Battle of the Atlantic Heroes: Ordinary Seaman Fraser McKee

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Battle of the Atlantic Heroes / July 14, 2020

I joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) as an ordinary seaman in 1943 because my father had been in the Non-Permanent Active Militia all his life; soldiering was a tradition in our family. His uncle had commanded the 48th Highlanders in the First World War.

I’d sailed a lot and been around boats most of my youth at a cottage in Pictou, N.S., and had been impressed with His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Saguenay’s annual visit to a festival each summer. 

I didn’t join my father’s outfit, the Signals, as if I got anywhere I thought people would figure it was just my father helping me along, since by then he was a colonel.

My early days in training were easy as I’d been a cadet and eventually a drill sergeant in a Corps at school, which I much enjoyed. It made naval training easier by far. 

After training from March 1943 until February 1944, I went to sea as an ordinary seaman in the armed yacht HMCS Vision, out of Digby, N.S, and then anti-submarine escort duty for the Canadian Pacific Railway ferry Princess Helene, Digby to Saint John, N.B., and back.

I sailed one passage in a destroyer from Halifax to Cornwallis, N.S., in a February gale. I thought we were done for when the alarm bells went off due to a short circuit. My only feeling was “well, we’re all going to drown for sure, but that’s the chance you take. My poor mother – my father away for four years fighting in Italy and I’m drowned at sea!”

During the war I received letters from my mother, brother or sister once or twice a week, and from my father about monthly. And care packages – chocolate, snacks and clothing items like socks, sweaters, scarves and other things knitted by my industrious grandmother who lived with us. Occasionally cigarettes for trading (I didn’t smoke) or later pipe tobacco when I smoked a pipe at sea. My mother wrote my father twice a week for over five years.

My mother was worried about my health and safety, although she never said a word about it so it wouldn’t bother me. 

I ended the war in May 1945 in the escort HMCS Wallaceburg, operating out of Halifax.  We brought in the last west-bound convoy of the war to New York, picked up at sea from the mid-ocean. I still have the White Ensign we flew.

I stayed in the Reserves until 1978 specializing in anti-submarine warfare and retired as a commander after 35 years of service. 

I am the author/co-author of six books on Royal Canadian Navy and Merchant Navy history, and write book reviews and articles for several journals on naval subjects. I was national president of the Navy League of Canada and have been the editor of several newsletters.