Faint Footsteps: Following my father’s trail from 1941 to 1945

By Gord Harrison

Two Norwich boys, Doug Harrison, left, and Buryl McIntyre seen in Halifax in 1941.

Two Norwich boys, Doug Harrison, left, and Buryl McIntyre seen in Halifax in 1941.

Editor’s note: The following is a new column feature special to the Gazette by Gord Harrison, a London writer who was born in Burgessville. Harrison chronicles the life of his father, Doug Harrison, a Norwich resident and former Gazette columnist, and his life during the Second World War.

My father enlisted for military service in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve at H.M.C.S.Star, Hamilton’s Navy base, in June 1941. After initial training there he was moved on to more rigorous activities in Halifax (H.M.C.S. Stadacona).

In his navy memoirs he says the following about the move to the East Coast in October ’41. “Hamilton was tough, (but) it couldn’t hold a candle to Halifax.”

If I’d been asked a few years ago what my father did after completing his training at Stadacona, I would have said he joined or was assigned to the Merchant Marine and during the course of the war, patrolled the Atlantic in merchant ships that carried valuable cargoes of troops, food supplies and materials of war to the United Kingdom.

My impressions would have been based on slim details found in one of his columns that appeared in the Norwich Gazette in the early 1990s, entitled ‘Merchant Mariner True Norwich Hero.’

The first two sentences read as follows: “Norwich has its pioneers and its heroes. One of the heroes, according to this observer, is Lorne ‘Skimp’ Smith, a wireless operator once attached to the United States merchant marine during the Second World War.”

The column goes on to say that after a meaningful conversation with Skimp, Dad was asked what he planned to do, where he planned to serve. He said he was going to join the navy. Though J.C. St. John (a former principal of Norwich High School) wanted Dad to join the army in the Elgin Regiment, the last two sentences of the column read: “I would curse him (Skimp) later, many times, but on that day... the die was cast. It was to be navy blue for me.”

He began training in Hamilton - on probationary strength - shortly thereafter.

Twenty years after the above column was published, I buried my father at sea according to his expressed wish, but I was none the wiser about his Second World War actions. When I tossed a small wooden ship containing his ashes into the Atlantic Ocean near Halifax, the only words engraved on an attached plaque related to his service read, “Leading Seaman, Canadian Merchant Marine.”

On that day in June 2010, I was mere feet from the ocean upon which I believed he’d served as a Merchant Mariner. But I was way off base. I was in fact about 4,000 kilometers from the first Combined Operations training camps he attended... (with Buryl McIntyre, another Norwich boy) in southern England and north-west Scotland beginning in January 1942. I was even farther from Dieppe and the shores of North Africa, Sicily and Italy, the places where Canadians in Combined Operations manned landing crafts during dangerous raids and life-altering invasions in 1942 and ‘43.

Way, way off base. When I tossed the wooden ship from a slippery rock on the East Coast, I was unaware that Dad finished his ‘Navy days’ on the West Coast, at a Combined Ops training camp on Vancouver Island.

That being said, after discovering my father's hand-written Navy memoirs in a tired-looking folder in November 2011, and carefully reading several of his columns from the Gazette, and more, I’ve made gains in understanding the path he followed during the Second World War.

I have dozens of pertinent photos and hundreds of verifiable details at my fingertips. I know his love of ships goes back to his childhood, and his Rolex Oyster watch (a gift from his mother Alice and girlfriend Edith Catton in 1941) was stolen five minutes after he took it off to shave at Navy barracks in Halifax. I know he was discharged in September 1945, one day before his 25th birthday - after declining the call to participate in the Pacific theatre of war - and I know shadows cast during the Second World War followed him, and some of his mates, for a long time.

I also know what he said in his memoirs, penned in 1975, is true: “It would cost a small fortune today to retrace the places I had been to and seen under the White Ensign.”

The cost of trips I’ve taken to Halifax, Scotland, London (U.K.) and Vancouver Island would surely make my father roll his eyes, but ‘small fortune’ or not, they were worth every penny.

Future travels, more so I’m sure.