Peter Godwin Chance was wearing his “bum freezer uniform” comprised of “a short jacket open in front with a vest underneath … at the throat maroon coloured patches” proudly proclaiming he held the rank of Midshipman in Canada’s Naval Reserve. He was 18 years old; the year was 1938 and he was reporting to Division Headquarters located in Kresge’s department store basement at the corner of O’Connor and Slater streets in Ottawa.
Less than a year later Midshipman Chance was on his way to Halifax to report for duty at Admiralty House, in 1939 the Naval Officers Mess, Atlantic Command. In his book A Sailors Life, he recalls the sunny June day in ’39 “when I arrived in Halifax via the CNR Ocean Limited. The typical summer fog had burned off leaving the all too familiar pervading odor from the National Fish Plant not far beyond the railway station and the fumes from the Imperial Oil Refinery in Dartmouth across the harbour.”
Not that sounds and smells dismayed him. “I was young, I knew absolutely nothing – but, damn it, I was eager,” he told me a dozen years ago in the quiet comfort of his Sidney home. Eager enough to be excited when shown to his “cabin” equipped with “two iron beds, a small table, and a chest of drawers for each bed. There was a window, otherwise, it was pretty spartan.”
His cabin-mate was Surgeon Lieutenant Charles Best “like me a new boy … I remember him as a very kind man … and appreciated only later that he was one of the internationally famous pair of Doctors Best and Banting, the discoverers of insulin.”
That was in June of 1939. By September, Canada was at war with Germany, and teenager Chance was onboard HMCS St. Laurent making regular runs from Halifax to the Grand Banks on convoy escort duty. “This was before re-fuelling at sea was invented. We could only go as far as the Grand Banks then we had to run for home to refuel.”
If accommodation at Admiralty House had been spartan it rated as luxurious when compared with the St. Laurent where “my hammock was slung in kitty-corner fashion over an oil fuel tank hatch and about six inches below a bright light that never went out.”
Peter Chance survived the Atlantic and by 1940 was attending Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, England. In London, he tasted “The Blitz.”
On completion of his courses, Midshipman Chance was assigned to the Royal Navy’s HMS Mauritius, a Colony Class cruiser. He was on Mauritius in Singapore on December 7, 1941, when the news broke that Pearl Harbour had been attacked. Three days later Japanese bombers sank the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse.
Other adventures were awaiting the young officer as he moved up the promotion ladder from midshipman to lieutenant to commander. He had earned his wings and served on HMCS Magnificent but is quick to point out “I never flew from her.”
He was on HMCS Skeena for operation Neptune on D-Day and later when she went aground and was lost. He served on many ships as a specialist in air control and command. He held 10 staff appointments including a period at Naval Headquarters, Ottawa, where it all started and where he retired with the rank of commander in 1970 to assume the position of Executive Officer at Osgoode Hall Law School. In 1974, he retired again, this time to Vancouver Island.
He still lives in Sidney as he awaits his 100th birthday on Nov. 24. And, if a cameo appearance on CHEK TV a few days ago is any indication, he can still recall with merriment details of high adventure that were far from humourous when they were happening. His most memorable ship’s doctor story was interspersed with chuckles when he told me of his first meeting with Surgeon Lieutenant Joseph C. Cyr who served on HMCS Cayuga when she sailed from Esquimalt for a 12-month tour of duty off the coast of Korea in 1951.
Lieutenant Chance had been suffering from a painful, badly infected, toe when “Dr. Joe” came aboard. His verdict on the new doc? “He examined, operated skillfully, the toe healed perfectly. We could have confidence in our surgeon.”
While on station in Korea, Surgeon Cyr earned respect from officers and men for his treatment of both crew and badly wounded soldiers evacuated from on-shore operations. Writing about it later in his memoir Commander Chance wrote: “Cyr calmly moved among the soldiers seemingly without a care in the world. He also won plaudits from Cayuga’s Captain – Commander James Plomer (cct) – for an emergency at-sea dental operation.
Fellow officers felt “Dr. Joe” deserved a medal and wrote a formal citation.
The response from Ottawa was received during a night bombardment of Korean coastal positions. It read: “Captain’s eyes only. Have reason to believe your Medical Officer is imposter. Investigate and report.”
The story made international headlines; the navy was embarrassed. Hollywood made a movie The Great Imposter; Tony Curtis played the lead and Ferdinand Waldo Demara – Surgeon Joseph Cyr unmasked – was invited to attend a Cayuga crew reunion a short time later. Waldo was dressed as a priest – and nobody asked if he was.
I end this short tribute with best wishes for Commander Chance as he closes in on 100. I thank him for his good humour and generosity of spirit – as “an officer and a gentleman.”