Remembrance Day: After 70 years ‘band of brothers’ last meet

Last month, CFB Esquimalt bore witness to a moment in history as the final reunion of HMCS Uganda/Quebec Veterans’ Association took place.

Guest Columnist L/Cdr Malcolm Butler, CD, Ret’d, Royal Canadian Navy, writes of the last reunion of the crew of the Second World War RCN cruiser HMCS Uganda which became HMCS Quebec. She was the only Canadian warship to serve in the Pacific Theatre against Japan during the Second World War. But the gist of his tribute is the unique camaraderie that is one of the few positive legacies of war for those who’ve shared hardship and danger.

 

Last month, CFB Esquimalt bore witness to a moment in history as the final reunion of HMCS Uganda/Quebec Veterans’ Association took place. Although HMCS Uganda [later renamed HMCS Quebec] was paid off so many years ago, these surviving shipmates, now mainly in their 90s, have maintained a camaraderie and friendship many of us would envy. Their close friendships and commitment to this final reunion demonstrate that the bonds of brotherhood forged at sea under trying conditions are truly resilient.

As Shakespeare put it, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers/

For he today that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother… “

The “Band of Brothers” of which Shakespeare spoke has become synonymous with the bond shared between comrades in arms, be it the navy, army or air force. This brotherly bond that CFB Esquimalt witnessed began on Oct. 21, 1944 with HMCS Uganda’s commissioning in Charleston, South Carolina, USA following a massive refit after being hit by a Fritz X glider bomb off the Italian coast. A former Royal Navy cruiser, Uganda retained its RN name when transferred to Canada as part of a reverse mutual aid agreement between Canada and Great Britain.

Assigned to the 4th Cruiser Squadron of the British Pacific Fleet to provide anti-aircraft protection to British aircraft carriers and shore-bombardment of the Japanese islands, she spent a record-setting 140 straight days at sea while circumnavigating the globe to become the sole Canadian warship to serve in the Pacific Theatre against Imperial Japan during the Second World War. These experiences created a brotherhood that has lasted more than seven decades. Clearly, the officers and men of HMCS Uganda distinguished themselves in the history of the RCN while earning the battle honour Okinawa for their services in the Pacific Theatre.

In 1946, HMCS Uganda sailed around the infamous Cape Horn while circumnavigating South America. Paid off in 1947 and placed in the Reserve Fleet, she was re-commissioned during the Korean War as HMCS Quebec and re-assigned to Halifax to train seamen and junior officers at sea. While she often experienced crew changes, as many of her personnel were later transferred to the smaller destroyers of the RCN, then deployed to the Korean Theatre, those who remained aboard became a close-knit family.

 

In 1953, HMCS Quebec served as the flagship for the Canadian Coronation Review Squadron for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s first formal Fleet Review then made history again when she was deployed to Africa in 1955 to represent Canada and by working towards establishing new international relations. Formally retired and paid off in 1956, HMCS Uganda/HMCS Quebec was, ironically, scrapped in Japan in 1961.

The combination of these experiences around the globe are what brought these men together.

It’s their common experiences shared under trying conditions that has maintained this Band of Brothers for more than seven decades. Returning to Esquimalt recently, the first time for many of the former crew since their days in the navy, it was an incredibly emotional experience for all involved and one which reinforced the brotherly bond they share.

The reunion consisted of a tour of CFB Esquimalt and the Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum. Of great delight was the large-scale model of their ship on display and a kisby ring from HMCS Uganda which was signed by several former crew members at a reunion back in 1982. To the delight of all, three of the former signatories to the kisby ring were in attendance.

It was a short but poignant moment, a living demonstration of their unique bond as they read the names and reminisced about their former shipmates. Later, the former sailors and their families toured HMCS Ottawa. Treated like royalty, they marveled at the new technology aboard the ship. Being aboard a ship of Her Majesty’s Royal Canadian Navy took them back to a different time and reinforced the strong connection they all share.

With Cdr. Blair Saltel, CO of HMCS Calgary as their guest speaker, the Association hosted a formal dinner at the Naden Wardroom on the Saturday evening. That Mrs. Quita Longmore, daughter of V/Adm E.R. Mainguy, CO of HMCS Uganda, and Mr. Grenville Finch-Noyes, son of R/Adm E.W. Finch-Noyes, CO of HMCS Quebec, also attended the dinner showed that the connection to their former commanding officers remains strong despite the passage of time.

After a church service in the Naden Chapel during which a wreath was laid at the altar in memory of their shipmates who’ve since “crossed the bar,” the reunion concluded with a light luncheon followed by the traditional rum ration (issued daily in the RCN until 1972) and a toast to both ships and their crews. While this was the final reunion of the HMCS Uganda/Quebec Veterans’ Association, it was evident that this Band of Brothers would maintain contact with one another despite their age, health or distances to be travelled.

Being a witness to this reunion was a huge privilege for me as I witnessed my forefathers in the RCN who served through two wars come together for one last time to give thanks to their ship and their shipmates. As a former naval officer, I can only stand in awe of these giants of men. With Remembrance Day fast approaching, I cannot help but think of these men and all that they accomplished for Canada.

While I have not served with them aboard HMCS Uganda or HMCS Quebec, I can appreciate and understand their collective experiences at sea aboard a Man of War.

This is what the Bonds of Brotherhood forged at sea are all about:

We Few. We Happy Few. We Band of Brothers.

–L/Cdr Malcolm Butler, CD, Ret’d, Royal Canadian Navy

 

Editor’s Note: Joe Ball, Duncan, served on HMCS Uganda and Maple Bay’s V/Adm. Rollo Mainguay was her commanding officer in the Pacific.