by Allan W. Waddy
As a sailor on board Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship St. Croix (2nd) during the mid-1960s, I had the honour to be a member of the Royal Canadian Navy in the exciting era prior to the unification of the Canadian Forces in 1968. We wore blues, saluted the White Ensign, and many of us, including me, served in new destroyer escorts, operationally known as DDEs.
Built by Marine Industries Ltd. of Sorel, Que., and commissioned in October 1958, St. Croix was an impressive looking warship. She was 366 feet long, sleek in design and boasted one of the finest mess decks in the navy. It was indeed a treat to be posted to a DDE mostly because the older tribal-class destroyers maintained what was commonly known as broadside messing, and sleeping quarters that consisted of hammocks or mics.
Broadside messing presented numerous challenges for the mess boy or junior member of the mess because the unfortunate lad would have to crawl out of his mic, throw on his sea boots—footwear that was usually found sloshing around in the scupper water on deck—and, upon landing on deck, make his way midships to the galley where he would draw rations for each member of his particular mess deck. This was generally an awkward task that posed various health risks, especially in rough weather because food was carried in open pots and served with ladles that weren’t always sanitary.
The DDEs on the other hand, introduced cafeteria-style messing, and metal bunks—affectionately known as racks—that replaced the hammock-style sleeping quarters.
The majority of the senior chief and petty officers on St. Croix were World War II or Korean War veterans, and their nautical demeanour and shipboard professionalism was most evident. As a 20-year-old able seaman I was continually awed and stimulated by the activity level and by the different personalities on board.
My favourite character was the stern and salty chief engineer, a veteran chief petty officer first class who could instill fear in all those who came near him or had the bad judgment to look into his piercing eyes. He was salty and very much in charge of everything that rotated, hummed or required oil. He was an exciting man and I found myself drawn to his world of steam, turbines, engines, grease and mechanical noise. Although I was in a different department and did not directly work for the chief, the engine and boiler room was a mysterious no-no land and I was inexplicably drawn to that sphere of activity.
In the fall of 1965, St. Croix was at the dockyard in Esquimalt, B.C., undergoing a major refit. Some may recall that earlier in the year, while involved in an operational exercise off San Diego, Calif., she had sustained considerable hull damage, the result of a blast test. For the rest of her life St. Croix maintained a port list, an anomaly that aided us in locating her in foreign ports. St. Croix’s hull number was 256, but we did not have to be standing broadside of her to find our favourite lady.
In September 1966—on completion of her refit—the new commanding officer and the remainder of the ship’s complement came on board. Later that year we set out to sea, commenced sea trials, followed by work ups. Work ups consisted of three weeks of operational readiness training, during which time the sea trials staff were on board evaluating our performance. This is usually a stressful time because the crew is learning to work together to harmonize the ship’s operational readiness.
In the early part of 1967 we settled down into sea routine and the engineering department commenced Revel exercises, operationally known as Revolution Exercises, whereby the ship’s five-bladed variable pitch screws were tested at high and low revolutions. It was during this phase, while slowly steaming down the coast of California that I observed the chief engineer’s morning routine of lashing a large salmon fishing rod to the ship’s stern guardrail.
On the first of many occasions, I was standing morning watch on the quarterdeck. It was minutes before the sun came over the horizon—a very peaceful and serene time at sea—when I was startled from my reverie by the loud bang of the engine room hatch on the starboard side of the main flats.
Seconds later I saw the chief engineer strolling through the mortar well resplendent in white coveralls and a battered and greasy steamer cap. The chief climbed the starboard quarterdeck hatch to the upper deck and in three fluid moves strode across the quarterdeck, halted at the stern guardrail, looked out over the horizon and began lashing his fishing rod to the guardrail. In utter silence I watched from the shadows as the chief tossed his line over the stern and into the churning sea. Within seconds he had set the reel drag and retreated back to the confines of the engine room.
Being naturally curious, I cautiously crept over to the stern rail and, without touching the fishing rod, made a mental note of the complex knots securing it to the railing.
Over the next several weeks I had the occasion to witness this pre-dawn ritual many times. Unfortunately, the chief was not catching any fish and his demeanour and mood became increasingly dour. It was on one particularly beautiful morning while standing the forenoon watch that I devised my plan and set it in motion right after observing morning divisions on the quarterdeck. I went to work quickly, without drawing attention to myself or my mission. I knew full well that within seconds after the command bosun mate piped Stand Easy, the off watch engineers, weapons and deck department personnel would begin gathering on the quarterdeck for coffee and cigarettes.
It wasn’t long before the quarterdeck was full of sailors and, as most sailors are childlike in large gatherings, I knew they would unknowingly participate in the event I had so carefully prepared for the chief engineer.
Sensing the time was right, I casually meandered to the after guardrail and made a point of showing a young stoker—an obvious minion of the chief engineer—the fact that the chief’s fishing rod was erratically thrashing back and forth at the railing. To an experienced eye, one would surmise that the chief engineer had finally hooked the big one.
Upon realizing the frantic movement of the fishing rod, the young, but very loyal stoker was easily manipulated into racing off to get the chief engineer. In a flash he started for the engine room. As expected, the sailors on the upper deck heard the commotion and began gathering around the bouncing and thrashing fishing rod. Knowing that no one would dare touch the chief’s fishing gear, I waited for the arrival of the chief engineer.
Seconds later I heard the familiar and expected bang of the engine room hatch, saw the chief engineer resplendent in white coveralls and greasy steamer, rushing through the mortar well with the young stoker in his wake. The aging, but agile chief cleared the mortar well, raced through the tiller flats and then flew up the after starboard hatch, ascending the quarterdeck in a single bound.
The respectful and mesmerized crowd parted like the Red Sea as the capable and confident chief engineer evaluated the situation and began tearing off the knots securing the rod to the rail. I melted into the gathering crowd and watched in eager anticipation as the chief began reeling in the line. For some unknown reason the ship began to slow down as if the chief engineer had ordered a reduction in revolutions. However, this had to have been a coincidence, as everyone on board knew that the captain was master of the ship.
Anyhow, as the chief was fighting with the thrashing rod, one of the observers, who was leaning out over the guardrail screamed: “It’s a big one chief! I saw a flash of silver!” With renewed vigour, the chief wound the reel harder. My heart swelled with pride as I watched the salty old chief pit his wiles against the sea.
Seconds later we all heard a loud clank; the sound of metal striking metal and, looking over the stern, 30 or 40 pairs of eyes saw the trophy at the end of the chief’s line. Within seconds the quarterdeck cleared and I was left standing alone beside the chief engineer, dwarfed by his size and omnipotence.
As the chief wound the 30-pound test line and hook to the top of the guardrail, a large silver pre-sealed tin labelled Kippers came into view. Before I could make my escape with the rest of the knowing crew, the chief engineer turned, stared directly into my eyes with a withering look, smiled and said: “Sailor, you have been busy on the morning watch.”
Editor’s note: St. Croix (2nd) spent her active service life on the West Coast. She was eventually transferred to the East Coast where she served as a stationary training ship. In 1991, she was towed to the coast of Virginia and broken up. The first St. Croix, which was completed in 1919, was a town-class destroyer. On July 24, 1942 she sank U-90 in the mid-Atlantic, and on March 4, 1943, while accompanying a convoy from Britain to Algeria she assisted the corvette Shediac in destroying U-87 off Portugal. Her luck ran out on Sept. 20, 1943 when she was torpedoed and sunk by U-305 south of Iceland. Five of her officers and 76 men were rescued by His Majesty’s Ship Itchen, but only one of these survived the loss of Itchen two days later when she was torpedoed by U-666.