By Sue Tiffin
While some people were crossing the border from America to Canada to flee participation in the Vietnam war, Jim Ross was prepared to head straight into it.
“That concern wasn’t there,” said Ross. “Coming from a family that had been through it, that was nothing. It was just something you had to do.”
At the time, back when he was “a young lad,” Ross said there were plenty of Canadians who crossed the border to join the American forces.
“There were many, many Canadians that went the other way,” he said. “At that time it was very easy. They were desperate for manpower in their armed forces, and we had lots of Canadians that were willing to join.”
Ross was 18-years-old and living in Hamilton living close to the border when he crossed it to sign up, joining the United States Marine Corps.
“I came from a military family and again, like any other kid coming out of high school, you know, looking for work and a career, I was going to join the military,” he said. “It was sort of pre-destined that I would go into the military.”
Ross was accepted into the marine corps, got his travel papers, but on the way back from Buffalo, he also went into the recruiting centre in Hamilton to sign up for the Royal Canadian Navy.
“I had to make a choice,” he said. “Because of family pressure – my dad was a very, very loyal Canadian – and I guess for that reason, I went and found myself in Halifax.”
Ross said his dad, and his dad’s two brothers had all served in the Canadian military during the Second World War. His dad served overseas for six years.
“He’d gone in, in 1939, and came out in ‘46, in the Royal Canadian Regiment,” said Ross. “He went through it all – North Africa, Sicily, Italy and into D-Day, through Belgium and Holland. He was an old soldier and he was very proud of Canada, which is one of the reasons I ended up in the Royal Canadian Navy instead of the United States Marine Corps.”
He laughs when he thinks about what he calls his “teenage revolt.”
“My own revolt would be that instead of going into the army, which of course is what my father wanted, that my first reaction was to go over to the other side,” said Ross. “And then I guess my revolt was that I joined the navy, but I don’t think it really mattered to him in the end. He was just glad I was in there. I revolted and went into the navy instead of the army. Teenage revolt, I guess you’d call it.”
Ross affirms many times that his time with the navy was not interesting – he uses the words boring, mundane, “not very exciting, just years at sea.”
“I took advantage of it, the many long nights at sea, and I decided I would start getting my education, and complete my education,” said Ross, who had enlisted before he finished high school. “I completed at that time Ontario Grade 13, completed high school graduation through the navy, which encouraged people to take courses. So I did that. I managed to complete high school at sea, taking advantage of the many hours of boredom.”
While the navy provided Ross the opportunity to get his education, he said there were also many “very, very boring days at sea. It’s not a cruise ship.”
That’s not to say there weren’t adventures, though, such as when he had to report back to the ship in Halifax, and board it without knowing where it was headed.
“What happened was the Cold War was on,” he said. “We had (Nikita) Khrushchev and (John F.) Kennedy and one fine day, we were all ordered back to our ship in Halifax, all navy personnel report back to your ship, and life suddenly changed. We got back to our ship and there were armed guards around it, and we prepared to go to sea not knowing where we were going. They don’t tell the lower deck, just the rank and file, you have no idea what’s going on. However, we got very serious when we saw that they were taking the beer off the ship and putting live ammunition on it.” And then, laughing:
“We knew that something serious was happening.”
Ross said the ship left Halifax, leaving everyone wondering where they were going.
“You have to understand that life on a ship, you can’t keep secrets very long,” he said. “Once he set the course, everybody onboard knew what the course was and we realized we were going south. South meant warm weather, which was a good thing, instead of going east toward England. We were going south into warm weather, so we were all elated about that. We were thinking, oh my God, Bermuda in the winter. But it didn’t end up with that.”
After leaving Halifax to head south, Ross said they met up with the Americans, and suddenly found themselves off Cuba, involved in the Cuba blockade.
“We found ourselves involved in that, stopping freighters at sea and looking for missiles coming into Cuba from Russia,” he said. “We were out there for some time, working with the Americans on the blockade, which is a little known fact of Canadian military because John Diefenbaker was our prime minister, didn’t get along with Kennedy, and said there’d be no Canadian involvement. But I can assure you there was because I was there. It was an interesting political situation, because Diefenbaker and [Kennedy] hated each other, they didn’t get along, but I guess the Canadian admiral and the American admiral got along quite well, because there were three Canadian ships dispatched to that blockade, and we were the lead ship.”
Ross said they stopped freighters and boarded them.
“We went aboard … thank God nobody shot back,” he said. “We went onboard and did the search, the Americans did most of it, they were more prepared than we were. But that’s what we did, we stopped quite a few actually. We didn’t know we were going there and we weren’t prepared, or trained for what we had to do, but we did it anyway – we did what we had to do.”
“We were there until Khrushchev and Kennedy settled their differences, we were gone for quite awhile. Then we finally returned to Halifax after a long time at sea. Relief, it was over. Historically, Khrushchev had put the threat out there that any ships that were stopping freighters, that the Russian submarines would sink us. We had that all on the radio, Khrushchev making his threats at the United Nations, that the Americans had no right to be blocking Cuba, and it was an act of war. The Russian submarines had been dispatched to stop any ships stopping movement of freighters, that kind of thing. That was all there.”
In hindsight, Ross said he thinks about how ill-prepared they were for that kind of task.
“And I think about it from the other side, the poor people on the freighters that we stopped. They were illuminated by star shells and search lights and had guns aimed at them, both from us and from the Americans. They must have been terrified. These were just workers on ships from the Philippines and Southeast Asia, they were just terrified. They were just going with their cargoes coming up the American eastern seaboard. Suddenly they’re stopped at sea – then they look across the water and there’s guns aimed at them. Frightening on their part.”
Ross said his crew was thinking more of submarines.
“There’s certain things that happen at sea, the boredom of it, all you see is water. Then some day you join a NATO exercise or something and see a super aircraft carrier like the Americans have, and you go, ‘wow.’ Or suddenly a submarine pops up beside you out of nowhere.”
That’s what happened one day in the North Atlantic.
“I can remember once, one day, unbeknownst a submarine popped up, very, very close, up from the water,” he said. “It was a British submarine, and they had a problem on board with a crew member who had an appendix attack. They contacted us and we went over, got the guy, and we had a sick bay with a doctor and they did the operation. The submarine disappeared, and then a week later it reappeared to pick him back up. That took away from some of the boredom of the sea.”
There were also cards, a lot of cards, two bottles of beer that were allowed at 4 p.m. – the first dog watch – and a time for Up Spirits.
“I was in the old navy, where they still gave two-and-a-half ounces of rum a day, at 11:30 in the morning,” he said. “It was called Up Spirits. Everything on a Canadian ship is done with what’s called a pipe, and they would call Up Spirits at 11:30 in the morning, and you went and you got your glass and you got your two-and-a-half ounces of black rum. It was a big ceremony, you had to stand there, the officer had a ladle, dipped it into the rum pot, poured it into your glass, you had to mix it there if you mixed it.”
After being at sea for five years, Ross was selected to go for officer-in-training, but after officer school, he realized he felt that life on a ship was confining and he wasn’t inclined to stay. He resumed his studies at McMaster in Hamilton, becoming a teacher and eventually retiring to Haliburton County where he joined Minden’s local legion of which he is now president.
“The military was always ingrained with me, so I became involved with the Legion, helping veterans,” he said. Ross has been a member for over 50 years now, having joined when he was part of the navy.
Ross laughs that like military life, Legion life is in his blood, too. His dad also served as president of the local legion at home for years.
“The Legion – it’s got an obligation to help veterans who need help, and we do that very well. We take care of what veterans we have – there are more than what you think,” he said. “And we have an obligation to the community. The community obligation is a big one. My dad always drilled that into my head. Community service is very, very, important. And we do what we can. We generate a lot of income and we give it back.”