The cold war featured endless incidents that can’t be verified and will never shown up in a history book.
The risks were significant for those involved, with private congratulations up to the admiralty and ministry of defence levels, rather than public recognition or medals the reward.
And although it might be impossible to prove, the HMCS Ojibwa could have been a larger player in cold war history than may ever be revealed.
“This is a very famous submarine worldwide because of what we did,” said former HMCS Ojibwa submariner Mike ‘Stormy’ Gales Friday in Port Burwell, following a little onboard ‘recon’ and reminiscing prior to Saturday’s official opening ceremony.
Gales was born in Victoria Hospital in London, ending a promising minor hockey (AA bantam in Byron) career with a move to Florida while a teenager. Following high school graduation he returned to Canada, doing ‘a little of this, a little of that,’ before joining up in 1982 after seeing a recruiting billboard. Currently employed in the nuclear industry in Tennessee, Gales, along with a bit of a southern drawl, returned to his native land for Saturday’s official opening.
He first went aboard the Ojibwa in 1982 following basic training, serving until 1987.
“It was a tricky time, the height of the cold war,” said Gales. “Reagan was pissing everybody off.”
During his service, Gales was at sea roughly nine months per year. A munitions specialist, he was responsible for thousands of rounds of ammunition, proficient in the firing of the boat’s wire-guided 21-inch Tiger Fish torpedoes, and at battle stations, typically shared ‘flying’ (driving) the boat duties with another compatriot. During boarding or land-based operations, his operational equipment included C4 and Syntax, the latter particularly proficient at cutting steel.
“It looks like a piece of Teflon, but it blows up real good,” he recalled with a smile.
Gales was given the nickname ‘Stormy’ by a captain, in part for his last name, in part for the fact the former boxer loved fist fighting and was a popular companion during non-naval, celebratory onshore forays.
Gales spoke fondly of one captain, nicknamed ‘Ace’ because he had been the only one to ‘ace’ tests which effectively sunk the naval careers of a majority of entrants. A baby-faced officer in his mid 20s when he commanded the Ojibwa, ‘Ace’ earned the respect of the crew, in part through sufficient seamanship to dive roughly 100 miles offshore from Halifax and surface two weeks later, unseen in a cave in Norway.
Or to captain a vessel through a legendary and productive 78 days at sea, 58 underwater, a record expected to stand for Oberon class subs.
“I was very proud of that cruise,” Gales said.
The Ojibwa was seaworthy on her own, he continued, proving her durability through both fire (quickly put out by crew members) and water. Gales discovered a trickle which revealed a burst pipe cap at a depth of 600 feet, forcing a 28-second rush to the surface. The boat broke the waves almost vertically says Gales, smashing back down to the surface, whereupon tons of water that hadn’t had time to drain from the conning tower, generated a ‘roll to port’ sharp enough the fin hit the waves.
“I was standing on walls.”
During his active duty, Gales says Canada’s NATO commitment included early warning stations in the Arctic, and services provided by the Ojibwa.
Despite a numerically-limited Canadian navy, the fact the HMCS Ojibwa is a comparatively small, single-level sub powered by electric motors (charged by diesel engines) and has specially-designed propellers made her particularly suited for operational stealth.
“They are almost undetectable, they are so quiet,” Gales said, comparing Oberon subs to contemporary nuclear-powered submarines. “They sound like a freight train going through the water.”
‘Cruises’ included comparatively-mundane tasks such as ensuring foreign vessels were complying with Canadian fisheries regulations, but also far more serious, less-publicized voyages, the successful prosecution of which, ‘very serious stuff,’ in Gales’ words, earned the Ojibwa an enviable reputation well beyond Canadian naval circles.
The Ojibwa’s combination of stealth and silence, an ability to creep through the deep almost undetected, made her particularly adept at inserting temporary passengers into sensitive areas.
“We called them civilians, but they were killers,” said Gales.
The ‘civilians’ included U.S. Naval Seals and members of the British SAS, the latter group he particularly respected for their discipline and professionalism. They would not speak, he noted, without permission from their superior officers.
“Man, you talk about some serious dudes.”
Some of the ‘civilians’ were virtual ghosts aboard, and Gales never saw them or talked to them ‘until we got rid of them.
“Don’t know what they were doing, but I imagine it was something serious.”
Submarine duties of the era included gathering intelligence on enemy boats, for example, recording the distinctive aural signatures of ships or opposing attack or nuclear ICBM-armed submarines. Zig-zagging into an extremely sensitive and hostile area at three knots per hour, sitting tight for a period of days to record data on a variety of craft and successfully returning to base would require a combination of courage, seamanship and technological ability.
Depth charging opposing submarines engaged in this behaviour would have been avoided because that was considered an act of war. At the time, the unofficially employed tactic was ramming intruders with a larger boat and claiming it was an accident, a cruder but effective response.
“If they knew we were there, we’d still be at the bottom right now,” said Gales.
Boats in sensitive areas could also expect some geographical latitude from their own governments, based on reluctance to admit to what might have been construed as spying.
“Canada would have said we were lost somewhere in the North Atlantic.”
Despite the seriousness of the times, inherent risks and the Ojibwa’s alleged share in both, Gales says his years aboard were both memorable and enjoyable,
alluding to the tight fraternity which exists among submariners. “We’re brothers from another mother.
“This was family.”
Twenty-plus years after his active duty aboard, Gales is thrilled with Project Ojibwa/The Museum Of Naval History effort.
“It’s awesome, ‘cause this is a very, very famous submarine. To cut it up into razor blades just doesn’t make sense to me. I love this and I’ll support it any way I can.”
And despite the fact he is employed and lives south of the border with a former U.S. Marine (wife Diani and their two sons), Gales still wears his Canadian dolphins (submariner qualifying badge) with obvious pride.
“The best times of my life,” he concluded of his opportunity to travel, learn stuff, do big stuff, “serious important stuff.”