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Brave sailor remembers war, HMCS Sault Ste. Marie (5 photos)

Effort is underway to retrieve ship's bell, bring it home to the Sault

"A sailor's greatest fear was the sea, not the enemy."

That from Laurie MacKenzie, now 91, one of the last surviving Second World War crew members of HMCS Sault Ste. Marie.

"That's a very, very true statement…on the Atlantic, in a storm, the waves could be up to 25 or 26 feet high, and the Sault Ste. Marie being a small ship, she bounced all over the place," said MacKenzie, speaking to SooToday.

HMCS Sault Ste. Marie was a Royal Canadian Navy minesweeper built to escort Allied merchant ships travelling the North Atlantic and hunt down the deadly German U-boats sent to sink them.

The vessel was originally intended to be called "The Soo," but Sault Ste. Marie's city council and many citizens protested.

Construction on the ship began in 1942 in Port Arthur, Ontario, and it went into action in 1943.

After the war ended in 1945, it was used as a training vessel based on the West coast, and eventually scrapped in 1960.

"We encountered a few U-boats, we fired the depth charges, we had a couple of close calls…we picked them up on the sonar, we knew they were there, so there was always a certain amount of danger," MacKenzie said.

HMCS Sault Ste. Marie was never damaged by an enemy sub or aircraft, and MacKenzie never saw any of his own shipmates killed or wounded.

"Not on our ship, but we saw merchant ships in the convoy being attacked, we saw a few of them sunk, people in the water," MacKenzie said, his voice growing quiet.

"That part, I try not to remember."

MacKenzie held the rank of Able Seaman Gunner.

"We did four-hour watches, and eight-hour watches."

"On the four-hour watch, you did one hour on the wheel, one hour on each side of the ship, port and starboard, on the lookout for U-boats, and then you did one hour as a messenger, the captain's errand boy…on eight hour watches you did a couple of hours training and a lot of housekeeping, like laundry."

In a touch of irony, one of the dinner platters from HMCS Sault Ste. Marie, which MacKenzie probably cleaned as part of his housekeeping duties, now hangs in a frame on one of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 25's walls.

"That's humorous, how that memory came back," MacKenzie said.

"We also did Arctic patrol…the ship totally ices up, the wires, the railings, the deck is just coated with ice, and the only way you could go outside on deck was to be in a harness with a rope tied to you, and you still had to do your duties."

MacKenzie said it was terrifying, "but you accepted those things, this was part of your job, you did it and you didn't question it."

Steering HMCS Sault Ste. Marie using its large wooden wheel is another memory for MacKenzie.

"It was very difficult in a heavy sea because you had to stay on course…and I weighed only 120 pounds, so I fought the wheel quite often."

Among other war memories MacKenzie has is the food served on the ship.

"Just about everything we ate was cooked in stewed tomatoes…we ate fried eggs and bacon covered in stewed tomatoes."

"We called it 'red lead,' and to this day I can't stand stewed tomatoes," MacKenzie laughed.

Because MacKenzie is a Royal Canadian Legion Branch 25 member, and because he served on HMCS Sault Ste. Marie, one tends to automatically think MacKenzie is a Sault native.

In fact, MacKenzie is a recent arrival in the Sault, having moved here with his wife to be with his daughter and two grandchildren in 2009.

MacKenzie was born in Moncton, New Brunswick.

After the war, MacKenzie went back to school and worked as an adult educator for the government of Manitoba.

His long career as an educator included a six-and-a-half year stint in China to teach English as a second language, accompanied by his wife Betts.

Since MacKenzie now resides in the Sault, an effort is underway to retrieve HMCS Sault Ste. Marie's bell, to be put on display at Royal Canadian Legion Branch 25.

The naval gun on display in front of Branch 25, facing Great Northern Road, is believed to be from HMCS Sault Ste. Marie.

There is also a bell on display beside the gun, with the city's name clearly visible on its surface, but it is not the original HMCS Sault Ste. Marie bell, according to Bill Bennett, Royal Canadian Legion Branch 25 cenotaph chair.

"It's a ship's bell, but it doesn't have the ship's name engraved on it, that one's just got a band on it," Bennett told SooToday.

Many ship bells were originally sent to the museum ship HMCS Haida, then sent out to various Canadian Forces bases.

Bennett has done a considerable amount of research as to the original HMCS Sault Ste. Marie bell's whereabouts, and believes it is now at CFB Kingston.

He has been in communication with that base to confirm that, and is awaiting a response.

"If it is, I am hoping they can bring the bell here to the Sault, because Laurie is one of the last surviving members of HMCS Sault Ste. Marie that served on it during the war, and I would love to have the bell here for him," Bennett said.

"I would love to have it here when we remember the Battle of the Atlantic in May down on the waterfront so he can ring the ship's bell, that's our ultimate goal."

Bennett said he is waiting to see Mayor Christian Provenzano to enlist his help in getting the bell, and also plans on contacting Sault MP Terry Sheehan regarding the matter.

"This is Sault Ste. Marie history, the bell should be in our hometown," Bennett said.

"It's important the next generation has the history…a lot of people don't know what these veterans did for us and they'd be shocked if they understood what these veterans did when they were 19, 20 and 21 years old."

Bennett said anyone who may have more information that could lead to getting hold of the bell may contact him at 705-945-8721 or by fax at 705-945-6372 or by email at [email protected]

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Darren Taylor

About the Author: Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor is a news reporter and photographer in Sault Ste Marie. He regularly covers community events, political announcements and numerous board meetings. With a background in broadcast journalism, Darren has worked in the media since 1996.
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