She is the most decorated warship in Canadian history because she fought in more battles and sank more enemy vessels than any other. But one of the most harrowing voyages HMCS Haida undertook was to cross Lake Ontario four years ago from Toronto to Port Weller. Many fans feared she wouldn't survive the 32-kilometre trip. Her 59-year-old bottom was paper thin.
But HMCS Haida did survive and after a $3.5 million retrofit at the Port Weller Dry Docks, she proudly sailed into Hamilton Harbour (under tow) in 2004 to become the centrepiece of that city's campaign to convert its industrial harbour to a people place.
Today, the fit and refurbished Haida is tied up to Pier 9 all decked out in her colourful signal flags and welcoming aboard the public to learn about the exciting career of this National Historic Site.
HMCS Haida arrived in Hamilton close to her christening date 60 years earlier in Britain in the midst of the Second World War. There were 27 tribal class destroyers built in Britain, and the Haida is the last one afloat. Britain lost 12 during the war, Canada lost one - the Athabaskan which went down with 128 crew aboard - and three served in the Australia navy.
The Haida served in both the Second World War and Korean War, where she blew an enemy train off its tracks and joined the elite Trainbusters Club of the U.S. Navy. Any vessel could join if it was able to knock a train of its tracks. That is one of many stories you can hear from the navy vets volunteering to guide visitors around the vessel. They also apply tender loving care to the ship and its equipment after the visitors go home.
The Haida was destined to be scrapped when decommissioned by the Royal Canadian Navy in 1963, A group of Toronto-area businessmen lead by Air Canada pilot Neil Bruce and Bill Doole, editor of the Brampton Times newspaper, believed Canada's most decorated warship deserved a better fate. They managed to scrape together $20,000 to buy the destroyer from the government, plus another $6,000 to have her towed to Toronto from Sorel, Que.
The Haida sat at the Toronto waterfront for seven years as a memorial to Canadian sailors and as a training base for sea cadets. But the vessel always faced economic storms that threatened to sink her until the Ontario government bought the ship in 1970 to be part of its new Ontario Place entertainment centre opening on Toronto's western waterfront. There she sat for 33 years as a tourist attraction and sometime musician. The Haida got to perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra several times at Ontario Place. During the orchestra's playing of the 1812 Overture, the Haida fired her four-inch guns to simulate the cannons in that piece. Her guns could fire a 66-pound shell 120 kilometres, but she was firing blanks at Ontario Place.
Parks Canada now owns and operates HMCS Haida, which is open daily during the summer from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for public tours. It costs $4 for adults, $3.50 for seniors, $2 for children or $10 for a family. Volunteers on the vessel can explain her various weapon systems, her radio and radar systems, kitchen, hospital and living quarters for her 260 officers and crew. Her steam-powered engines produced 44,000 hp and could drive the 377-foot destroyer through the waves at a maximum speed of 36.5 knots (60 km/hr.). You could water-ski behind the Haida, if you could tolerate the wake.
The volunteers point out the bullet hole in the captain's day room left there by the German destroyer T-29 on April 6, 1944. Fred DeMara isn't one of the volunteers, but he served on the Haida as a phony doctor during the Korean conflict. Fred was the renowned Great Imposter, a man who held various responsible positions without ever attaining the training or education required. Tony Curtis played Fred in the 1961 Oscar-winning movie.
Among the Haida's many honours was the induction of her crew as honorary citizens of Texas in 1956. That was because the Haida rescued the crew of a downed American B-29 bomber off the coast of Bermuda. Many of the bomber crew were from Texas. The Royal Canadian Navy had 400 vessels in its fleet at the end of the Second World War.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.
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