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Naval veteran reflects on career after retirement move to Unity

Twenty-three year veteran of Canada's Royal Canadian Navy, Mike Ball reflects on his career.

UNITY — New Unity resident Mike Ball moved here from Victoria, B.C. earlier this year with his wife Annette. Ball was in the Royal Canadian Navy for 23 and a half years, and reflected on his career as Remembrance Day approached.

In the 1980s, boot camp for all branches of the Canadian Armed Forces was at the Cornwallis base in Nova Scotia. Ball started boot camp there July 14, 1983, alongside another 135 recruits in his platoon. Ten weeks later, only 106 were left to be recognized at the graduation ceremonies, but Ball was one of them.

Although Ball planned to join the navy, boot camp had nothing to do with ships or boats. Instead, alongside army and air force recruits, he went through basic military training which included lots of marching, physical training, first aid education, weapons training; nuclear, biological and chemical warfare defence (e.g., use of masks, etc.); and learning about military customs and law.

CFB Cornwall was a busy place in the early 1980s – with Canada in a recession, many recruits were part of the Manpower Youth Temporary Program. Manpower would pay half the wages for the first year of employment which enabled the Department of National Defence to test new recruits at half the salary costs for their first year. With the recruiting push, a platoon was graduating at Cornwallis every week. Ball said there were thus 1,800 people on parade each Friday at the graduation ceremonies.

After completing boot camp, as a naval recruit, Ball was posted to the Canadian Forces Fleet School in Halifax, N.S., for seamanship training. A ship in extended readiness was used to provide hands-on training.

Some lessons on board this ship were ship firefighting, naval terminology, how to use the bosun call (a pipe used to communicate to the various areas of the ship), naval traditions and command structure, how to use and read the different flags used for sending signals and basic seamanship which included knot tying, rope work, lowering and raising boats and using oars to manoeuvre a 17-foot whaler.

The next step

The next step was to learn a specific trade, which in Ball’s case was radar operator. He started as a radar plotter.

In those days before computers and digitalization, the person reading the radar display would verbally communicate the information to the plotter. The plotter would map out the information with pen and paper to create a tactical picture of where the ship was and what was within an eight-mile radius. Using their own gyroscope, showing the course of their ship, and the ship’s log, recording its speed, one could then calculate the courses and speeds of the other vessels around.

Today, of course, the information is fed through computers and computers create the tactical picture onscreen. The pictures now extend to a radius of 1,000 miles.

Because the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union was still in effect when Ball began his career, the ships he served on in the 1980s – destroyer escorts HMSC Kootenay and HMSC Yukon – spent a lot of time tracking and chasing Russian submarines away from the British Columbia coast.

On those first ships – which were already 25 years old when he joined the navy – there was virtually no privacy. On the Kootenay, there were 45 bunks on the mess deck where he slept and no privacy curtains. Each person was assigned a locker, two feet wide and five feet high, and that, along with the bunk, was the extent of their personal space.

Promotions followed, from ordinary seaman to able seaman in 1984, to leading seaman in 1987 and master seaman in 1989. In 1992, Ball worked at the flight school in Esquimalt, B.C. as a radar instructor. He said it was a nice break to be on land for a while and to work close to home, after having spent anywhere from 265 to 300 days a year on board ship away from home during his early years in the navy.

Ball did get back on board ships again however, helping to commission both the HMSC Vancouver and HMSC Regina in 1983. The Regina and Vancouver were new frigates ordered by the Canadian Navy to replace the aging destroyer escorts. He was part of the crew that boarded these ships at Halifax, learning and testing the new systems. Once each ship was provisionally accepted by the navy, they set out to sea, crossing through the Panama Canal to reach what would become their home port of Esquimalt.

While the newer ships had more space, more water available, a more comfortable galley and mess area and a little more privacy with bigger bunk spaces and curtains, the challenge of “a lifestyle of living and working on something that’s constantly moving” always remained. In addition, everyone still had to take a turn on duty watch, sometimes interrupting sleep. Meals could also be interrupted with drills. Ball says, “personal hygiene and eating always comes second to the needs of the ship.”

Moving through the ranks

As Ball moved up through the ranks – being promoted to Petty Officer 2nd Class in 1993 and Petty Officer 1st Class in 1996 – he became responsible for others. At one time he had 15 people under his command, which he described as challenging but also rewarding in terms of being able to help someone out. Even administering discipline could be rewarding in terms of helping someone get off a wrong path.

However, being in the middle, between his own commanding officers and those he commanded, could be difficult. He explained sometimes his rank allowed him to know details that he was not allowed to share and that could make communicating orders down the chain challenging. The expectations of people above him were not always realistic and it was a balancing act in terms of nevertheless making an effort to meet those expectations whilst still keeping the people below him safe and motivated to perform what could be unpopular tasks.

Ball served on HMSC Regina a second time, in 2002, when the ship was preparing to go to the Persian Gulf to aid with Operation Apollo. After the 911 attacks in New York, Canada was the first nation, after the United States, to send warships to Southeast Asia. The deployment was Canada’s largest naval commitment since the Second World War.

Ball on HMSC Regina was in the Persian Gulf for four months, March to June, 2003. The Canadians would board ships – always at night – looking for illegal exports of oil. During that deployment, the Regina made 25 night boardings.

The ship also escorted ships and supplies through the Strait of Hormouz, between Yemen and Iran – the same amount of tonnage in four months that would have crossed the Atlantic in support of Britain during the whole of the Second World War. Ball said the strait was only 25 miles wide and Iran and Yemen both had eight miles of territorial water, leaving only nine miles of water in which the warships and their escortees could manoeuvre. Iran “was not happy about it,” Ball said and sometimes sent their warplanes out to harass them with flyovers.

Although all ships set up duty watches even when anchored in peaceful harbours, while enroute to and in the Persian Gulf, some of the Regina’s crew were also assigned to force protection watches. This requires sailors to be on the upper deck with loaded weapons. As second in command for the force protection watch, Ball carried a sidearm while non-commissioned seaman had rifles. Because of the high temperatures in the Middle East, the sailors on these watches had to be rotated out as often as every two hours.

Ball remembers his clean dark blue uniform turning completely grey after only one watch of two and a half hours during a sandstorm.

Rightfully proud of service record

Ball is rightfully proud of his entire service record and of “being part of something bigger than yourself and representing Canada,” but he also remembers a few special events. When in the Philippines on the Regina, he was part of a crew that painted an orphanage. In his early days of patrolling the B.C. coast, they helped a fishing boat that had caught fire. After helping put out the fire, they stayed with the captain and crew until arrangements had been made to tow the vessel back to Vancouver.

He is also proud of a letter of appreciation and recognition he received from the admiral at Bangor, Wash, the home port of the U.S. Navy’s Trident nuclear submarines When he was working at Esquimalt headquarters in 1995-96, he co-ordinated with visiting ships to arrange for whatever they might need when coming to port at Esquimalt. Some of those visiting ships were the Trident nuclear submarines.

Ball’s service in the navy was part of a family effort. His father, Gordon, was in the navy for 35 years, retiring as a Petty Officer, 2nd Class. Two of his father’s uncles served on the first two Canadian warships. Two great-great-uncles served in the Royal Navy. In1985, during the Royal Canadian Navy’s 75th anniversary celebrations, the Balls – Mike, Gordon and Gordon’s two uncles – were recognized for over 50 years of combined service.

Ball and wife Annette moved to Unity from Victoria, partly due to economic reasons with the cost of living being considerably less here; but coming to Saskatchewan was also a bit of a homecoming for them. Gordon graduated from Biggar High School in 1956, and the family had originally homesteaded at Chaplin. Annette’s mother grew up in Lake Lenore and she herself was born in Saskatoon.

Now in landlocked Saskatchewan, Ball said sometimes he misses being out on the ocean but “I don’t miss what I used to have to do on the ocean.”

Semi-retired, Ball is today employed with Living Sky School Division as a school bus driver. Annette has joined two quilting groups while Ball is an active member of the Unity Legion. The couple attend Unity United Church.


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