Fifty-five years later, a veteran recognized

Fifty-five years later, a veteran recognized

Ron Ackles is a Canadian Merchant Navy veteran from the Second World War.

Seventeen years ago, 55 years after the Second World War ended, and at the age of 73, Ron Ackles was finally recognized as a veteran and awarded his veteran’s benefits.

Ackles served in the Canadian Merchant Navy during the second world warm enlisting at the age of 16 – a year too young, but back in those days, no one checked.

Ackles is now 90 years old, and is looking forward to another Remembrance Day officially recognized for his service – a relatively recent development after he served for three years.

Ackles’ story began in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 1927. Ackles was born one of eight children, second youngest in the family, but was in and out of foster homes after his father and mother passed when he was six and eight, respectively.

In 1943, at age 16 Ackles signed up to join the Merchant Navy, a redheaded “skinny bugger” looking to service his country. He chose the merchant navy because it was obvious the service needed people. He had his official identification photo taken in a suit he got at a second hand store

“The navy had lots of men but not enough ships, the merchant navy, we had lots of ships and not enough men,” he said. “I was very patriotic.”

“It was no questions asked at that time, it was just that they were short of men,” he said. “No one saying I can’t go. To me it was like a home. Most of the guys were older than me, so they brought me up.”

In the first year of his service Ackles was on a Norwegian tanker. Norway, occupied at the time, was in perpetual need of men for its ships. There was an opening, and Ackles jumped on it ¬first as a galley boy, washing pots and pans, then working his way up to a mess boy, serving the shipmates and officers.

“Some of them spoke English but they said if we’re going to live with you, we’re not going to speak English to you,” Ackles said. “I pretty much had to learn to speak a little Norwegian.”

He worked his way up through the kitchen to an oiler, working on the engine in the bowels of the ship.

That first ship, on Ackles’ very first trip across the Atlantic, would prove to be the most pivitol of his service, and indeed one that would impact him for the rest of his life.

The ship was travelling in a convoy to deliever fuel, escorted by British Navy ships. The convoy was slow, Ackles said, and it took about two weeks to cross the Atlantic.

“I was working in the engine room in a tight tunnel along the shaft that turns the propeller, and the British navy picked up a ping from a submarine, running underneath my ship,” he said. “They dropped a string ‘dep charges,’ underwater bombs, they let that whole string go while I was in there.

“That I will never forget, you’re alone, when I came out of there on hands and needs, blood from my nose, I had a concussion, me and the Norwegian engineer, he though I was may smoking or something, he was hollering – in Norwegian – to get back to work, and then he saw the blood, but I had to finish the shift!”

Ackles lost hearing in both ears for about a week, before his right ear returned. Hearing in his left ear never returned.

Ackles was awarded medals for various types of service – he proudly displayed medals for the Battle of the Atlantic (that first battle where he lost his hearing), as well as the Burma and Indian stars, and a medal for the Italian campaign.

Ackles eventually switched from Norwegian ships to a series of Canadian-built merchant navy ships, named after Canadian parks. He served on the Chippewa Park and Withrow Park ships.

Ackles said he always wanted to be on deck, working to steer and repair the ships. Eventually that happened, when at age 18 Ackles was responsible for steering the 10,000 tonne ships.

“On the Withrow Park [ship] I finally got onto deck, steering, and doing painting and chipping, rusts, splicing ropes, and I was 17 and 18, it is funny to think you can steer a 10,00 tonne ship, and I liked it.”

Working on the deck of the ship was thrilling he said – there was no water too rough for him, and the worse it got the better he liked it. Ackles recounted once taking control for a shipmate too sick in the rough water to even make it back to his bunk – he laid right down next to the wheel and Ackles started steering.

There were the good times, Ackles said – being welcomed in ports, supplies in tow, was always a good feeling. Then there were the funny times ¬– when in Bombay (now Mumbai), the whole crew got tattoos from a stand on the side of the road. Ackles got his then-girlfriend’s name, Bernice, and the tattoo got infected. Ackles recounts begging on his hands and knees not to be left in a Calcutta hospital, after his makeshift ambulance driver drove them into a ditch near the hospital.

Ackles said the main difference between the Merchant Navy and the Navy was that the Merchant Navy was not considered an armed force – the force did not do protective duty, just transportation.

However, it’s misleading not to consider the merchant navy an armed force, he said, considering that even though the service wasn’t originally armed, it was armed by the time he began his service, and Ackles himself took a two-day gunnery course.

“The first [gun] they put me on, I was skinny, a double barreled 50 caliber gun way up above the wheelhouse. When I squeezed the triggers, I was nervous and I squeezed both at once and it just lifted me off and right around,” Ackles said. “They took me off of that and my gun and from then I was on an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun.”

Ackles crossed the Atlantic back and forth during those next few years, visiting Italy, India and Burma. The war was over while he was in Burma, and from there made his way home.

“The difference between us and regular forces, when we came back when the war was over, no one waiting for us to come home,” he said. “When we came back there was no celebration for us guys, way things were at the time. It didn’t bother me then but it bothers me since.”

Ackles said that in hindsight, he feels the merchant navy should have been considered the fourth arm of the service. They transported troops, fuel, ammunition, and food (“including beer for the Canadians!”) to the forces.

The current Veteran’s Affairs website estimates that a typical 10,000 tonne merchant navy ship would routinely carry enough supplies to feed 225,000 people for a week. As a result, merchant ships were a target for u-boats. The Merchant Navy is largely credited with turning the tide of the Battle of the Atlantic, although there were significant casualties, prompting the construction of the Canadian parks ships that Ackles later served on.

After leaving the service in August 1946, Ackles said he went by train from Montreal to Vancouver, where a shipmate got him some work at a logging yard on Vancouver Island. He met his wife, Thelma “Timmy” White, originally from Summerland, and they lived on the island for a bit until they came back to the Okanagan.

“She didn’t like the weather out there, so I had to either get a divorce or bring her back home,” Ackles said with a laugh. “So I brought her home.”

The couple was married for 53 years in Summerland, where Ackles had an orchard. The couple had a son and adopted a daughter.

Eventually, Ackles went back to school at age 43 to upgrade his education through a government program seeking to qualify more male nurses. He worked as a nurse (first on the floor and in the operating room, then assisting a pathologist in autopsies) until he retired at age 70. Shortly thereafter he retired to Grand Forks, where his daughter lives, eventually moving to Christina Lake.

For the 55 years in between the war and compensation award 2000, Ackles said merchant navy servicemen received none of the benefits of being a veteran – something that was particularly hard on him with an injury he got in the service.

It was only in 1992 that Merchant seamen were recognized as veterans, and not until 2000 were they awarded special benefits for compensation owed since the end of the war.

On Feb. 1, 2000 the Minister of Veterans Affairs at the time made the announcement, but even that didn’t solve anything for a lot of merchant seamen, Ackles said.

“For every ship there was a discharge paper, I saved them all. They’re pretty ragged [but] a lot of men never hung on to them,” Ackles said. “When it came time in 2000, you had to prove that you were in harms way for something like over 700 days and I have that in writing.”

“It is a really sore point you had to prove in writing, and lots of [men] were there but didn’t keep proof, a lot didn’t get it, or were dead by the time the government gave to us,” he continued.

In uniform, Ackles has numerous medals for his service – the 1939-45 medal given to all veterans, as well as medals for the Battle of the Atlantic, the Italian Campaign, and his Indian and Burma Stars. But another thing that sets his service apart is a card he must carry in his jacket pocket when he wears his medals.

“We are the only one of the forces that has to have that card, and it is a very sore point with us, because we were not regular forces,” he said. “Fifty five years after they recognized us as veterans, the other guys don’t have to have this.”

To date, Ackles said he gets a good disability pension for the loss of his hearing in the service, and Veteran’s Affairs has been excellent to him – he recounted recently being called by a representative from the agency just to check in, make sure he had everything he needed and things were going okay.

“I’m not bitter, I am very thankful for all they do for me now,” he said.

Although he resisted joining the legion for years, Ackles eventually went on to hold every position in the Summerland legion, and transferred his membership to the Grand Forks Legion when he retired to Christina Lake.

“There are some things you never forget, a lot I did forget, but a lot I never will,” he said. “It is all water under the bridge now.”