Life at sea is not easy, but a Qualicum Beach navy veteran said he enjoyed visiting many ports during his career sailing around the Pacific Ocean. The best memories of his 35 years of service are of the people he met, according to Bill Layman.
“I still am friends with a lot of those people, a lot of them have passed away now, I’m sorry to say,” he said.
Layman’s job meant he sometimes spent as long as six months away from his wife and three children. He joined the navy in 1956 and spent most of his time below deck, maintaining the ship’s engines and boilers.
He served during the Cold War and recalls his ship escorting a Russian submarine away from a Canadian fishing fleet it was guarding. It was not a dramatic moment for him and the other men working below deck, who were unaware it happened until later. He said only the ship’s radar and sonar operators would have known it was happening.
“[The ship was] right off the coast of Russia. We never went in, but we could see the land — we were in that close. And they were watching us like we were watching them,” said Layman.
Layman worked aboard a naval destroyer escort that made voyages to Japan, South Korea, Midway island and Australia. He recalled one of his friends pressuring him to get a tattoo when the ship was docked.
“I said, ‘I don’t want a tattoo.’ But we stopped at a bar and had some beers and this and that and by the time we got to the tattoo place I thought ‘what the heck,’” said Layman.
He got a small tattoo of a skunk on his left arm and his friend had the word ‘Mary’ tattooed on his right forearm. Things ended with Mary a few years later and his friend had the tattoo removed, said Layman.
Layman and his crew alternated between the mechanical work, cleaning duties and endless drilling.
“We were the firefighting team on board the ship,” he said. Layman would throw on his respirator at a moment’s notice when called upon. A fire on the ship was dangerous and could spread quickly, so drills were one of the most important and frequent tasks.
Naval life was very different back then, said Layman, recalling the daily rum ration every crew member received at 12:30. Each man would receive a 2.5 oz ration, a Canadian naval tradition that lasted until 1972, according to the CFB Esquimalt Naval Museum. Layman said the practice got a few men in trouble, but was sorely missed when it was discontinued. His ship was pulling into San Francisco when word got out.
“We made a small coffin out of wood. When they took the [rum] away from us, we went to the back of the ship and dropped the coffin over the side to bury the rum,” he said, chuckling.
Rum was used to numb a man’s pain when having a tooth pulled, perk up a sailor who fell overboard during drilling and was even handed out by the ship’s doctor if a man felt sick.
Layman did not have a big problem with seasickness, but it could be a career-ender for other men. He recalled one man became ill almost immediately after his ship pulled away from the slip. Layman said the man was forced to carry a bucket with him as he worked because of his constant nausea. Eventually he was evacuated and flown home to Victoria.
Layman said he considers himself lucky — his worst injury was a broken ankle suffered during a baseball game in Esquimalt, playing for the ship’s team.
He retired 30 years ago and joined Royal Canadian Legion Branch 76 in Qualicum Beach, which he said is like a second home for him.
“The Legion is what kept me young and kept me going,” said Layman.