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PHOTOS: 91-year-old Saanich veteran recalls life at sea aboard the Athabaskan

Canadian Navy member shares his experiences while serving in the 1950s

Saanich veteran Clifford Williamson, 91, can vividly recall his days in the Canadian Navy aboard the HMCS Athabaskan.

The Athabaskan (second of the name) was commissioned on Jan. 20, 1948, and sailed in May for the west coast where new entries and officer cadets were trained until the outbreak of the Korean War.

Born in Vancouver on Sept. 23 1930, Williamson said he was a hard-working young man who found himself working closely with the ocean beginning at age 15. He had various jobs working for an oyster company, on a crab boat, and even on land in a sawmill.

With an affinity for boats and the vast ocean, he joined the Navy in 1949 at age 19 as a new entry.

“South Korea was invaded by the North Koreans, assisted by China, in the summer of 1950 and that’s when we were sent there on our Canadian destroyers,” he said.

Williamson shared the memories that stood out to him the most with Black Press Media by first recalling an experience on North Korean waters while on duty on the Yellow Sea. They were there to rescue a downed pilot in the Yalu River, he said.

While Williamson was in the operations room he recalls their ship taking fire from the North Koreans.

“There was nothing we could do and nowhere we could go because the mouth of the Yalu River was too narrow,” he said, remembering the sounds of the underwater explosions on both sides and in front of them – but he didn’t feel afraid.

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Crews managed to rescue the downed pilot and not get hit while making a hasty escape.

In November 1950, while aboard the Athabaskan, Williamson reflected on a frightening memory when travelling from Japan to Hong Kong where crews were set to rest upon arrival.

In the middle of the night, the crew was awakened to a powerful storm and the noise of the ship rolling right through a colossal wave, effectively tipping the ship to a 65-degree angle. All of the hammocks where the men normally slept were tilted toward the head of the deck and all the lockers, refrigerators and other objects were on the opposite side of the boat, tipped toward the port side.

“The officer on watch managed to straighten up the boat up before it capsized,” said Williamson, adding that they were lucky to be able to put everything back in its place as the storm eased, continuing safely on their journey while mentally recovering from the distressing event.

On their last night of rest and recovery in Hong Kong, Williamson described a memory that stands out to him the most to this day while on duty, before returning to Japan.

He was detailed to get to the stern of the ship around 10 p.m. and bring the captain’s motorboat to the port side where there would be a lift to be hoisted to the deck by other crew members.

Fellow crew on duty lifted the hoist as Williamson stood in the stern of the motorboat. When it was nearly at deck level, approximately 30 feet above the water, the rear cable snapped.

Williamson was knocked unconscious as his back hit the stern of the boat and he fell to the ocean. The next thing he recalls is coming to while underwater where he could see the lights from the ship from about 20 feet beneath the surface.

Now 30 feet from the ship, he managed to swim close enough where crew members were hopeful that he’d resurface. When he did, they tossed him a rope and pulled him to safety.

Williamson’s back was out for four days after the incident at a time when painkillers were not as accessible. He said that he is grateful to have survived – chalking it up to his youth, fitness and having been knocked unconscious during the fall.

He served a total of five years in the Navy and if there is one piece of advice he could offer, it is to take good care of your health and fitness and to maintain a good sense of humour.

“I believe that is why I have lived to be 91 – I am still healthy and I feel great about myself.”

Family, friends and caretakers describe him as a wonderful friend who is always making everyone around him laugh as he dons T-shirts that say “90 and fabulous,” and “I Shih Tzu not,” in tribute to his dog Jeffrey.

He said he was honoured to have served and is grateful for every experience while in the Navy – even the difficult ones.

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