to get a hose line laid out. I went over to the starboard side and jumped into a sponson and grabbed a fire hose out of a cabinet. The second person to respond was a petty officer and I handed the hose to him and he grabbed it by the nozzle and started to pull it out walking backwards. Still thinking in a calm logical manner, I decided that there was no use having a hose line laid out and not have water in it so I cranked the valve open. Well, 60lbs of water pressure on a 2-1/2” hose will have an immediate effect, especially when 10 feet of it was still in the cabinet. That hose straighten out like a shot and when I looked up all I could see was the PO bouncing around on his butt all over the flight deck. Fortunately the nozzle was shut off and I have to hand it too him, he never let go of that hose. Still in the logical thinking mode I decided that it was now time to get back to my trusty CO2 unit. Later on the PO went around asking who handed him the hose. After 47 years I must now confess, PO it was me.
Then there was the time Roy and I got into a paint fight in the aft lift well, but that’s another story.