July 23rd, 2018

Navy life was routine, albeit dangerous

By Gillian Slade on November 11, 2017.


Living in the cramped confines of a corvette ship, and charged with the duty to protect supply ships journeying across the Atlantic Ocean was the day-to-day ritual — and danger — behind the smart naval uniform during the Second World War.

In 1943 John Eccles, a newly married school teacher from Niagara Falls, volunteered for the reserves. He would find himself on the Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Fergus corvette escorting other ships and often chasing submarines.

Fortunately, seas-sickness was not an issue for Eccles and he did not focus on the danger at hand. He would later tell of the early morning watches and routine on board.

“You’d come up there in the morning and have a cup of cocoa to eat while you’re watching. Four o’clock in the morning I’d be there,” he told a reporter of the Guelph Mercury. “Climb out of bed in the dark. Fight my way out of my bunk. Some days it’d be hard to keep (on) your feet.”

For the first six months of 1945 Eccles was the stationary officer on HMCS Fergus, which was commissioned into the Royal Canadian Navy Nov. 18, 1944 at Collingwood, according to Wikipedia. After working in Bermuda the Fergus joined the Mid-Ocean Escort Force as a transatlantic convoy escort. He was assigned to MOEF escort group C-9 and remained with them until the end of the war. He returned to Canada in June 1945.

Corvettes were traditionally named after small towns. Those towns took on the responsibility of the welfare of those on board, says his daughter Bev Schofield of Medicine Hat. Fergus is a small town not far from Guelph, Ont. After the war Eccles lived in Guelph and Schofield often took great delight in driving him the short distance to the Legion in Fergus.

Eccles completed three trips across the Atlantic, each taking three weeks.

His first child, a daughter named Bonnie, was born during this time and while distance separated him from her she was not far from his thoughts. He wrote numerous letters to her, which have survived the passage of time and are treasured by Bonnie. The letters to his daughter were not included with letters to his wife but instead addressed and mailed to Bonnie personally — evidenced by the envelope with the Post Office stamp Oct. 5, 1943.

“My dearest little Bonnie,” he wrote in a four-page letter.

“After all, the most pleasure this world will offer you will be in doing something for somebody else. If you haven’t tried it up to now, think it over and see what results you get with it. I’ll guarantee you’ll be happy with your achievements more so than with winning a championship at some sport or other. To win at anything is a great thing, but to lose and enjoy it is a greater thing.”

Eccles served in the war until 1946, the year his second daughter Bev Schofield of Medicine Hat was born. Eccles passed away in 2016 in his 98th year. He was the last survivor of the 100 men he had served with on HMCS Fergus.

Bev’s grandfather, William John Adair, served in the First World War in the Third Battalion. He was mustard gassed at Vimy Ridge.

Although he survived, “internally he was torn apart,” said Bev, noting he spoke very little of his experiences.

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