Merchant navy vets take care of their own

At the Convoy Cup awards ceremony, a dozen or so veterans are in attendance, and each one gets a chance to present a medal. They know the drill, forming an unofficial rotation and standing before they are called up, no strangers to the photo-op that goes along with any event involving veterans.
The Convoy Cup, an annual weekend racing event with the dual purpose of honouring veterans and raising money for their causes, took place in September at the Dartmouth Yacht Club. This year, many of the honourees were veterans of the merchant navy, a branch of the armed forces the Canadian government notoriously refused to recognize as veterans after the Second World War. Being denied benefits and access to veterans care programs until 1992 means the seamen have become used to looking out for themselves, and each other.
Norman Crewe, 96, has been heavily involved with other veterans since his time serving in the merchant navy. Most are now in their 90s, and their veterans association no longer holds official reunions, but the men still gather and rally when they are needed the most.
“We have an honour guard, and a color party. If anyone passes away, no matter what religion, I make sure I have everything all arranged,” says Crewe. “When the remains and the family comes down, I bring them to attention, and say honour guard, please salute. That’s what we do for them.”
Crewe often handled registration at past reunions, and tears up as he remembers seeing his comrades aging over the years. “They got to come in with walkers, wheelchairs. We talked about it over and over and over and finally we come to a decision, it’s time to close,” says Crewe. On the dwindling numbers of veterans left to reunite each year, he was frank. “We’re going downhill very fast. And the age is creeping up.”
For Crewe, passing on his experiences to young people has been important. He has been visiting Sir Charles Tupper elementary school for the past five years to connect with students, along with army, navy, air force, and other merchant navy vets. “The ceremony would put tears in your eyes, the show that those kids put on. To see what they did, I was honoured and proud of what I did. I said to them right there, If it ever happened again, I’d be honoured to go back.”
What started as a group of 12 veterans visiting the school is now down to three. “I’m the only merchant one,” Crewe says.
Crewe was kept away this past year because of a surgery, but clearly has had an impact on the students and staff, who sent him and his wife a card to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary.
Crewe worked for the Department of Fisheries after the war, tracking swordfish as far away as Trinidad, but it wasn’t easy for many merchant navy veterans to find work after their services were no longer needed.
For John Bain, it was the lack of jobs, not benefits, that bothered him the most. “I got off the ships in ‘46 and I tried to get work all that winter, couldn’t get work. I’d get the odd job on the waterfront.”
In addition to the lack of recognition from the government, he describes a stigma toward those who were perceived to have not served at the same level as other branches of the armed forces. “You had to be in the armed forces to be classed as a veteran,” says Bain. “I walked from one end of Halifax to the other trying to get work. Couldn’t get work. Nobody would hire us, nobody would look at us if we weren’t in the armed forces.”
At just 16 years old, John Bain signed up to be an oiler in the merchant navy during the war, making $2.53 per day. “Most of us were either too young or too old for the armed forces,” he says. “I was too young to be an engineer, you had to be 21 to be an engineer.”
Originally from Liverpool, England, Bain found Halifax to be an unwelcome change of pace. It was not yet the pub-heavy city it is today. “Halifax was one of the worst places to come to because they didn’t have any pubs,” he recalls. “They had a seaman’s club on Hollis Street that we could go and buy beer, we couldn’t buy any hard liquor. It’s a lot different today.”
Bain eventually started working for what is now Nova Scotia Power, and still resides in Halifax today. The city has grown on him after meeting his wife here. “She’s my supreme commander, my boss.”
Bain has been coming to the Convoy Cup since it started in 2002, and appreciates the effort put forth by organizers such as Steinar Engeset, who says it is historically meaningful to hold this event in Halifax.
“The Bedford basin was so important for world peace during the Second World War because of the convoys,” Bain says. “More than 300 left the basin during the war.”
Engeset hopes to make up for lost time by giving the merchant navy vets their due, and giving them an opportunity to get together and reflect on the past. “We are so thankful they have given us this freedom, we’re trying to honour the veterans that served among so many. There are not many left of them because of their age.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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