Korean War veteran recalls his time in the navy

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Korea 1-web
Retired Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) Leading Seaman veteran John Hamilton was showing the photo of the HMCS Quebec from October 1951 which he said he was probably steering at the time. He also served on her sister ship Ontario.

By Lucie Roy

Cardiff – John Hamilton sits at a table holding a picture taken at the age of 18 when he was in the Royal Canadian Navy. Although it’s been 60 years since the end of the Korean War, the memories of his time serving in the navy during that conflict and beyond are like it was yesterday when he was young and felt indestructible.

Hamilton said he took his training at Cornwallis after he joined the navy in 1951 as a cadet. “Cornwallis was all navy then,” he said. “RCN forever.” He went to the naval airbase at Dartmouth a few months after signing up, ending up on crash boats, which were stripped-back PT boats used to rescue downed pilots.

From there he went to the HMCS Quebec to take part in Operation Mainbrace, a naval exercise conducted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to show members Norway and Denmark their country would be defended in case of a war with Russia. “This was the largest naval exercise since the Normandy landing,” Hamilton said, adding the exercise involved naval fleets from the USA, Great Britain, Canada and others. During his time in the navy Hamilton served on three ships, the HMCS Quebec, Athabaskan and Ontario.

John was just turning 18 years of age when he went to Korea on the HMCS Athabaskan for a year. He was there when the war ended. Hisuties on the Athabaskan included shore batteries, troops and naval gunfire support, also known as bombardments. Hamilton said he was a naval seaman and his job was a quartermaster, which he said was the best seaman on the ship.

He also performed navigation control duties, and his action station during times of conflict was right gun x gun. His job was to load the shells in the barrel of the weapon, close it with a fist action so as not to lose any fingers. “The biggest problem is that every ship had dud rounds,” Hamilton said,” adding they would wait 20 minutes to see if it would go off. When in wartime situations they would try the round three times, wait only five minutes. With one person behind him they would open the breech quickly, catch the round and throw it overboard. They always hoped it would not go off. Hamilton said it never did on the ship he was on, but a few were killed performing the same duty on other ships.

Hamilton’s main job was patrol bombardment, and then carrier patrol and rescuing downed pilots. They were promised their weight in ice cream for every rescue. Hamilton said the navy still owes him more than 700 pounds of ice cream.

Hamilton celebrated his 20th birthday in Korea. When he came back to Canada he was still too young to go to the bar, as the drinking age was 21. He served five years with the navy in active service and five years with the RCN Reserves. After his time in the military, Hamilton joined the Edmonton Police Department Dog Unit and served for 30 years. Hamilton has numerous medals for serving in Korea: the Commonwealth Medal, United Nations and Canada medal.


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Korea War veterans were honoured at the Alberta Legislature July 28, the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire. A similar ceremony was held in Hamilton July 28 and two others were held July 27, one in Brampton Ontario and one in Calgary. The Korean War began in 1950 and ended in 1953. More than 26,000 Canadians served in Korea. Of those, 1,500 were wounded and 516 paid the price of freedom with their lives. Veterans Affairs created a certificate of recognition to honour the veterans and 2013 was declared as the Year of the Korean War Veteran. Hamilton is eligible to apply for the Certificate as well as another from the United States.

Korea2-web
John Hamilton with a picture of himself at the age of 18 when he was in the Royal Canadian Navy.

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