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Article by Al Malcomson

Basic Training in HMCS Cornwallis

I joined the RCN in May of 1966 and caught the train to Halifax from Vancouver with my buddies David Field and Mike Rawlings. We were joined in Edmonton by Chuck Morley out of Rocky Mountain House and Joe Chapple from Calgary. After four days on the train we arrived in Stad via the Bun Wagon from CN station and were bunked in our civies overnight in Atlantic Block. The next morning we heard a bell ringing in measured tones and we rushed to the window of our dorm on the third floor. Sailors in white hats and working dress gathered around the parade square and a pipe was sounding the still. Everyone was saluting and suddenly behind us a loud voice bellowed "get away from that window!"  We were hustled down below to an excellent breakfast and ended up on a large bus with a Subbie in charge of us ods. The trip down thru the Valley was beautiful and it was sunny all the way. We arrived at Cornwallis late in the afternoon and drove thru the gate (sentries posted with sticks and white webbing on each side). We went down Heartbreak Hill and saw a huge cloud of dust. As we drew nearer we saw all these young men in blue dungarees, with black caps (no tally) pusser boots and buzz cuts. They were doubling back and forth for punishment and we had just missed this interesting bit of entertainment. This was Joining Block our new home.

Photo of Al Malcomson

[Note:] Al Mal­com­son has no photos of himself during his time in the RCN. The photo at right shows him on April 18, 1977 when he graduated from the RCMP.

With us latest arrivals and adjustments to come, I believe we ended up with about seventy men from all walks of life and from all areas of the country. We were divided into watches 1st and 2nd Starboard and 1st and 2nd Port.

We spent three weeks there learning to muster our kit, learning how to march and salute and the general rules of the road in a large base such as that. We had to salute officers or their cars and anyone with a white cap was called "sir." We were isolated from the rest of the ships company in training and were allowed no leave, base, shore or otherwise. We moved at the double everywhere unless the black ball was up (rain) and we all had steel blakies put on the heels of our pusser boots. We had to sew our initials and names in red thread on all our gear and we had to sew our chin stays into our caps. (I chipped a tooth pulling the needle through because the canvas was so tough). We also made bows for our cap tallies, one for our white cap which was only worn on the gate or ashore on Cinderella leave. The other tallies were made with a bow comprising our divisional colors, which were turquoise and red. These went on our pusser black caps, the hated symbol of the fact that we were OD's of the lowest form of life in the navy. As one PO put it, we were too stupid to march, too stupid to salute, too stupid to sail and too stupid to serve . . . every finger a thumb and every foot a left foot. We had to iron and sew our silks for our jumpers and learned the art of cutting our tape ribbons to a perfect V and tying them in a square bow. Our joining block PO's were PO2 Sousa (ER 3), PO2 Barnes (WS 3), PO2 Johnstone (Bosun 3), P1 Ferguson (WU 4), and Chief Petty Officer Joynt (LT 4). These men kept us in line and introduced us to the mysteries of the Andrew. We had a lot of new rules to learn in regards to dress and deportment and there were effective ways of hammering these into our thick skulls. PO Sousa was the king of the unbuttoned shirt pockets and any time we were remiss in this he would reach in with his long bony fingers and help himself to about four or five of our cigarettes. It did not take long for us to learn to keep our shirt and jacket pockets buttoned up tight at all times. I don't think this PO had to buy a smoke the whole time he was in Cornwallis and I know he sure got a lot off of our division.

Swearing was also becoming a bad habit for many of us and I think it had a lot to do with the fact that many of us came from homes where that type of language was expressly forbidden. Now we were in the world and thought we were big shots with bad language. I had learned that a man who was in control of his tongue could rule a nation but all that went out the window at Cornwallis. PO Barnes let us go for a few days and finally decreed that the next persons he caught cussing would have to get up on a table in front of the division and give a five minute lecture titled appropriately WHY I SHOULDN'T SWEAR IN THE RCN. Two of our young fellows fell within minutes and had to get up and give their lectures. If they paused for more than five seconds they had to go down on the deck and deliver twenty-five pushups. Gordie faltered and was soon sweating it out on the deck while Joe delivered a sterling speech by naming everyone in the division as those who did not like swearing.

We had one room that we could resort to with a pop machine and the usual array of pusser couches with blue and tan Naugahyde. This room was called "The Smoker" and there were lots of ashtrays around as most of us smoked. The smell of cigarette smoke and orange crush pop remains with me to this day.  Our first pay was given to us in cash in a bluff envelope. 54 dollars which dwindled down to 36 dollars after deductions for thread, lock for locker, haircut etc. I think we made a hundred and four dollars a month clear back in those days.

We had our meals at the West Galley and the food was excellent. I have heard of the old tales about the vittles in the navy and none of them were very complimentary but I can honestly say that the grub was second to none starting in Cornwallis and continuing out to sea onboard ship. The only bad victualing we had was in Naden at Nelles Block where the cooks were too lazy to peel the spuds and served them to us boiled in their jackets. Even then things were not so bad. Some of the favorites at Cornwallis were the pork roast with the crackle on it served after church parade and the bread pudding with jam that was to die for. (I have never tasted bread pudding as good as that in all my 60 years. It even beat mom's). We also had fried scallops with chips, which was in our case like putting pearls before swine but what a treat. Considering the number of people that were fed there on a daily basis the meals were par excellence in all respects.

We moved up after our first kit muster to our division dorm on top of the hill next to Terra Nova with Assiniboine on the other side of us. The Ship's Company wet canteen was next down the hill but we did not even dare to come within a cable of that establishment.  Our divisional chief was CPO Penny (LT 4) and our PO was P1 Paddon (Commissary 4). Chief Penny was like a dad to us and was a good counterbalance for PO Paddon who was very tall, very loud and not a man to mess with. He was an ex drill GI and he quickly installed in us a sense of urgency when it came to obeying orders and snapping to. Looking back I would say that he was very effective in bringing us into the ways of the RCN.

All the drill staff there wore black webbing and we learned very quickly who they were. Our division was selected to be the Sunset Guns Crew and we were teamed up with Terra Nova Division next to us who were the Guard. Size played a critical element in who was picked for this crew and some members of Fraser 2/66 came over to join us. A lot of our drill instruction centered on the FN rifle and bayonet drill. We learned a lot of close formation exercises and this included funeral drill with the slow march and reverse arms plus fixing bayonets. We also learned the intricate drill involving the two field guns and carriages that would make up our portion of the Sunset Ceremony. The entire ceremony involved a 48-man guard, a 12-man color party and two guns crews of 26 men each. I was posted to the limbers on one gun with a tall fellow by the name of Dave Lepine out of Ottawa. We complimented each other well in this match-up and were responsible for steering the heavy gun carriage as the entire crew marched it across the field.

PO McGuigan told us that he would never double us up a hill with the guns and we learned the logic behind this reasoning soon enough as we needed a good run at any hill to make it up easily.

One of the more touching aspects of the Sunset Ceremony was "The Evening Hymn" with both gun crews kneeling on one knee, hands crossed on the other knee and heads bowed with chin stays down. It was very impressive and of course the band played a huge role in the entire ceremony. Terra Nova was close to us as a division and we both passed out on the same day. Their div captain was Bill Asher who lives in Port Alberni retired from working at the City Works Yard. Some of our original members had joined them, becoming members of the Guard.

Training began in earnest and we began to fall into shape. Our div captain started out as a Robert McDonnell and he was shunted over to Terra Nova for the guard and Jim Waddington took his place. We were a mixed bag. Many of us were kids from home and only still in our teens. I turned 18 in Cornwallis that summer, the first birthday away from home but we were too busy to worry about things like that. Some guys were closer to 30 and the grandad was a man by the name of Robert Tew who went on to be a naval airman out of Shearwater. He was English and a gentleman of the highest order. He was an encouragement to me during our time there as I was very wet behind the ears.

One man was from a rich family in Westmont PQ and he was like a duck out of water. He wore glasses thick enough to light campfires with and had a black strap around the back of them to prevent their going astray (he would have been blind without them). This poor man was so blind that they could not classify him properly for a trade and he was honorably discharged and sent home to momma with the 500 lbs. of winter clothing she had sent with him on his arrival at Cornwallis (he was about 26 at the time). Another young man was with us at the start in joining block but his grandfather died in Ottawa and left him a fortune. Needless to say his priorities changed overnight when it came to training. He was quietly shipped home without fanfare.

We had plenty of things to do what with all the aspects of training, PRT, drill, NESS (new entry seamanship school) along with exped training and survival training at a place called Skull Lake out in the hills behind Clementsport. The survival training involved tallying with a map and camping out overnight in a 24-man life raft in the middle of the lake. All our grub was packed in and we were there for about 48 hours and it rained for part of the time.

Base Commander was Captain Paul who was the former CO of the Bonnie and the Executive Officer was Com­mander Martin. Our divisional officer was Lt. Smith who came through the hawsepipe as a Mr. out of the Royal Navy. Drill Staff included PO's McGuigan (affectionately known as Little Hitler and our main drill instructor) PO Douglas, LS Ellis, LS Mooney, PO Perkins, PO Kelly, PO Parsons and a couple others whose names I have forgotten.

I recall duty on the main gate at night in white webbing with a couple of hard boiled looking killicks and I was told to stand to in the cell block. There was nobody in cells, the night was hot and I fell asleep leaning up against the bulkhead. The next thing I know was one of the killicks had me by the arm and he promptly locked me into one of the cells without a word. I spent an anxious hour or so in this little box with a wooden solid block bed and finally was let out with the admonition, "Next time you sleep on watch it will be a couple of weeks in the cooler."

We also did fire rounds at night dressed in our fives with a flashlight, runners and a logbook to sign into. Each block had a PO assigned during the night for duty so we had to be on our toes. It was heart touching to see some of the lads sleeping in their bunks with tears running down their eyes as those who were far from home for the first time. We also had eternal cleaning stations including Sat. and Sunday AM before church parade. One of the favorite places to clean up was the Chief's mess. There were all kinds of stale drinks left over from the night before and they did not go to waste! I recall that this mess was across the highway near the secondary cell block right beside the married quarters. The base sickbay was also there and we were continually being paraded, as a division for "crab check". We had to shuck down to nothing from the waist down and the only treatment for the unfortunates that had this infliction was "blue ointment." One lad in our outfit had this malady several times and was a candidate for a pusser shower. He was obviously allergic to soap and water and was the scorn of all concerned.

There were several ways to dodge the infernal cleaning stations and one was to volunteer as an usher on Sunday morning at the Protestant Chapel. It was an impressive building with stained glass windows showing names and ship's crests of many of the Canadian vessels that were sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic. Included were Levis, Racoon, Windflower, Valleyfield, Guysborough, Clayquot and others I cannot remember. We would report there before the service dressed in modified number twos minus our blue collar. There were eight of us and we were responsible for taking the officers hats with the senior usher looking after the Captain and his family plus seating them and getting them hymn books etc. We also looked after the collection plates and formed up in a double line when the offering was presented and the doxology was sung. It was usually the navy hymn "For Those in Peril on the Sea." I understand that those beautiful windows have been removed and that is a pity, as they looked so impressive in that chapel by the sea.

Some of the excursions we went on included trips to Halifax for ship familiarization and it was something to see the hands lined up to draw their tots and smell the pusser rum on HMCS Chaudiere. We went with the guard and guns crew to put on shows at Lunenberg, Yarmouth and Annapolis. In each place the townspeople treated us kindly and put on a good spread for the boys at the local legion. Friday divisions were quite an ordeal and they had a great ship's company band, the bass drummer had a large tiger skin he wore under the drum straps. Inspections were frequent and often at the most inconvenient times. I remember we were pulled up for an inspection after doing the obstacle course and most of us barely had time to run a rag over our boots. Names were taken and half the division ended up on extra work and drill. This was called Number 5's or Jankers and consisted of running at the double around the huge parade square during the lunch break and after supper with extra duties in the galleys or messes such as washing dishes or scrubbing out spaces. A couple of our lads went on a little weekend excursion to Yarmouth, which was well out of our permitted travel area. They showed up adrift over twenty four hours later, slightly under the influence with large quart bottles of beer and huge loaves of French bread sticking out of their jumpers. Lt. Smith was not impressed and they received a week's detention at defaulters, served in the cells across the highway. I remember visiting them when we were on a work detail in that area by way of encouragement as we could easily have been in their shoes. They rejoined us time served with no ill effects from their time in chokey.

Shore leave was infrequent and only on weekends and was limited to Cinderella leave. There were only two places we could go with not a lot to do in either one. Annapolis was about six miles north of us and Digby was the same distance in the other direction. There was an old lady in her sixties who drove a pink and black Austin and she would give us a ride to Annapolis for fifty cents. She would also invite the young sailors over to her home and sell them cheap wine by the glass while she sang and read them poetry of her own making. She was called "Annapolis Polly" by all of us. Digby had nothing to give us other than a ball hall with chicken wire in the pockets of the pool table and Digby Pines Resort, which would turn a blind eye when it came to serving us drinks. There was a place called Bear River but we were advised to steer clear of that area, as the locals were none too friendly towards the New Entries. Base leave was mostly at the Rec Center, which had an ice cream soda fountain where you could buy a nice sundae for two bits. There was a dance floor there and we kept the jukebox going with the Wrens from Conestoga to keep us company in this situation. One of the favorite songs of the day was "Distant Drums" by Jim Reeves.

We had UNTD cadets present for the summer and many of them were commissioned subbies in reserve. We called them untidys and they were subject to a lot of pressure from the drill staff and the officers on strength at Cornwallis. I think the UNTD stood for University Naval Training Division; they were university students who attended regular college and used the summer months to train as officers. Their barracks were right beside the railway tracks below the drill shed just before the pool and the gym. Broadway Ave. ran right down the middle of this area and we were not allowed to walk on this privileged piece of ground. There were also a lot of sea cadets at Cornwallis at various times.

Eventually we passed out after training and exams. We had to pass a swimming test clothed in the pool. This consisted of swimming one length and treading water for five minutes.

We also learned to tie knots in our work pants and inflate them as an impromptu life jacket. Rope climbing and exams filled a lot of the spaces. Once we had finished we stomped our black hats and became members of the ship's company at Cornwallis. Depending on the trades we had been assigned we either left immediately or remained behind awaiting our draft to coursing. Stores rates, cooks and writers, stewards etc, went to Hochelaga in Montreal. Weapons types and naval air trades along with engineers and chippys, electricians, radar plotters, sonar operators all ended up in Halifax along with the bosuns. Communicators went to Naden and Radiomen Specials to Gloucester Ottawa. Meteor­ol­ogists went to Trenton. We were issued with yellow cards, which allowed us to frequent the wet canteen, but we could only drink beer. Hard drinks were for those twenty and over while the rest of us were rated as UA's (underage).

Well that about does it. Some of my old division mates are still out there and I keep in touch with Gordon Plecas who lives here in Port Alberni my present locale. Would love to hear from anyone out there who was in Cornwallis.

Email Al Malcomson.