Guitars and battleships

Image Gallery

Lifestyle - Life at Sea / April 25, 2016

By Lieutenant (Navy) Brendan Ryan

Lengthy deployments provide unique challenges to service members and their families. Thankfully, technology has bridged some of the gaps created by the separation of sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen from their loved ones by allowing them to communicate virtually in real time. Unfortunately, not all the comforts of home are able to be replicated.

For me, my passion is music. During those increasingly rare moments of actual down time, I enjoy breaking out my guitar and playing a few comforting tunes from down home. During a 2008 Standing Naval Force Mediterranean deployment aboard HMCS St. John’s, I managed to stow away my mandolin. Likewise, other crew members had managed to bring along their instruments, and we were able to form a band (aptly named Crash on Deck, or COD). Not only was it a sense of pride for the ship to have its own band, but it provided much comfort on an individual level.

I recall another story, relayed to me by my grandmother, which also highlights the desire for such comforts in operational and often dangerous environments. My grandfather, Harvey Mouland, enlisted in the Royal Navy from Bonavista, NL, in 1939 and served at sea in various ships as an anti-aircraft gunner until the end of the war. An extremely talented musician, he had purchased a new guitar in London while on shore leave. Proudly, he brought his guitar aboard HMS Berkeley and stored it in his bunk space, eager to play while off watch. Little did he know that this affair with his newfound partner would last but a few days.

On the night of August 18, 1942, Berkeley left port as part of the naval escorting force for Operation Jubilee. On August 19, while supporting the landings on the beaches of Dieppe, Berkeley was struck by two bombs from a German aircraft that broke her keel and flooded the engine room, killing 13 sailors. The captain ordered “abandon ship.” After freeing himself from a fallen ladder and other debris that had pinned him to his gun position, my grandfather waded in the water until being rescued several hours later. 

While recovering from his injuries in London, he mourned the loss of several of his comrades, and jokingly, the loss of his brand new guitar. He quickly purchased another, surely to console him in this difficult time. Throughout the war my grandfather was called upon by his comrades to regale them in song. Such comforts were so important during the war that Margot Davies, the Honorary Assistant Secretary of the War Comforts Committee at the Newfoundland Office in London, established a 30-minute bi-weekly BBC radio show titled “Calling to Newfoundland from Britain.” Here, Ms. Davies endeavoured to provide respite from the stressors of war and to connect fellow Newfoundlanders with their families back home. My grandfather was honoured to have been asked, on at least one occasion, to play some comforting tunes on air during one of these shows, one of which he dedicated to the girl he would later marry in Bonavista while home on shore leave.

Why a common guitar?

While my guitar story pales in comparison to my grandfather’s, I recently had the privilege of presenting a repatriated guitar from Afghanistan to the Crow’s Nest, a private naval officers’ club in St. John’s. With so many possibilities to bring back an assortment of military artifacts from Afghanistan to add to the wonderful collection housed there, why a common guitar, you might ask? 

Whenever possible I return to my home province for November 11 and attend Remembrance Day ceremonies at the provincial cenotaph in downtown St. John’s. In 2013, as is customary, I visited the Crow’s Nest after the ceremony to raise a pint to our fallen comrades. Knowing that I would be deploying in December for my second tour, I asked long-time friend and club executive member Lionel Clarke if there was something I could try and bring back to add to the collection. Explaining that the club was quickly running out of space to display artifacts, he jokingly said “maybe a guitar to add to the piano.”

Prior to returning from Kabul, I wrote to club president Margaret Morris to indicate my desire to contribute something to its collection. After she expressed the club’s desire to keep the theme naval and predominantly in commemoration of the club’s origins during the Battle of the Atlantic, I wondered how I could honour the thousands of Newfoundlanders and sailors who served in Afghanistan, Canada’s largest conflict in 50 years. Surely there was some way to pay homage to them in this special place and remind visitors that although great naval battles seem to be a thing of the past, our sailors continue to play vital roles in operations all over the globe – on land, at sea and in the air. 

During my first tour in Kandahar in 2008-2009 I was delighted to see so many morale items sent from Canada to various locations within the Canadian area of operations. Service members of all ranks relied on the generous support and donations from government services and private citizens to help us relax and take a short mental break from the stresses and high tempo of operations. One such item was a guitar that I had played there. Surprisingly, just a few days before leaving Camp Phoenix, Kabul, this guitar reappeared.

Reflecting on Mr. Clarke’s suggestion from a few months earlier, a guitar for the Crow’s Nest made perfect sense. While this guitar, and many like items, had already been transferred to the Morale and Welfare Services of the American Forces remaining there, I asked the American commander for permission to take this back to Canada for donation to the Crow’s Nest. He wholeheartedly agreed.

Oceans of sand

This particular guitar had “been around the buoy” so to speak, in the oceans of sand in southwest Asia. While a fairly common model and plain design, a few painted insignias and battle scars show its pedigree.

This guitar had comforted many servicemen and servicewomen in Afghanistan, bringing pleasant thoughts and reminders of those things so dear, but oceans away. It had entertained troops in Forward Operating Base Masam Gahr, Camp Nathan Smith, and Kandahar Airfield in Kandahar province, as well as at International Security Assistance Force headquarters and Camp Phoenix in Kabul.

My hope is that this guitar will continue to entertain serving and retired members, and conjure up a ditty or two. I encourage all who read this to visit the Crow’s Nest during your next visit to St. John’s, to share your stories with the fine members of the club, and maybe even regale them with a song on this special guitar.