The dapper, distinguished-looking man, in his 80s, was the last to speak in a hushed, crowded room at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Monday, January 28, 2003, and he was unknown to many.
He was among an estimated 200 people who had gathered at the museum, on Water Street, Halifax, to hear noted journalist Stephen Kimber speak about his latest book, Sailors, Slackers and Blind Pigs, a rich description of the VE-Day riots that rocked the Nova Scotia capital May 8 - 9, 1945.
Kimber had just given a one-hour presentation, complete with old National Film Board footage and black-and-white slides of wartime people, crowds and the damage, and had opened the floor to questions. After about a half-hour of memories and queries, which ranged from an amusing anecdote about young sailors assigned to guard the offloading of gold from a British battleship at Pier 21 to heartfelt pleas for people to record their families’ wartime memories, the crowd was growing restive: it was 9:30 p.m., dark and cold outside, and, after the obligatory book-signings, we were thinking about getting the cars warmed up and on the way home.
But when this man stood to speak from the rear row, in a clear, confident and eloquent voice about his memories of May 1945, I turned to look at him and wonder which ship he was talking about. His comments lasted only a minute or so but, for me, they cast new light on the discipline and demeanour of the ship's company of HMCS Algonquin (R17).
“I wanted to add my few comments about our involvement on VE-Day in Halifax,” he began. “We were at D-Day, we spent months in the English Channel, we went to Russia and were across the North Atlantic countless times. “After the war in Europe was over, we were told to get ready for the Pacific, which we did, and when we got to Halifax all the boys wanted was a drink – a cup of tea, a glass of milk, a ginger ale – and something to eat.
“But when we got ashore, everything was closed, including the restaurants, but there was a lot of beer and liquor flowing and a few (Algonquins) had some on an empty stomach. Well, you know that effect that would have.” He did not identify the numbers involved but I chose to believe they were relatively few. The speaker had not identified himself and as the crowd broke up for home, I went over to the man, who looked more like a diplomat with his white hair, mustache and goatee, and inquired if he was talking about HMCS Algonquin. The reply was affirmative.
I wandered away to get Mr. Kimber’s attention that here, indeed, was a member of the ship's company of one of Canada's famous wartime destroyers but he was busy autographing books. I spotted the man and his group again as the crowd began making its way out to Water Street and spoke again: “Excuse me, sir, I just wanted you to know that Rear-Admiral Piers (Algonquin’s wartime captain) is one of my naval heroes,” I said, hoping this man would identify himself.
“Really?” he said with a smile. “I was his navigator.”
“You're Steele; Commander Steele, I should say,” I replied.
“Yes,” he answered, “and I see Admiral Piers every once in a while and, yes, he looks fine.”
I said I served onboard Algonquin in 1967 (see Algonquin’s Last Hurrah) on her last trip from Halifax to Esquimalt. “She was a good ship,” Commander Steele said. I agreed, as a few scattered memories came to mind about my trip, exactly 36 years ago, in that famous destroyer.
We shook hands and walked into the dark, starless night of the Halifax waterfront, cold and black as the North Atlantic in January. I was warmed by the thought, however, that I had just met the man who, equally and decisively, put HMCS Algonquin in harm's way many times and brought the ship and his shipmates to safe haven again afterwards. Godspeed, Commander Steele; it was a pleasure to have met you, sir.
Three outstanding naval officers, who served in Algonquin in 1944-45, live a relatively short distance from each other on the South Shore. They are: Rear-Admiral Desmond Piers, captain, Chester; Commander L. B. Jenson, executive officer, Hubbards, and Lieutenant R. M. Steele, Mahone Bay.
Lt. R.M. Steele RCNVR - Navigator - Rothsay N.B is fixing the ship's position during a voyage to Russia in 1944. (Photo via Ken Garrett)