Hundreds of people from across Ontario gathered in Port Burwell last Tuesday to watch the arrival of the long-awaited HMCS Ojibwa.
On Thursday, special guests and dignitaries were invited to watch the official landing of Ojibwa onto its new and permanent home onshore. Although that didn’t happen, for many seeing Ojibwa for the first time was a spectacle to behold. But for others, like submariner Yvon Desrosiers, it was a day that brought back cherished memories.
“It was a great experience. You meet a lot of friends, you travel, there was a lot of really good people and a lot of friends that I’m still in contact with today even after 30 years,” he said.
Desrosiers served on the HMCS Ojibwa from 1978 to 1982, and was a member of the Canadian Navy from 1977 to 1982, joining when he was just 18. Known by his nickname ‘Rosie’ onboard, Desrosiers was born in New Brunswick and raised in Ontario’s north in Timmins.
He joined the Navy to see the world and spent time visiting the Virgin Islands, the Mediterranean, Puerto Rico, and parts of the Caribbean.
As a crew member of the HMCS Ojibwa, Desrosiers was assigned a particular job.
“We were called ‘stokers’, which is an old term referring to the days of boilers when the young men onboard would stoke the boiler with coal,” said Desrosiers. “That’s just a name that stayed with us as marine engineers - I was a marine engineer onboard and I stood watch in the engine room.”
He, like all navy personnel who worked on a submarine, underwent basic training in preparation for their life underwater.
“Then you step on board and go to work. You get used to it (life in a submarine) very quickly. It was a good experience - I was never nervous the whole time I was out there, it never bothered me.”
Desrosiers joined several other submariners in Port Burwell on Thursday, both those who served on Ojibwa and those who served on other Canadian submarines in the past.
He went to see Ojibwa pass through the Welland Canal in St. Catharines over a week ago, but was very happy to see the HMCS Ojibwa in its final resting place in Port Burwell.
“I think it’s great and it’s great to see that it’s going to be close to where I live now,” said Desrosiers. “I live in Niagara Falls so I’ll be able to come and visit every now and then and walk onboard.”
The HMCS Ojibwa was built in 1965, commissioned in 1966 and de-commissioned in 1998, having an operational lifespan of over 30 years.
With a crew of approximately 70 onboard said Desrosiers, working shifts of three hours on and six hours off, round the clock, 24 hours a day.
Although it’s been a while since Desrosiers had seen the HMCS Ojibwa, there were only a few minor changes since the last time he saw the submarine.
“It looks quite similar except it’s shiny black now and it’s not supposed to be shiny black,” he chuckled. “It’s suppose to be dull black – you don’t want the sun reflecting on it when it’s on the surface.”
As most personnel do when they join the Canadian Army, Air Force or Navy, Desrosiers and the crew did prepare for war and trained like a typical soldier.
“The whole time at sea you do exercises and you always prepare for war,” he said. “You always prepare for a time that the submarine would have to act in a defensive manner. You practice loading torpedoes, firing torpedoes and making sure that everything on board always works in case something were to happen that you needed to do these things,” he added, noting some of the unique features of Ojibwa, an Oberon class submarine.
“A big part of these submarines when they were in service was exercising with the naval fleet - the Americans and the British, because submarines are always a danger. If you remember from World War II the (German) U-boats were extremely dangerous and extremely effective, so after that the surface ships and countries always wanted to be prepared to try to find submarines,” said Desrosiers.
“These submarines were very quiet – we were great at hiding. We would hide and they would not find us. That was one of our strengths with these diesel, electric submarines.”
In addition to training and naval exercises, Desrosiers had a few memorable experiences while serving on the HMCS Ojibwa.
He shared one of them with the Tillsonburg News.
“We were in the North Atlantic off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, on our way home and we got into a huge storm,” he said. “It just went on for days, we were three days underwater and we couldn’t come up to the surface to recharge our batteries.
“For three days we were stuck – you can’t surface in a rough sea and you can’t dive in a rough sea - that’s just the way a submarine works. By the end, we’re doing about one and a half knots, just barley moving forward to try and maintain our batteries and keep some power so we can have lights and everything onboard that we needed until we could come up to the surface.
“That was one experience. After three days everyone was starting to get a little worried because the battery power was getting quite low.”
When Desrosiers learned that the HMCS Ojibwa was making its way to Port Burwell, departing Hamilton on November 18, 2012, he thought back to his early days on Ojibwa, and realized the impact that serving in the Navy and on the cold war-era submarine has had on his life.
“Sunday morning when I got up, I knew she was coming through in Port Weller and the canal. And while I was having my morning coffee pictures kept going through my mind - of the years I was onboard Ojibwa. I didn’t see an empty submarine, I could see crew members and things that happened while we were onboard – people playing cards and watching movies. It was just like a movie in my head of the time that I spent at sea, some of the ports we went through, the exercises we did and even some of the things we got into, the little skirmishes.”
As a submariner, Desrosiers understands the important role the HMCS Ojibwa will have in Port Burwell and in educating Canadians about the Navy and about submarines.
“From the first time I heard that they were bringing the submarine here to Port Burwell, I thought it was great. It’s something that’s going to be great for the community, it will bring in tourism, help businesses in the area and it’s a great opportunity for Canadians who have never seen a submarine or never had a chance to step onboard a submarine to actually see something that has spent 30-some-odd years at sea – a submarine that had people working onboard and that travelled around the world,” added Desrosiers.
“To have that here in a small community like Port Burwell - it’s great.”