Fred Martin was just 17 years old when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy to serve on H.M.C.S. Portage during the Second World War.
Now 96 years old, the Niagara Falls resident was a guest of honour at the Royal Canadian Naval Association’s (RCNA) memorial service to recognize the 77th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic.
The longest military campaign of the war began on Sept. 3, 1939 with the sinking of the British passenger ship the SS Athenia by a German U-boat just west of Ireland. The attack killed 118 of the 1,400 passengers on board, including four Canadians.
The peak of the naval battle occurred between mid-1940 and late 1943. By the time it ended with the defeat of the Nazis in May, 1945, 26 Canadian warships had been lost. As well, 32 Niagara-based ships and 233 civilian sailors fell during the skirmish.
The moving ceremony to honour the lost ships, officers and civilians was held last Sunday at Navy Hall. At the last minute Navy League cadets hurried to move chairs back inside the facility to escape the rain as it began to fall shortly after noon.
The change in surroundings meant participants and guests were not able to experience the visual impact of the usual casting of carnations on the river in honour of the Canadian and Allied Armed Forces and Merchant Marines. But the ceremony inside, especially with Martin attending, was just as poignant.
Martin served as Able Seaman-Torpedo on the 225-foot-long 1,300 tonne (fully loaded) minesweeper near the end of the war.
“We were all 17 or 18, just kids,” Martin said Sunday. “Everybody joined the navy, that’s just the way it was. We weren’t trying to be heroes. As it happened, I was injured later in the Navy, in Bermuda, when a depth charge exploded on the surface. It wrecked my hearing. That was the only cost to me in the Navy.”
Martin admits that even at his late entry into the war, with so many lives already lost, he didn’t fully understand the situation into which he was going.
“We knew that some people from Niagara Falls had died,” he said. “In 1939 I was only 13 years old.” Even four years later he didn’t comprehend the danger involved.
Martin, who celebrates his birthday this week, says he tries to get to the memorial service every year, but almost skipped this week’s event to attend a grandson’s track meet. The last-minute cancellation of that event allowed him to show up Sunday, though he didn’t have time to don his Navy uniform.
Following the war, Martin subsequently re-enlisted to go to the Pacific. He was discharged from H.M.C.S. Star in February, 1946 and returned home to Niagara Falls to continue what became a 43-year career on the railroad.
24-year-old Master at Arms Jacob Edwards of St. Catharines was pleased to have Martin attend Sunday’s service.
“It’s great to have veterans coming out,” Edwards said. “It’s very important to honour those that have fought for our freedoms. My great-grandfather was in the Merchant Navy, and that’s kind of why I joined. To know that there are others still out there today is pretty cool.”
Prayer service during Sunday’s memorial was delivered by Major Dr. Reverend Harold Ristau, a chaplain for the Canadian Armed Forces for the past 11 years. Ristau is currently serving as a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, and for a military reserve unit.
The author of At Peace with War: A Chaplain’s Meditations from Afghanistan, was filling in for the usual Padre who was unable to attend.
“I’m truly honoured to be here today,” he told The Local. “I was in Afghanistan for two tours, including a long 10-month tour. I spent most of my time on the front lines with the main base of supporters. As a minister, you want to be with the soldiers right where the battle is.”
Ristau recalled being shot at, being blown off of his feet, donning medical gloves for first aid treatments, helping to carry bodies, and seeing mass graves during that conflict.
“As a chaplain, all of that is a real blessing,” he explained, “because you earn your credibility amongst the soldiers. For me, spiritually, being able to be around these soldiers to build their faith, and to share their faith, makes me feel blessed. They provide for my physical safety, and I provide for their spiritual safety.”
RCNA Niagara president Chuck Johnston was happy for the ceremony’s return to Navy Hall about five years ago after a stretch during which it was held in Port Dalhousie. There was no ceremony during the two years of the pandemic.
“This is the proper place,” Johnston explained. “This hall was used for building ships years ago, and it was used during the War of 1812. I just wish we could have been outside today.”
Remembering the Battle of the Atlantic in particular is important for Johnston as it was so crucial to the Allied effort to topple the Nazi regime. Without successful passage of Canadian ships across the ocean the Allied forces would have been continuously short of soldiers and supplies.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero attended the memorial service, representing all three levels of government. She acknowledged the many lives lost during the battle and the courage of the many individuals who played a part in the victory who lived in the heart of Niagara.
“Every day we live a free and peaceful life,” she said. “We must remind ourselves of those who did not have that privilege, and of those who fought for us. Thank you to those brave soldiers who fought for us to give us the life we are able to live today.”
She was followed by Commander Leeane Crowe, who was the first female Commanding Officer of a Canadian Forces diving unit. The 38-year veteran of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) outlined the contributions made to the Allied effort during the Second World War.
“The Second World War would have been lost without Canada’s contribution,” she told the gathered crowd. “The Battle of the Atlantic was essentially a struggle between the Allies and the German forces for control of the Atlantic. The outcome of the war was dependent on the success of our Merchant ships reaching the United Kingdom.”
Canadian forces escorted a staggering 25,000 merchant ship voyages during the war, helping to deliver 165 million tonnes of cargo to sustain the effort.
“The Battle of the Atlantic was bravely fought by the men and women of the Canadian Merchant Navy, the RCN and the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force),” continued Crowe. “It was difficult and dangerous work, and Canadians shared in some of the worst hardships at sea.”
Deeply moving highlights of the memorial service included Shipmate Genevieve-Renee Bisson singing a hymn, piper Peter McKenzie playing Amazing Grace, and Steve Finkelstein playing The Last Post and Reveille on his trumpet.
Later, Shipmate Jeff Seburn read off the names of the warships sunk during the battle, while fellow Shipmate Harvey Villard rang the ship’s bell in commemoration. As well, Navy League cadets and Shipmates George Williams and Cam Scott cast carnations on the river out of sight of the crowd.
Crowe concluded her speech by explaining the complexities faced by today’s Armed Forces in Canada, while staunchly standing behind our country’s role in conflict situations.
“Our sailors still epitomize the core values established by those who served before, and enthusiastically embrace the call to duty,” said Crowe. “They currently serve globally, and protect Canadian interests closer to home. They remain ready to help, ready to lead, and ready to fight.”