Prairie Sailors & the Naval Museum of Manitoba

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LINK - April 2017 / May 31, 2017

By A/SLt Iain Frame, HMCS Chippawa

Winnipeg, Manitoba - When one thinks of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the cities associated with it names such as Halifax and Victoria/Esquimalt come to mind. Winnipeg, Manitoba is not usually included on this list. Located at the longitudinal centre of Canada, over 1,000 km from the nearest ocean, Winnipeg is more often associated with cold winters and mosquitoes than the senior service. But delve a little deeper and the prairie city's close ties to the sea can be found.

Winnipeg is home to HMCS Chippawa, a Naval Reserve division founded in 1923 to help increase the presence of the Navy across the country. HMCS Chippawa has seen many conflicts and trying times but one thing has remained constant over her 93 years of history, true to her motto of 'SERVICE' she is always ready to serve.

During the Second World War HMCS Chippawa recruited 297 officers and 7,567 sailors for the RCN and raised the second largest contingent of Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) volunteers in Canada. Making it the third largest source of recruits despite her land locked location. These men and women worked both ashore and at sea, to help bring about the end of the war. Sailors from HMCS Chippawa participated in the longest battle of the war, the Battle of the Atlantic and not all of them returned home. Following the war Winnipeg and HMCS Chippawa continued to contribute to the operational success of the RCN with sailors serving in many capacities during the Korean Conflict, Cold War, and in the ensuing years.

With these sailors in mind the Naval Museum of Manitoba was established in 1980. Located within HMCS Chippawa the museum is dedicated to preserving the history and heritage of Manitoba's naval personnel by telling their stories through the preservation and display of important artifacts and stories. As well, over the years the museum has provided a place for Winnipeg's naval veterans to come and socialize with their brethren. Every Wednesday, men, such as Bob Watkins, Bert Jolly and Harold Hughes all veterans of the Second World War and Al Smith, veteran of the cold war RCN and current President of the White Ensign Club veterans association and member of the Board of Directors for the Naval Museum, come to HMCS Chippawa. They spend their time volunteering in the museum; helping to preserve the heritage they helped build, as well as taking the opportunity to visit with old friends. They are joined by current museum Curator Claude Rivard and Chair of the Display Committee, Mike Shortridge, who, along with a team of dedicated volunteers, are the driving force behind the museum and the efforts to increase awareness about Manitoba's naval heritage.

I had a chance to sit down with a few of these dedicated volunteers who are also Navy veterans and learn a little about their experiences in the Navy as well as what the Naval Museum of Manitoba and HMCS Chippawa mean to them.

Bob Watkins joined the RCN in July 1943 at the age of 18. The decision to join the RCN was an easy one as he had spent time in the sea cadet corps, had many friends already in the RCN and, as he put it, "there was a war going on." Trained as a radar plotter and quartermaster he spent the majority of the war in the North Atlantic participating in the Battle of the Atlantic escorting convoys between North America and the United Kingdom. Spending a total of 13 years in uniform, 3 during the war as a member of the regular force and an additional 10 as a reservist with HMCS Chippawa, Mr. Watkins reflects back on his times in the navy with pride. When asked what some of his most vivid memories of his time in the navy are Mr. Watkins recalls participating in the sinking of U-1006 while a member of HMCS Loch Achanalt with HMCS Annan. As well as an instance where, when HMCS Loch Achanalt was off the coast of England, a mine was spotted floating on the surface. Mr. Watkins was tasked with destroying the mine, using an Oerlikon cannon he was "able to sink the mine but couldn't get it to blow!"

After the war Mr. Watkins left the RCN to work with Winnipeg Transit but the call of the sea was hard to ignore and in 1949 he joined HMCS Chippawa as a reservist. He has served in a variety of positions including spending 10 years on the Board of Directors of the Navy League, a term as the National Vice-President of the Navy league and President of the Naval Officers Association of Canada Winnipeg Branch. Mr. Watkins was the first President of the Naval Museum of Manitoba in 1980 and has served on the Board of Directors ever since. As well, Mr. Watkins has honoured HMCS Chippawa by speaking at many different occasions including her 50th Anniversary and numerous Battle of the Atlantic Ceremonies. Into his nineties now, Mr. Watkins has become a fixture at HMCS Chippawa with ties stretching back over 7 decades. He takes pride in the Naval Museum and HMCS Chippawa and sees in them a way to preserve the heritage he helped build.

Burt Jolly joined the RCN in March 1944. When asked why he chose the navy he grins and quips "they were the only ones who would take me!" Having been first turned away from the Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) for poor eyesight I ask him why he believes the Navy chose to overlook this fact. "Simple," he says "the recruiter looked at me and told me 'stokers don't need to see!" Mr. Jolly spent a total of two years in the navy during the war serving as a stoker on corvettes performing convoy escort duty during the Battle of the Atlantic. After his discharge in November 1945 he became a certified machinist, eventually finding his way back to the armed forces joining the Air Reserve and spending 5 years with 402 Squadron as a bartender. Reflecting on his time in the RCN, Mr. Jolly recalls being in New York City after the war had ended and attending a ball room dance with some of his shipmates. Finding the punch served not to their tastes the sailors instructed their hosts in how to make a good stiff punch and then had a boisterous good time.

Mr. Jolly joined the Naval Museum of Manitoba in 1980 putting his skills as a machinist to good use helping to fix pews and refurbish the 4 inch gun that is now located on HMCS Chippawa's quarterdeck and over the ensuing years continued to put his skills to use whenever a museum artefact needed refurbishing. Now 91 years old, Mr. Jolly, raising his hands, laments his great sadness that he is "no longer being able to help out by working with my hands." While he may no longer be able to help repair artefacts Mr. Jolly continues to be an active participant in the Naval Museum of Manitoba and comments that the comradery is "great for me, it gets me out of the house." In addition to the time he spends at HMCS Chippawa with the Naval Museum Mr. Jolly spends 2 days a week volunteering with the Air Museum.

Initially intending to join the RCAF Mr. Harold Hughes was turned away due to poor eyesight. Not to be discouraged, he became aware of the Navy's need for experienced machinists while reading a newspaper article. Mr. Hughes, a trained machinist, jumped at the opportunity and on December 29, 1942 he joined the RCN. The early portion of his career was spent training in Hamilton and Halifax for his new position as a stoker, more specifically as an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) apprentice, where he learned about "all the machines of the ships, what they did and how to fix them". Upon completion of his training Mr. Hughes was sent to St. John's, Newfoundland, and from there to the fleet. His first sea posting was to the destroyer HMCS Niagara where he learned to apply the skills he had acquired during training and, in his own words, "learned how to really be a stoker." After HMCS Niagara Mr. Hughes spent 1944-1945 on HMCS Lanark working as an ERA while the ship escorted convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic. In 1945 he was sent to HMCS Outremont, where he qualified as a watch keeping ERA as the war ended. Regarding his time at sea, Mr. Hughes comments that the "convoy work was boring and monotonous but at least I was on a frigate and not a corvette" referring to the notoriously uncomfortable and wet, nature of life at sea on a small corvette.

After the war, Mr. Hughes worked for Canadian National Railway as a machinist. He also spent 46 years working for the Canadian Grain Commission as a machinist. His first experience with HMCS Chippawa came in the winter of 1949-1950 when, though not at that time a member of the military, he was transferred from his Transcona hockey team to the HMCS Chippawa team where he played for several years. It was not until 2000 that Mr. Hughes again became associated with HMCS Chippawa when he joined the museum after having been encouraged to do so by some of the museum staff. He has worked there ever since. When asked what it is about the museum that keeps him coming back Mr. Hughes, like Mr. Watkins and Mr. Jolly, speaks to the community of likeminded people and the sense of camaraderie that he gets from being part of the organization, almost as if he never left the Navy.

It is through the dedicated efforts of museum volunteers like Mr. Watkins, Mr. Jolly and Mr. Hughes, as well as all the members of the organization, that the legacy of Manitoba's prairie sailors is kept alive. True to HMCS Chippawa's motto of 'SERVICE' these men and women have dedicated themselves to preserving that legacy. Through their service the Naval Museum of Manitoba has become a naval pearl in the heart of the prairies.