The longest coastline in the world will always need to be protected, in times of war or in times of peace.
Nanaimo’s Gord Buch, a petty officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, was entrusted with his share of that responsibility in the years immediately following the Second World War.
Starting in 1946, Buch served five years in the navy and then five years with the navy reserves, working in the engine room branch on destroyers, an aircraft carrier, a minesweeper and a frigate.
As a teenager from the backwoods of Ontario, Buch found himself forced out of a job by men wreturning from war.
“So I said, ‘I’ll get even with them; I’ll take their job.’ So I joined the navy,” he said.
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He trained at Naden at Esquimalt, then went to Halifax to train as an engineering mechanic and take on other roles working shore patrol and even cleaning toilets.
The first ship he served on was the HMCS Micmac destroyer, but only for about three months before it collided with the SS Yarmouth County. Five people on the Micmac were killed in the crash and another 15 were injured as the destroyer suffered significant damage to its bow.
A little while after that, Buch was transferred to Belfast, Northern Ireland, as construction was completed on the HMCS Magnificent aircraft carrier. Once it was finished, Buch took a boatload of photographers out to take pictures of ‘the Maggie’ as it arrived at Portsmouth, England; unfortunately, he couldn’t get the boat’s motor going and had to be towed by a paddlewheel tug back to port.
“They put me back in the engine room,” Buch said.
He would serve two years on the Magnificent, travelling from the Caribbean to the Arctic. Buch worked on air conditioning, refrigeration and steering systems on the carrier as it mostly served to provide pilot training.
“We were getting into the flying business and at that time, early ’48, we had more airplanes than the Canadian Air Force,” said Buch. “And we had one of the best aircraft around, much better than the Spitfire, which was called a Sea Fury.”
Plenty of the planes ended up in the sea back then.
“We had a catapult to help them shoot off the front and when they landed, you had a half-dozen wires strung across and the airplane came down and had a hook on the back and caught the wire and stopped it right on the spot, because there wasn’t enough distance to slow them down on the ship,” Buch said. “And if they missed the wire when they were landing, they had a big wire barrier up and they’d crash into the barrier.”
The Maggie was accompanied by two destroyers, which deployed rescue boats when necessary.
“I’ve seen us go out with 27 airplanes and three months later we’d come back, we wouldn’t have one that could fly anymore, because we were training new pilots,” Buch said.
The Maggie also had some missions. It successfully located a crashed B29 in the Caribbean, though two other planes were lost in the search. Its trip up to the Canadian Arctic was to scout possible locations for radar bases.
After the Magnificent, Buch worked as a Jeep driver at the Halifax base, at a naval radio station in Ottawa and served on the HMCS Portage minesweeper at Norfolk, Va.
After his initial service was up, he worked for the English oil company Regent. It continued to pay workers during military service, so Buch spent a few months each year with the navy reserves, collecting two paycheques.
Because of his experience and training, he would usually be right back on a ship, whether it was the HMCS Buckingham frigate, the Portage again, or the HMCS Nootka destroyer.
Buch worked in the oil refinery business until the mid-1980s, when he heard about affordable homes in Nanaimo, came to have a look, and crossed paths with Frank Ney himself. Buch has been in the Harbour City ever since, now a resident at Nanaimo Seniors Village and a longtime volunteer at the Vancouver Island Military Museum. He was a board member at the museum for years and is now a docent, happy to show visitors around.
“We tell salty tales – some of them are even true,” he laughed.
As another Remembrance Day approaches, Buch hopes people keep in mind how the navy has kept watch over Canada’s waters.
“If you didn’t have any military, you don’t have any say in what’s going on internationally in the world,” he said. “So you have to have some kind of military and you have to have a naval presence to patrol … the largest coastline in the world.”