As Remembrance Day draws near we pause to reflect on the sacrifices of those who served our country in years gone by, and those who serve our country today. Here are the stories of veterans we are honoured to care for at Parkwood Hospital.
As Eugene “Blackie” Blackwell leafs through the scrapbooks documenting his life, it’s like getting a glimpse into pivotal moments in Canadian History. His razor-sharp memory recalls names and dates from over nine decades with ease.
Born May 8, 1924 in Alexandria, Ontario, Blackie grew up in Port Hope and joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1943. “It was the Canadian thing to do—to protect our country and the people in Europe who were vulnerable,” he says.
Once in the Navy, his first stop was Pictou, Nova Scotia followed by a gunnery course in Cornwallis. Next, aboard his first ship the HMCS Lockeport, Blackie had an exhilarating adventure when its engines failed during an Atlantic gale 290 miles at sea. A news report from the day says, “Seas ranging from 10 to 20 feet buffeted the tiny vessel mercilessly.” With a brilliant stroke of ingenuity, the sailors sewed together their hammocks to make the sails that carried them 190 miles closer to land before an ocean tugboat towed them the last 100 miles into port. It was the first time in the Canadian Navy’s history that a steam-powered ship ever reverted to sail.
Next Blackie went to Vancouver to board the HMCS St. Stephen which travelled through the Panama Canal, on to Newfoundland, then landed at Londonderry Island in Ireland where it was based. From Londonderry Island they ran convoys, protecting between 60 and 70 merchant ships at a time which were carrying supplies vital for Britain to continue its war effort. “We never lost a ship,” says Blackie, who was a gunlayer. The crew detected German submarines with radar and acoustics, and when one was located the crew deployed anti-submarine projectors (also known as hedgehogs) and depth charges.
On Blackie’s 21st birthday, May 8, 1945, World War II ended. He remembers escorting German submarines to Wales and waving at them, ”They were all young men, just like me.”
In 1947, Blackie hitchhiked to Kingston and joined the army, spending 29 years as a peace-time soldier. Crisscrossing Canada he served in many military bases including those in Winnipeg, Petawawa, Comox and Gagetown. His tours of duty included Texas, Italy, Cyprus, Germany, and England. One of his assignments even took him to Goose Bay in Labrador to put out fires.
Through his years in the army, Blackie accelerated through positions with increasing responsibility, until he became Sgt. Major of the 2nd Reg. Royal Canadian Horse Artillery which operates and trains across the world and across the spectrum of operations including providing humanitarian relief. At any given time Blackie was responsible for up to 400 men. “Not bad for a guy with a grade seven education,” he laughs.
Blackie was married to Phyllis for 67 years. “She was a doll,” he says about the mother of his six girls and five boys.
When Blackie was 52 he retired from the service, then spent many years working at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Looking back on his military career, Blackie says, “My best moments were firing a salute in Montreal on Canada’s birthday, and two salutes for the Queen in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. I’ve done it all – thanks for everything."