ALGONQUIN’S LAST HURRAH
by Peter Magwood
The famous, old destroyer looked forlorn, with rust streaked sides and upper decks in disarray, as she lay in the icy Dosco drydock in north end Halifax that February weekend in 1967. With no one about, except a cold quartermaster and bosn’s mate at the gangway, HMCS ALGONQUIN was high and dry for repairs to her port quarter after a mishap in Halifax harbor earlier that year. A large chunk of her hull had been cut neatly away, top to bottom, by dockyard workers and plates welded into place to make her ready for her final transit to the West Coast in February - April 1967.
I joined her on a Saturday morning and we were to leave at 8 a.m., Monday, Feb. 27, with the destroyer escorts CRESCENT (DDE 226) and the newer COLUMBIA (DDE 260) for a 6,900 nautical-mile cruise to what was planned to be a new training future -- and lease on life -- for the three ships. I was a 22-year-old boatswain on continuous naval duty from HMCS CARLETON, Ottawa, and had only seen the RCN’s publicity pictures of the famous warship. But I was fascinated by her prototype, pre-205-class superstructure which contrasted sharply with her Second World War hull, with a twin, 3-in. 50-cal. gun forward and an older twin, 4-in. mount and two, triple-barrelled anti-submarine mortars aft.
And there she was, in the shipyard, a special ship, unique, perhaps not as graceful looking as the “Cadillacs” of the day, but she exuded power and history. I was proud to switch my CARLETON cap tally to that of HMCS ALGONQUIN. Looking back, it was like becoming part of history. I had joined more than 600 officers and men who had embarked in ALGONQUIN, under LCdr L. A. Dzioba; CRESCENT, LCdr R. G. Guy, and COLUMBIA, Cdr. R. D. Okros, along with some 163 other reservists and sea cadets from across Canada. Early Monday morning, and out of drydock, we freed the frozen manilla hawsers from the jetty and turned to form up in Bedford Basin, COLUMBIA leading, to salute the flag of the Commander Maritime Command on our way down the harbor.
Small groups of family and friends braved the chilly February morning air to wave farewell from the vantage point of Jetty 5. At 11 a.m., we were on our way south, at the stately speed of four knots allowed in Halifax harbor, for the kinder, gentler climes of the West Coast. The dartboard planners at MarCom had scheduled stops for us at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Balboa, Canal Zone; Manzanillo, Mexico, for fuel, and San Francisco, Calif. But there was an unplanned three day call at the U.S. naval base at Norfolk, Va., for emergency repairs to some of Dosco’s welding work.
HMCS ALGONQUIN, with part-ship hands fallen in, passes by HMCS TERRA NOVA (left background) and HMCS HAIDA, in HMC Dockyard, Halifax, in the late-1950s. The number 1 on ALGONQUIN’s funnel indicates she was in the First Canadian Escort Squadron. The brand-new TERRA NOVA contrasts sharply with the rust-stained, funnel-covered HAIDA which also wears number one on her after stack. (Canadian Forces Photo)
HMCS ALGONQUIN’S NOR’EASTER
Winter is always hard on ships in the North Atlantic and our trip down the eastern seaboard was no exception. Two days out of Halifax, we ran into a nor’easter that saw ALGONQUIN plunging into troughs and knifing through seas in the way her hull was designed to, throwing sheets of spray over the superstructure and soaking anyone caught on the open bridge. The upper decks were out of bounds and weather jackets, mitts, seaboots and long underwear were the order of the day for the deck watches. This was my first, real North Atlantic storm and I remember getting drenched one middle watch on lookout on the bridge. Standing on the port side, unable to see past the eyes of the ship in the pitch black night off Boston, a large sea "whumped" into the port side of the destroyer and I tumbled hard into the bridge's starboard side as the ship rolled and slid alarmingly in that direction. That was my first experience, in the open, with an “out-of-phase” wave and I will never forget that hilly, black North Atlantic seascape and the dull shock of ice cold sea water that soaked my parka, face, trousers and boots.
The killick of my watch, LS Bill Big Canoe, a taciturn, three-badged Ojibwa from Brantford, Ont., took the storm in stride and he was a welcome sight the next night while I was on lifebuoy sentry (usually on the quarterdeck but because of the weather the post was moved to just aft of the 4-in. mount) when he provided me with a warm pair of lined hunter's leather mittens. The relentless, pounding North Atlantic was taking a toll on ALGONQUIN’s recently repaired port quarter. I was bunked on the starboard side of 10 mess, just above the screws, and the guys on the port side were commenting about how the bulkhead was flexing as the ship pitched and rolled. It was not long before D/C parties had shored up part of the 10 mess bulkhead with 4 X 4 timbers and by the time we were off the state of Maryland, we had more than a few inches of cold seawater sloshing around the deck tiles and bootlockers. It was a struggle, before going on watch, to put boots on while lying in the bunk, then having to splash around the deck to finish getting dressed, hoping most of the water would stay on the port side for a few moments. This probably was as close to life on a Second World War corvette as I was going to get, I thought.
The damage to the hull worsened, apparently, and it was decided to divert to Norfolk for emergency repairs for three days. We were berthed outboard a large U.S. destroyer while the work was completed, underwater and in our mess, and I became chummy with the side-armed Americans on gangway duty during the middle and morning watches. The Vietnam war, comparative life in the USN and RCN and, of course, California's “Flower Power” phenomenon, were hot topics of conversation between me and my American colleagues. Our runs ashore consisted of trips to the EM Club in the huge base where American style hamburgers and cold cans of Carling Black Label beer were consumed in quantity by crew from the three Canadian DEs.
Repairs completed, we were at sea again and, before long, the sea changed from slate-grey to blue-grey then blue as the air and sea temperatures began to rise. Soon the blue weather jackets, with RCN stencilled in large white letters across the back, were being hung out to dry before being stowed for future use as we headed up the Pacific. Our freshwater was rationed but, fortunately, Fort Lauderdale, with its crowded, white beaches, bars and abundant night life, was only days away. It was sunny and hot the day we arrived and remained that way for our three day port visit – a far cry from the cold, grey North Atlantic of a few days ago. We berthed outboard of CRESCENT and as soon as part-ship hands were secured, we flocked to the coxswain’s office flats to look at routine orders. Duty first day in. Rats. Standing on the brow for four hours at a time, with no sunscreen, gave my neck and shoulders that familiar, red rectangle known to all who wore 2As in summer or down south, and I was in a whole lot of discomfort until the peeling set in a few days later.
FUNERAL AND FIRE
On the day of the funeral of the governor general, Georges Vanier, in Ottawa, we lowered the flag to half-mast and I made an entry in the gangway logbook to that effect. Moments later, a fire alarm rang out in CRESCENT followed by the heart quickening “Emergency stations, emergency stations! Fire, fire, fire! Fire in the radio room!” The alarm was repeated on the ship's upper deck broadcast and controlled pandemonium broke out. Although the fire was brought under control quickly and without injury, it was a graphic reminder of the importance of those innumerable fire exercises held without fail at sea and in harbor. Despite CRESCENT’s fire and our water rationing and lack of air conditioning, we had a pleasant stay in the tourist city and after four days were headed to the Panama Canal.
The sea and air temperatures rose as we steamed around the Bahamas, through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti and south past Jamaica towards the Canal Zone. Caribbean days were constantly hot, bright and sunny while the nights, announced by spectacular sunsets, were of a black, starry quality that I had never seen before. The freshwater shortage became acute and every day at 4 p.m. we rigged fire hoses to receive 10 tons of fresh water from COLUMBIA. The chief ERA was puzzled at the loss of fresh water and tried to trace it with dye in the evaporator system. But the dye, injected at point A, did not emerge at point B and it wasn't until a later investigation showed that an impeller, replaced backwards in the evap’s plumbing, was pumping the water overside.
Birdbaths were routine and every day, after topping up with freshwater, the pipe “hands to bathe” was made. The ship's engines were stopped, the motor cutter was lowered with a crewman armed with a rifle as a dubious shark protection measure, and we jumped or dove into the Caribbean from the low quarterdeck, usually while the ship still had way on. We took about five days to cross the Caribbean and soon were at the northern entrance to the Panama Canal on a grey, overcast and very muggy March morning. The canal workers came aboard, with their trinkets and souvenirs, and did all the linehandling for us as we transited the huge locks and waterways, to emerge at the southern end of the canal, at Balboa - Panama City, about eight hours later. We stayed overnight at the U.S. naval facility and we were back at sea at 8 a.m. next day, heading north out of the Gulf of Panama to the Pacific Ocean and Manzanillo for fuel.
INTO THE PACIFIC
We were joined by the destroyer escorts HMCS MACKENZIE and SASKATCHEWAN and the frigate BEACON HILL and the six ships made an impressive sight as we cleaved the blueberry Pacific northwards to Mexico.Six days later, we were alongside the fuelling jetty at Manzanillo, a well known seaport with one ancient looking Mexican gunboat that looked as if it had just emerged from the turn of the century. We topped up, slipped and were on our way to a gunnery shoot off the coast of California.
The day of the shoot, a few days out of Manzanillo, was windy, grey, wet and cool and I am sure the fates had tampered with the 3-in. 50-cal. mount. We banged off about two rounds before the gunners called it a day – a far cry from the old ship's highly accurate shore bombardment at Normandy 23 years before. The sea and weather had turned noticeably cooler and the parkas reappeared as we made for San Francisco. We entered a dense fog bank outside the Golden Gate Bridge and a small flotilla of fishing vessels sailed past us as we steamed under the huge bridge. Moments later, the sun came out as part-ship hands were fallen in, wearing our No. 3 uniforms (“Dress on the upper deck: 3s”), and we neared the USN facility at Treasure Island. Shore leave was granted and we all took advantage of the sights and fine night life of San Francisco of 1967. I wandered towards the Haight-Ashbury district to see the Flower Power people but I was not impressed with their scruffy appearance and, I am sure, they paid me little attention as I wandered about in uniform, cap and burberry. I called my parents in Guelph, Ont., from a phone booth in downtown San Francisco to tell them where I was and that I was all right.
The day before we left was Sunday and we mustered for prayers on the jetty at 9 a.m. The navy blue congregation, from six HMC ships, must have numbered close to a 1,000 and the prayers and hymns that were offered up were powerful and moving. Indeed, I was thankful we had made it that far without major incident.
THE LAST RACE
Soon, we were on our way again, on our final, four day leg of the circumcontinental journey. The final parade, into Esquimalt harbor, was a day to be remembered. The West Coast ships went ahead first and ALGONQUIN, CRESCENT and COLUMBIA, apparently not tired in the least after a 7,000-nautical-mile journey, gathered speed to race towards the harbor entrance with part-ship hands fallen in. I was amazed, as a 22-year-old would be, at the intensely vibrating deck plates and the high rooster tail that whooshed above and away from our stern as we cranked on 31 knots, beating out the newer COLUMBIA and CRESCENT, to enter harbor for the last time as a commissioned ship.
Days and weeks later, the East Coast crew were drafted back to Nova Scotia; the West Coasters remained, reunited with family and friends, and I returned for six months of Centennial activities at CFB Cornwallis before returning to Ottawa and college. On Sept. 23, 2001, I completed 30 years of regular and reserve service as a Lieutenant(N) in the Cadet Instructors’ Cadre. I was XO of 339 RCSCC IROQUOIS, Shearwater, N.S., for about two years but my fondest naval memories are as a young boatswain in the lower decks of such famous ships as ALGONQUIN and SWANSEA – the likes of which we shall never see again.
It was sad to learn that ALGONQUIN was paid off to the scrap yard and I still have pasted to the back of my framed ship's portrait a clipping from Maritime Command (Pacific's) Lookout, dated Thursday, May 13, 1971, entitled “Sayonara, Algonquin, Crescent.” The clipping's yellowing photo shows the two DDEs being towed by “Daisy,” a Japanese deep-sea tug, past H. M. Yacht BRITANNIA to a ship breaking yard in Kaohsiung, Formosa. The last paragraph of the article says: “Now they are gone, and for those of us, who served on these forerunners of the 205 Class, in then unknown luxury, think it is a pitiful way for such ships to go.”