HMCS Ojibwa is an imposing physical structure.
But it’s the crewmembers who served in the cold war-era submarine, and their individual and collective stories who flesh out her considerable ‘bones.’
The echoes of the sounds of emergency, laughter and action, the ‘blood flow’ of the sub are still very real to those who served aboard her, said Jim ‘Lucky’ Gordon, speaking on behalf of her submariners Saturday morning in Port Burwell during the sub’s official opening ceremony.
“Listen carefully when you go through, watch carefully,” he urged. “If you’ve got an imagination, someone will present themselves.”
Project officials, politicians and fans fittingly presented themselves for Saturday’s official ceremony. But as Project Coordinator Rear Admiral Ret’d Dan McNeil pointed out to a solid contingent proudly wearing their ‘dolphins’ or submariners association badges, the veterans are the true heart and soul to the ‘cover of the book’ represented by the decommissioned sub.
“You are the book, we are fortunate you are here – thank you.”
And while McNeil emphasized the sub’s official opening represents a huge accomplishment, it is in effect, only a beachhead in the ultimate objective of a broader museum of naval military history.
Other regions of the country have one, said McNeil during his speech, and it’s time central Canada had one as well, furthering what he considers is a vital duty to both preserve history and educate Canadians.
“There will be a building,” he declared, his statement punctuated by the surprise sounding of a signal gun. “So let’s get started.
“This is absolutely the start point,” McNeil reiterated during a brief post-ceremony interview. “I don’t want it to be just a tourist attraction.
“It needs to be an education and interpretive centre.”
McNeil sees multiple opportunities to meld the Ojibwa and the naval museum into both elementary and high school curriculum, obviously enough with history and heritage, but also math and physics.
“And even psychology.”
The project coordinator’s forward vision was certainly part of Saturday’s ceremony. But those assembled could also be forgiven for celebrating Saturday’s significant milestone. Those familiar with the journey thus far won’t miss the metaphor present in the ceremony portion swapping a Project 0jibwa flag for that of The Museum of Naval History.
As the latter was being raised, it caught on the top strand of barbed wire on the protective fencing around the sub. Without missing a beat, Elgin Military Museum President Tim Barrett removed his suit jacket, nimbly climbing up the chain-link portion of the fence to free the flag to general applause.
“It’s been a bit of a fight along the way, but everything’s come together,” he smiled, post ceremony.
Those familiar with the project may recall governmental delays, dredging complications and financial concerns, raising doubts Elgin Military Museum Executive Director Ian Raven may well have been referring during his opening remarks, a form of ‘inside joke’ for the Municipality of Bayham.
“OK – now do you believe me?” he queried with a smile.
Elgin-Middlesex MP Joe Preston admitted he too had to remind himself every so often that the Ojibwa was in fact, really ‘here.’
He allowed he faces many strange or weird requests as an MP, but the initial contact with regards to bringing the sub to Port Burwell stands out.
“That may have topped it,” Preston laughed, recalling a similar response from the minister of defence. “He got the same disbelieving look on his face.”
Preston alluded to the fervor and determination of those involved, which carried the day through times there were doubts it would ever happen.
“It has and it’s here and it’s an incredible piece of history sitting on the shore right here in Port Burwell.”
Preston also referred to the phrase ‘glorious and free,’ from a spirited and shared rendition of O, Canada, fortunate reality for every Canadian brought home by the presence of the Ojibwa and her serving submariners.
“Some of the reasons we are, are right behind us and in front of us today.”
Municipality of Bayham mayor Paul Ens cited the regional economic impact of an attraction, which is already paying dividends, and thanked ‘all those who made it happen.’
“It’s a great day for our municipality and the region,” he reiterated post ceremony. “It’s going to be a great attraction.”
Introduced by MC Brian Donlevy as ‘Commodore’ Lynn Acre, the former Bayham mayor sandwiched congratulations around a pair of trademark poems.
“Today is a day of celebration,” she emphasized, crediting the time and effort of those involved in bringing the sub to Port Burwell – while ‘dodging a lot of torpedoes along the way.
“But they did it and here we are today to celebrate their efforts.”
Ted Shelly, President of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 524 ‘welcomed the new girl’ (Ojibwa) to town, extending his thanks “to all those who made Project Ojibwa possible.”
The official ceremony featured a symbolic transfer involving a model of the Ojibwa passed from Anthony Welsh of the Chatham Shipyard where Ojibwa was laid; through Gordon, a member of the commissioning crew; former commanding officer Terry Jones; his daughter Jennifer who was christened aboard; Anthony Parsons of the decommissioning crew; Preston, representing the Canadian government; McNeil; Rick Heddle of Heddle Marine Shipyard representing the boat’s restoration and transfer to Port Burwell; Dean Lewis, former submariner and restoration technologist; Raven; and finally to Barrett of the Elgin Military Museum, into whose hands the Ojibwa has ultimately passed.
Piper Dick Laurie led the guests through an honour guard of colour parties from the Woodstock and Stratford Navy Veterans Association, following both presentation of The Submariner’s Prayer courtesy of submariner Gary ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins; and remarks from Gordon on behalf of his underwater fraternity, who he says are ‘just over the moon to see this.
Gordon gave a heartfelt ‘Brazo Zulu’ (naval signal meaning well done) to the Ojibwa’s ‘new family, new crew’ responsible for preserving this important part of Canadian heritage.
“You guys have done a hell of a job.”