Veterans Without Uniforms

Twenty years ago, when things in the Persian Gulf were heating up and war on Iraq was expected to become a reality, a group of Canadian volunteers were preparing to set sail for the troubled region as part of the relief effort. The trip seemed like the natural thing to do for a seafaring people with a reputation for their friendly and helpful manner.

From the time Iraq, under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the situation had escalated steadily. In early November Hussein was given a deadline to withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991 or be forced out. A coalition of some 33 allied nations were preparing for battle with planes, ships, tanks and troops being assembled in the vicinity.

Vast amounts of various supplies were needed to keep such a large force operating efficiently. So when Marine Atlantic’s ferry, the MV Atlantic Freighter, was chartered by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) as part of the Persian Gulf Supply Initiative, its 26-member crew volunteered to make the trip into dangerous territory. All of these volunteers were from either Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) or Nova Scotia )NS). From NL there were: Captain Neil Hiller of Whitbourne; First Mate Frank Skinner of Burgeo; Second Mate Monford Orgen of Isle aux Mort; Third Mate John Innis of Marystown; Chief Engineer Herman Porter of Bay De Verde; Senior Engineers William (Bill) Butt of Fortune, William ( Scotty ) Matherson of St John’s, and Carmen Cooze of Mount Pearl; Junior Engineers John Harvey of Port Aux Basque and Richard Moulten of Gander; Cook Edward Flynn of Dunville-Argentia; Boson Clyde Eveligh of Clarks Beach; Seaman Randell Drover of Carbonear, Tim Picco of Portugal Cove, and Robert Jones and Dave Mullett of Lewisporte. The NS crew members were: Electrician Joe Brown, Store Keeper Joe Young, Oiler Stewart Dominie, WTO. Arthur Francis, Seaman Richard Dominnie, Chief Steward Cecil Day and Steward G O’Halen, all of North Sydney; Seaman Glen Broderick of Haliifax; Second Engineer Donald Mc Donald and Junior Engineer William ( Bill) Critchley.

A seasoned engineer and marine diver with many years of experience, it is no surprise that William “Bill” Butt of Fortune, Newfoundland, was one of those volunteers. He had returned to work on December 15 for his regular shift when the vessel was chartered. “Being a senior engineer, with lots of knowledge of the ship and its operating abilities, I was asked to go,” Bill said. “I could have refused but I didn’t. As Canadian seamen, we all re-signed on to the ship as a support team to bring supplies to Canada, the US and anywhere else that was involved in the coalition of the free world as we know it.”

MSC is a United States navy (USN) organization that controls most of the replenishment military transport ships of the Navy. It charters civilian vessels to aid with the transport of supplies when needed. These vessels are not in commission, but are referred to as being in service.

The MV Atlantic Freighter, built by Hyundai Shipbuilding Company Limited, the world’s number one shipbuilding industry, in Korea, was purchased by Marine Atlantic in 1990 as a ferry for the Port aux Basques, NL to North Sydney, NS route. The 30-year-old ship was sold in 2008. It was probably chosen by the MSC for its capabilities. As Bill said, “The ship that I worked on was a multi-carrier, with a fast engine speed, good crew of well-experienced engineering, qualified mates and Captains with the proper Certificates to ply that part of the world.”

Sailing into a potentially explosive situation, everyone knew the possibility of physical danger was very real despite the presence of allied warships in the area. Infectious diseases, not common to this part of the world, also posed a threat. Iraq had threatened to use chemical weapons if attacked and the probability of such an occurrence had to be considered. Bill said that, “We were all given passports, medical injections to ward off the infections that were known to the Middle and Far East, and prepared us for the threat of anthrax to the crew. It was made as safe as possible for us.”

Captain Neil Hillier was in command of the MV Atlantic Freighter and its volunteer crew when it sailed from North Sydney about 8:30 p.m. on December 19, 1990. Upon departure there seemed to be a sense of adventure and anticipation among the crew – although the threat was real, war had not yet been declared. Hussein had just over a month to meet the deadline and there was still hope that an all-out war could be avoided.

First stop for the MV Atlantic Freighter was North Carolina, where it was loaded with supplies for the Persian Gulf. According to Bill, “The supplies consisted of everything from tanks, road and airport repair equipment, food supplies and things that we were not told about.” Some of the ship’s cargo was kept secret of course, to protect the cargo, as well as the ship and the crew. On December 26, instead of enjoying the ‘Boxing Day’ holiday at home with family and friends, the crew of the MV Atlantic Freighter left the peaceful shores of North America and set sail for the turbulence of the Middle East.

The journey from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States to the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, Gulf of Suez, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and, finally, to the Persian Gulf could have been the ‘trip of a lifetime’ under different circumstances. But this was no pleasure trip. They went through extreme climate changes, high humidity, rough waters, dodged minefields and saw scud missiles flying overhead. It was, no doubt, a very stressful situation.

While anchored off Piraievs, Greece, they encountered a blinding snow storm as the temperatures plummeted to zero degrees. Just a few days earlier, in the Suez Canal, they had been basking in fifty degree sunshine! They saw beautiful, rosy sunsets and glorious sunrises along the way but the task that lay before them was always in the back of their minds. After ten days at sea, Gibraltar was the first land sighted, appearing like a headland rising from a blue-green sea, illuminated by the soft pink glow of the rising sun.

Still, despite the circumstances, there were some light-hearted moments. Sometimes they wore hats, Arab-style headdress, anything they could find to protect their heads in 100-degree temperatures and bright sun. They did what little they could to create a few minutes of enjoyment, even to barbecuing supper on deck. At Port Said, Egypt, as they waited for a convoy to go through the Suez Canal, local trades people came aboard the ship, selling just about anything one could imagine. Barbers also came to give haircuts to any interested crew members.

Going through the Canal was an experience in itself. The landscape is very level and sandy with only scattered trees. Just miles and miles of sand that would conjure up images of The Arabian Knights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves or Sinbad the Sailor. One could almost picture Ali Baba floating over the sand dunes on a magic carpet. Yet in some places the land appeared desolate, with ruins and destroyed buildings left over from previous wars in the area, bringing one’s thoughts back from a mystical moment to the harsh reality of the present.

They sailed safely through the Gulf of Aden, known as Pirate Alley because of the high incidence of piracy in the area. As the MV Marine Freighter went through the Arabian Sea into the Gulf of Oman, there was increasing activity of warships in the area. The first bombs had been dropped on Baghdad around 11:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, on January 16. It was 2:30 a.m., January 17, in Baghdad. Operation Desert Shield had officially become Operation Desert Storm and our volunteer seamen were sailing directly into its midst.

As the ship lay anchored just outside the Persian Gulf it was hazy and hard to see the shoreline. Attacks on Kuwait’s oil fields had caused a great deal of pollution in the atmosphere and produced an oil slick that stretched from Kuwait down along the Saudi coast, almost to Al Jubayl by February 2 and was expected to reach Qatar within a couple of weeks. The effect on marine and other wildlife in the area was devastating.

Steaming into the Gulf, as they headed for their designated port of call to unload the ship’s cargo, they were informed that they were sailing into mine-infested waters. A map from Time magazine showed mines all along the coast. So they doubled up on watches and posted a lookout in the crow’s nest. At night they sailed under reduced speed. There were lots of warships from different countries in the Gulf. The HMCS Protecteur, with Canada’s red maple leaf flying proudly from her mast, welcomed them to the Persian Gulf.

Upon arrival at their destination on January 21, they were issued gas masks, with instructions to put them on immediately when the air raid siren sounded and keep them on until the ‘all clear’ was sounded. There were several air raid alerts during their time in port. On January 23, with the cargo unloaded and the deck of the ship visible once more, the MV Atlantic Freighter started its journey home. Through the smog jet fighters were seen returning to an aircraft carrier. A fishing dragger was sighted off the coast of Oman and there were drilling rigs and cargo ships in the area, all signs of people trying to carry on with normal activities in uncertain times.

During a brief stopover in Greece for minor repairs in the engine room, the crew took turns going ashore, to shop for souvenirs and make phone calls to anxious loved ones at home. Two days later, on February 6, they passed Stromboli Island, off the north coast of Sicily, appearing like something out of a fantasy with its top shrouded in clouds.

There was also a short stay in Livorno, Italy where they checked out the street vendors, markets and fabulous architecture. While in port, Captain Hillier took advantage of the break to fix a scaffold over the side of the ship and add a little creative artwork to the ship. The atmosphere among the crew was a little jollier now that they were out of immediate danger and heading for home.

When the MV Atlantic Freighter sailed into North Sydney on April 30, 1991 there was a northerly wind and some ice in the harbour. The ship appeared to be moving agonizingly slow – probably because everyone was so eager for it to dock. Other ships in the harbour and cars on shore were blowing their horns in salute to the ship and her crew. The entire dockside was filled with well-wishers, including children who had been given the day off from school and people from Newfoundland as well.

The crew came down the gangplank to a real hero’s welcome, with a band playing the traditional Newfoundland folk song All Around the Circle. As the vessel approached the dock, Captain Hillier’s drawing of a camel, with the slogan Desert Shield/Storm 1990/91 underneath it, was clearly visible. These men obviously took pride in their involvement and it was well justified. The men were welcomed home by a number of dignitaries, including Terry Ivany, then president of Marine Atlantic, who called the men “…true heroes of Marine Atlantic.” Flowers were presented to the spouses and mothers of crew members and receptions were held for all involved.

“My stint in the Persian Gulf War was for four and a half months, with many a thousand miles of water under my feet, to arrive safely back home to home base in North Sydney on April 30, 1991,” said Bill Butt.

These men were volunteers and, as such, were not part of any military unit and wore no uniforms. They were veterans who had performed a difficult task, under life-threatening circumstances, and had done it willingly and professionally. Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister, Fred Mifflin, a retired Canadian Navy rear admiral worked hard to gain some sort of recognition for these 26 gallant seamen. Five years later, on April 18, 1996 they were honoured by the American Government for their part in the Gulf War and awarded the United States Merchant Marine Expeditionary Award. They still have not been officially recognized by Canada.

War is a terrible thing, caused by a power-hungry few and endangering the innocent lives of many. It brings great destruction, a tragic loss of lives, and creates heroes out of others. The ground war in Iraq, which lasted from February 24-28, until Kuwait was liberated, was over by the time our volunteers reached home. A ceasefire was called, to become effective on February 27 at midnight EST. The damage caused to the environment, wildlife and humanity can never be repaired.

© Fay Herridge
Published in Canadian Stories, Jun/Jul 2011

Non-fiction 1

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