and then Fraser lost her mast."
by Shipmate Jim Robertson
"I am turning downwind to retrieve my mast" came the flashing light signal from HMCS Fraser to the senior ship in the 2nd Canadian Destroyer Squadron at 0700 on an early February morning in 1959. HMCS Crescent, a WWII designed and built "C" class destroyer was that senior ship with Captain Pratt commanding the ship and squadron. I was the junior signalman on watch that quiet morning somewhere in the Central Pacific enroute from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to San Diego, California. The sea was very calm, the weather slightly overcast but expected to be bright and sunny into the forenoon watch and the squadron was lolling along minding its own business and then Fraser lost her mast. On Crescent the junior sig's watchkeeping station was on the open, or "flying" bridge, in all kinds of weather and for the usual four-hour watch save for the dog watches. The lookouts, often enough only one, spent but an hour in the elements before being relieved to slouch around somewhere below decks, warm and cozy and able to get a cup of "kye" or coffee at will. Not so the brave signalman on watch: that poor wretch had to endure the entire watch subject to the vagaries of the weather.
The squadron at that time in 1959 consisted of six destroyer/destroyer escorts. HMC Ships Crescent, Athabaskan and Cayuga comprised the WWII type of warship, while Fraser, Skeena and Margaree (sic?) were the "cadillacs" built during the mid-fifties complete with air conditioning, bunks instead of hammocks (well, Crescent had been modified that way as well) and much better messing. The ships sailed mostly in a "diamond" formation with Crescent in the van and on this particular day Fraser was off her starboard quarter at standard station-keeping distance (cannot recall at this late date what that measurement is in yards). The signalman of the watch, then, was at least able to keep his back to the relative weather and keep a keen eye on the other five ships for signals via flashing light, semaphore or flags. Upon acknowledging the signal I noted Fraser's mast was broken at the mid-point and had fallen down over the port side dragging a tangle of halyards, wires and other clutter. Without delay I took the message down to the enclosed (warm) bridge and ignoring the senior signalman of the watch reported directly to the officer of the watch. Quickly reading the contents he then asked, "Are you sure this is right, Robertson?"
Asshole. I always got signals "right." My rather snotty retort: "Look for yourself, Sir!" and pointed out the window to the now-departed Fraser steaming away towards the western horizon. At that juncture the OOW got on the intercom to the captain, reported the signal (correctly I noted), and received some reply that caused him to call the engine room (where those smelly, smudgey, slouching beasties dwell, seldom to intrude on our clear, clean, crisp bridges and, whenever they did stayed but a few minutes: I think it was the fresh air that got to them) warning of an impending reduction of revolutions. I went back to my station (of course!) and through binoculars watched Fraser slowly disappear over the horizon. Radio communication was then needed and all that frenzy was conducted in the enclosed bridge and did not involve this brave soul. Besides, very quickly the Yeoman (whose name I cannot recall, nice fellow, but meek and mild) and other NCO's of the signal branch swarmed onto the bridge along with my relief who took over a few minutes early.
I left for breakfast and to clean up leaving the incident out of mind. Actually, I did that rather well as I cannot remember when Fraser rejoined us but do recall seeing her mast lashed to the ship's side later that day. The squadron had left Esquimalt on 4 January and sailed without incident to Kodiak, Alaska. We spent two or three days alongside this forgettable town (at least I forget it) and spent most of the time in the U.S. Navy's Enlisted Men's Club where the regular occupants took exception to our behavior: again, memory fails as to what their problem was since we always, or usually, well, sometimes, behaved with decorum when visiting the EM's club no matter where situated.
After leaving this forgotten town we steamed west along the southern part of the Aleutian Islands to the mid-point then northwest between two of the islands into the Bering Sea heading for the next USN port at Adak Island. Along the way Crescent's sparkers (radiomen for those uncertain of this designation, such as bosun's, stokers, etc.) intercepted a message from the Kodiak EM's club to their counterpart in Adak warning them of our impending descent on their turf and to take away anything that could be picked up and hurled hither and thither. No sense of humor, those Yanks. As it was, then, upon our arrival the club looked rather barren but that didn't hinder the lower deck hands from drinking the place nearly dry (says the USN, later). Traversing the Bering Sea in early January was rather an adventure. Besides becoming frozen within the first 30 minutes of the watch on the upper bridge, with three-and-a-half hours yet to go, periodically the sig and lookout had to take a fire axe and break off chunks of ice formed on the base of the lattice-like mast and off of several other protuberances lest the ship become unstable with weight and turn turtle, so to speak. While doing this, and trying to keep some semblance of warmth in an 18-year-old skinny body, I could not help but see images of the recruiting poster outside the Vancouver recruiting office which depicted a happy, smiling, waving matelot standing grinning with a palm tree as backdrop (and, you just knew there was a wahaini on either side of him just outside the camera range). What the f*** were we doing in this God-forsaken part of the world, I wondered. Surely even the Commies wouldn't bother with this frozen wasteland? But, of course, the old saying, "Yours not to question why, yours but to do and die, you f****** sausages" (as repeated ad nauseum by those hysterical, foul-mouthed, madmen back in Cornwallis, otherwise known as gunnery/drill instructors) kept interfering with logical thinking. It was only many years later when taking English Literature courses at university I found out that phrase was from a poem meant for pongoes on horses, not honest sailor-men.
Anyway, after a few days in Adak we left the place more-or-less intact and headed due south down the eastern side of the International Date Line towards Midway Island in the Central Pacific. What should have been an uneventful smooth passage was interrupted by Providence who sent a whopping typhoon (gentle name for a hurricane) hurtling into the squadron and lasting for about three terrifying days. Vivid recollections of standing watch on the upper bridge, tied at the waist with a rope to the navigator's table, along with the lookout (you know, the ones who only spent an hour in the open) still permeate the memory glands. The prospect of death was never more evident, especially when you had to arch your head back in order to see the top of the next big, real big, green one preparing to cascade onto your wretched body. The pounding the ship took was incredible: how it held together is a mystery but surely a testament to the workmanship at whatever yard built the destroyer.
There was one rather humorous incident during the storm. Some may recall that during this period milk was carried in 10-gallon aluminum cans (or whatever size) which upon being emptied were stored somewhere below decks. In Crescent the paint-locker was located on the main deck, one below the upper deck, and right in the forepeak. It was accessed only through a small hatch about two by three feet with the usual dogs to secure the opening. Inside, cans of paint were stacked on shelves curving upwards to the underside of the upper deck, held in place with a strand of wire strung along the mid-section of the containers. This space was zealously guarded by two Able Seamen who insisted on being given at least a transfer of your first-born, or similar valuable, before they would release a can of paint and, gasp, a real paint-brush, to a "customer."
Being enterprising young sailors, they somehow, possibly via bribery or threats of grievous bodily harm, to obtain two empty milk cans and enough yeast to add to water and make a grand brew – probably for their own consumption, the wretches. In any event, the two containers of the illicit liquid were left alone in the paint locker during the storm. The violent shaking, shuddering and shouldering of huge waves caused the "brew" to become so agitated it exploded sending shards of aluminum into the cans of paint. The natural result of this action was to allow streams of paint to cascade out of the cans and onto the deck, sort of like the statue of the little boy pissing into a pond. The noise of this "explosion" did not go unnoticed and in due course the damage-control party made its way to the forepeak trying to determine the source and cause of this unnatural noise. The last place they checked was the paint locker. The hand who opened the hatch and peered in quickly closed and dogged it and with a reportedly ashen face told the P.O. what he'd seen. This NCO then took a look himself and again the hatch was secured. A report to the XO and ultimately to Captain Pratt was made. When the seas subsided and it was safe to open the paint locker hatch again the cause of the noise and the resulting damage was duly noted, the errant hands put on charge and were soon "off caps" in front of the Captain. Fortunately, as a sig we get to watch and hear defaulter's proceedings on the bridge and I was able to listen to the entire hearing, such as it was, and note "Nobby" Pratt was hard-pressed to suppress a smile, even a giggle. In the result, though, the hapless hands were given stoppage of leave: they didn't go ashore in Midway, or Pearl, or San Diego and I never did see them anywhere around Esquimalt or Victoria: perhaps they are still on "stoppers." Naturally, they had to clean up the formidable mess which was punishment in itself, I suppose.
Parenthetically, with the recent event in San Diego where two RCN types, gasp, got drunk and their ship was ordered home as a result, I suggest it would be safer to put your lives in the hands of the two enterprisers on Crescent than on the current crop of matelots: the entire ship should have been drunk, like it used to be! In any event, the storm not only destroyed the brewing beer, and the shore leave of the "brewmasters," but clearly caused what was later determined to be a faulty weld at the mid-section of the mast to fail. However, I have learned from a reliable source (the possible-miscreant himself) that our esteemed President was some form of electrician on Fraser at the time and had been up the mast while we were in Midway, or somewhere in the vicinity, to change lightbulbs or something. While he expresses relief that the mast did not topple during this evolution I cannot but wonder if his tinkering may have been the source of the actual break: I mean, who knows what someone is doing 'way up there? But I leave it in his good hands to explain his role, and, hopefully, admit culpability, if any. Since drafting this soliloquy, and sending it to our valuable Seabag editor and our hard-working President for comment, a response from the latter has been received and his "explanation" is set out next. We should all be grateful that the damned mast did not fail when Bob was aloft thereby losing, it would be supposed, not only a valuable sailor but a treasured President of our organization. Parenthetically, he does consult rather dubious sources, however: he says "miscreant" means "evil or criminal acts" whereas the Shorter OED says "a person who behaves badly or unlawfully." Under no circumstances would this writer ever consider Bob Juulsen to be other than a most reputable and honest person. Still, we are not sure what really happened up that mast, are we?
Jim Robertson (LSSG2)
Hi Jim and all, this is the "miscreant" (perhaps a little less than the definition: someone who engages s in evil or criminal acts).This is what happened to me during the mast dropping incident: I was the electrician responsible for navigation equipment such as navigation lights and aircraft warning lights. When the Fraser arrived in Kodiak there was a ground (electricity shorting out and going to a ground return not just to the lights) on the aircraft warning lights at the very top of the mast. I had to go up there with a turkey baster, rags and sealant to remove the water causing the ground. Then during the storm Jim mentions, the Masthead Steaming light burned out. It was a dual filament bulb so that if one filament burned out there was a second one. The problem was the mast was wiping back and forth so bad it cracked the bulb so both filaments didn't work. So I had to climb up as high as I could with a wandering lead (an extension cord with a light at the end) and secure it as a temporary Masthead Steaming light.
Then in Midway I replaced the bulb with a good one. I also remember the following sea was so bad we lost a number of mortar hatch covers that were not properly secured. The CO, Cdr. (Tuffy) McKnight was not pleased especially when the mast came down on a calm morning. On the morning the mast fell down, you can imagine the reception I received when I told the Chief Electrician and my mess deck buddies the mast had fallen down. As I recall, we secured the mast and went to San Diego where jury rigged antennas were fitted and we carried on with the exercise. At the time, I was trying to grow a beard (first and last time) and thought we'd be heading directly back to Esquimalt, so I shaved off in order to go shopping for a gift for my very young daughter. I often wonder if my weight at the top of the mast was the start of the problem or if it was the rough seas we encountered or some of both.
reproduced with permission of Bob (the beard?) Juulsen