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But Sir, I'm a Reserve ! A Horse-man in the Navy

 But SirTitle

"But Sir, I m a reserve".

Back in the Fifties, that little phrase struck terror into the hearts and minds of Royal Canadian Navy Permanent Force officers and petty officers.  It was a great way “out” for those of us who learned how to use it at the proper time.

With this in mind, let me proceed with my “war story”.

It was early in the year of 1956, February to be exact.  The winter had been the usual cold, wet, and miserable Nova Scotia winter.  In a frantic attempt to escape, I signed on for three months of Continuous Naval Duty to be served aboard the RCN’s Light Fleet Carrier, HMCS Magnificent....affectionately known as, the Maggie.

This patriotic outburst was triggered by the knowledge that the Maggie was slated for a three-month cruise into the Caribbean for exercises.  An added incentive was provided by the RCN who, in their wisdom, assigned me to the helicopter anti-submarine squadron, HS-50.  (In 1974, HS-50 was stood down and two squadrons were reactivated 423 and 443.  They operate the CH-124 Sea King)  In those days however, the rotary-wingy-thingy was the AS version of the Sikorsky S-55, called by us the H04S-3, or “Horse”.


Just before leaving on a 1954 West Coast tour via the Panama Canal, HMCS Magnificent, her aircraft and her crew turn out for review as she is pushed out from the HMC Dockyard quay in Halifax. Photo: Shearwater Aviation Museum

But Sir 2

A Sikorsky H04S "Angel" of HU-21 Squadron, RCN gets ready to lift off the aft flight deck of HMCS Magnificent, while astern, the Canadian destroyer HMCS Micmac stands as plane guard.  Inset: The squadron badge of HU-21 and HS-50 which operated the same type helo in the anti-submarine role and . Photo: Shearwater Aviation Museum, Patch: JF Chalifoux

But Sir 4

A deck rating holds a blade strap on a Sikorsky "Horse" aboard HMCS Magnificent, prior to Bill Ewing's arrival aboard in 1956 when he was asked to paint huge numerals on its nose and flanks. Photo: Shearwater Aviation Museum

But Sir 14

Flight deck crews relax, read, smoke and catch some rays outside the shadow of Magnificent's island superstructure. The men in the red shirts are members of the "Rescue" team. Magnificent's crash barrier lies flat on her deck in the foreground. Photo: Shearwater Aviation Museum

There I stood, eighteen years old, proudly wearing my shiny new Leading Seaman hooks, in front of the “Maggie” Regulating Petty Officer.  With the disdain reserved for lesser mortals and Air Branch types, he questioned my purpose for being aboard.  A second glance at my joining papers shot his eyebrows straight up under his hairline.  What, he demanded in a thundering voice, was the reason for the letter “R” in my serial number.  With a hidden gloat I spoke the fateful words, “But Sir, I’m a Reserve”.  The ensuing silence spoke volumes....that and the odd purple colour of his face.

As I was to join HS-50 when the squadron came aboard, I wasn’t assigned to the ship’s Watch & Quarter list.  For five days until the ship sailed, I was royalty; no work, no duty, and ashore every night.

Finally, the personnel for the various squadrons came aboard and we slipped for the balmy south.  As the ship passed the harbour entrance, the six Sikorsky’s landed on and were “stuck down” to the hangar deck.  Following them, the “Angel” of HU-21 slipped into its position astern and to one side of the ship.  Then, with the grace of drunken Gooney Birds, the Avengers of VS-880 did their bit to liven up the day of the Landing Control Officer. This cruise, VS-880 had not only brought along their regular TBF-3m Anti-Submarine versions, but had included the “Guppy Flight”.  Now, to a rotary-wing type, the Avenger, or “Turkey”, looks awkward enough.  But the Guppy version with its large radar mounted under the bomb-bay, looks much worse.  After hearing, “I’ve said it to Orville, I’ve said it to Wilbur, and I’ll say it to you... that thing will never get off the ground!”, for about the four hundredth time, the 880 deck crew were ready to Deep Six each and every member of HS-50....and that was on Day One of the cruise.

But Sir 6

Grumman Avenger aircraft of VS 880 Squadron, including a "Guppy" radar conversion, run up their engines before a launch. This shot was taken by the author during the Spring Carribean tour of 1956. Photo: William Ewing

Loud 5

The Magnificent dockside at a US Navy base on Trinidad, the Canadian ensign fluttering on her bow flag-staff and 880 Squadron "Guppies" at the leading edge.  Photo: William Ewing

With the panic of sailing and receiving aircraft out of the way, the crew of the Maggie and her squadrons settled down for a well-earned rest.  Some rest!!  Four hours later, the Maggie buried her bow into an Atlantic gale.  Duty or not, everyone was up risking life and limb to secure everything before it was (a) smashed, (b) bent, or (c) washed over the side.

The next four days found the weather-decks out-of-bounds and a steady stream of people running for the “heads” with strange expressions and stranger colours.  The Squadron Chief joined the queue several times and each time glared at me as he passed.  For some reason, stupidity perhaps, I have never been sea or air sick.  The sight of my pink and cheery face was enough to rub salt in his old wounds.  A gulp and he questioned why.  Need I say it??  “But Sir, I’m a Reserve!!”  His reply was lost in his rush for the “heads”.

The weather cleared and flying was started.  Old hands quickly picked up the routine of handling aircraft aboard a carrier.  The younger ones found themselves bewildered by all the organized confusion but were dragged into it.  The night-time maintenance duties were the same as carried out ashore, but handling aircraft on a small flightdeck must be seen to be appreciated.

Ten days out of Halifax, I was called into the HS-50 Squadron Office.  To get such a call during Flying Stations was not normal and it was with inner trembling that I stood before the self-same Chief who’s hackles I had raised over my ability to avoid the line-ups during the rough weather.  How, he demanded, was it that over the past couple of weeks I had not stood a single Ship or Squadron Duty Watch??  I honestly did not know why, but supposed that in the confusion of sailing, the Ship’s RPO had failed to notify the Squadron that I was on the Watch list.  But what was I to say??   With flightdeck cap twisting slowly in my hands, I manage to engrave my face, name, rank, and official number eternally into his memory......”BUT SIR, I’M A RESERVE!!”

Year’s later, after the integration of the three Canadian services, I met the Chief again.  This time I was  Corporal in Air Command (ex-RCAF) and no longer a Reserve.  But he hadn’t forgotten me and greeted me from afar with, “But Sir, I’m a Reserve!!”  This required explanation and sealed my fate with the rest of my crew.  For weeks after I was haunted by the phrase.

But Sir 5

The elegantly simple shape of HMCS Magnificent's flight deck can be seen clear of all aircraft save for a couple at the bow.

But Sir 8

Royal Canadian Navy ensign snapping in the breeze, 10 Grumman Avenger anti-submarine aircraft run their engines on Magnificent's flight deck in readiness for a launch. Photo: Shearwater Aviation Museum

It was not all fun and frivolity during the Spring Cruise of 1956. The Royal Canadian Navy plans its cruises to train the maximum number of men in the minimum amount of time.  Three months may sound like a long time, but when you are running exercises twenty-four hours a day, it isn’t.

HMCS Magnificent (Light Fleet Carrier), HMCS Ontario (Light Cruiser), plus a gaggle of destroyers and escort ships, were constantly engaged in exercises with US Navy surface ships and both US & RN one undentified submarine that stuck its nose in and was tracked for a twenty-four hour period.

The scenerio in those days was for the TBF-3m’s of VS-880 to sweep ahead of the fleet and with the use of on-board gear and some luck, locate the “attacking” submarines.  Then in would come the helicopters of HS-50 with their “dunking” sonar and pinpoint said sub.  Finally, up would steam the destroyers and plunk....sighted sub, sank same.  However!!  It didn’t always work out that way.  Like the time an RN sub popped up in the middle of the fleet, made rude comments about “bloody colonials”, and claimed a score on everything in sight.  An American sub captain wasn’t quite so lucky.  He slipped in astern of the Maggie only to be tagged when the plane guard destroyer just happened to switch on its sonar for a test.

But Sir 15

Grumman Avengers line up for their turn at the catapult on HMCS Magnificent. Photo: Shearwater Aviation Museum

Almost immediately that HS-50 started working with the destroyers, a problem arose.  The helicopters worked in pairs, and the minute contact was made, the destroyer notified would go dashing off to carry out the “kill”.  Unfortunately, more than once, the destroyer would go dashing off in the direction of the wrong helicopter.  In an attempt to clarify the situation, large numbers would be added to each helicopter using masking tape.

Alas, the tape was tan coloured and the helicopters two tones of gray and so the numbers weren't as conspicuous as necessary.

Plan Two called for the tape to be painted over with white paint and here’s were I came into the picture.  As the youngest member of the Squadron and the token Reserve.....and already known to the Squadron Chief, I was delegated “Squadron Brushman” and set off, paint-pot and brush in hand, to recify the situation.

The plain tape hadn’t worked.  So, I painted the tape white.  The next day we exercised with the destroyers.  The white was better, but....  So, I added a strip of masking tape to each side of the white number and painted it black.  The next day we exercised with the destroyers.  The black was fine, but....  Off came all the tape with its overcoats of black and white and up went new tape.  This time I painted it black with a white outline.  Again came the exercise with the destroyers.  Nope!!  Not even as good as the white with black.  About this time, my paintbrush was beginning to show its age, my nerves were a bit jumpy, and my forehead sloped to the rear from all the slaps of exasperation.  In a raging bout of frustration, I ripped off all the tape for yet another time and applied new tape.  Now these taped numbers total three on each helicopter, one each side of the fuselage and on the nose engine doors of the H04S-3 (aka Sikorsky 55’s) and they are about four feet high, using 2” masking tape, three strips wide for the main colour and another strip outside and inside for the contrast colour.  I have used up just about all of the tape available in stores.  In a last desperate attempt to throw light on the situation, the entire number is painted yellow.  Three guesses on the report handed in after the next day’s exercising.  You got it.....yellow is fine, but!!!

But SirTitle

Royal Canadian Navy ratings stand at the ready to unhook this warming Sikorsky from its lashings and remove its chocks. Photo: William Ewing


A Magnificent Horse lands in a field in the Dominican Republic to do some blade tracking without the floor rolling and pitching beneath them.  ID numbers, painted on by Ewing, were at this time black with a yellow outline.  Photo: William Ewing

3 Helos

Three "Horses" of HS-50 with their final "Ewing" numerals clatter together across the Shearwater airfield. Photo: Shearwater Aviation Museum

In numbed shock, I used up the last of the tape to outline what I had painted the night before.  My paintbrush has slightly more hair than a chihuahua, but while everyone else is watching the nightly movie, I add a black outline on the yellow.

The next morning I watch the gaudily marked helicopters lift away for their exercises.  If I hear one more, “but”, from the observers on the destroyers, I swear I’m going to buy them all white canes or seeing-eye dogs.

The Squadron Chief finally sticks his head into the hangar and calls me over.  I steel myself for the inevitable.

“Ewing”, he says.  “The ships have just called in.  The latest numbers show up......but!!!”  I step closer to the bulkhead to take full advantage of a solid hit with my head.  He stops me by continuing, “The numbers are a bit large.”

Why me??  Why me??  What did I ever do?!  At my silent scream of anguish, he pats me on the shoulder tenderly and says, (and who says Chiefs don’t have a sense of humour)

“Because, son, you’re a Reserve!!”


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