Sunday, July 14, 2013

Hats, Flats and Cats

I have a collection of baseball hats that lay on top of my bookshelves in my vanity room. They have been relegated to my room because there are too many of them to fit in the ‘hat cubby’ my wife has designed for the coat closet. So they rest a top of my book shelves, like gargoyles or exotic taxidermy.

Each of their brims have been carefully shaped to maximize protection from the Sun’s harmful rays. I blame prolonged exposure to the Sun as a leading cause of grey hair. It explains why young people or bats don't have any.

I think that the hats may be rare, because I have never seen them in a store or worn out in public. I’m not sure if they are worthless or extremely valuable. I do have a CH 148 Cyclone hat that may turn out to be a collectors item soon. 

Each hat tells a story. My ‘Big 2’ hat tells of a simpler time when I was just learning how to fly and talk with my hands.

The HMCS Winnipeg hat was my first Navy issued ball cap, and you never can forget your first. It was given to me in Brisbane Australia. I flew into my first volcano on that sail, cocked my first aircraft at sea, and learned what it meant to be a co-pilot. I will never forget the words my first Detachment Commander told me during in a night-flight debrief “I have never been so scared in a Sea King ever before.”

HMCS Athabascan was given to me in Glasgow Scotland. I was fortunate to take part in a large multinational naval exercise. A production crew was also sailing with us, making an IMAX movie about life at sea. The Air Detachment was asked to help capture the heroics of air operations at sea. They mounted an expensive camera on top of the hanger and would record us taking off and landing on the flight deck. My Aircraft Captain allowed me to take the controls. It wasn’t pretty, but the producers loved it. I recall them saying “Perfect! Holy moly did that look dangerous.”

Two months and one earthquake later, I was in Haiti. I have have already shared the story of me blowing the roof off the only standing orphanage in Leogone, but not many people know about my unfortunate and embarrassing ‘peeing in the bushes in Jacmel’ story. That is because I don’t like telling it and wont now.

HMCS St. John’s hat was given to me on a revisit to Europe, Belfast and lovely Dublin. It lead to my first and hopefully last article for ‘Flight Comment” the RCAF’s magazine for flight safety and related screw ups. It was also the hat I wore during my first stint at being a Detachment Commander six months later. 

HMCS ALGONQUIN’s hat was given to me in the spring of 2012. They needed someone to be a Det Commander for the largest naval exercise in the world- The Rim of the Pacific or RIMPAC. Luckily for me I was a ‘someone’ who just so happened to be standing next to the guy who answered the phone call for assistance. The Detachment was a rag tag bunch of inexperienced misfits and cast offs. It turned out in the end that they weren’t so bad after all.

My favorite hat has a cat with the red paws. It came from HMAS Perth. 

HMAS Perth was a modified Leander-class light cruiser operated by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) during the early part of World War II. 

At the start of World War II, the Perth was used to patrol Western Atlantic and then Australian waters, before she was sent to the Mediterranean Sea at the end of 1940. There, the Perth was involved in the Battle of Greece and the Battle of Crete, and the Syria-Lebanon Campaign before returning to Australian waters in late 1941.

It was perhaps, at this time that Perth's animal mascot Red Lead, joined the ship. There were the sailors' quarters with their swinging hammocks, the wide, wooden deck, towering masts, the round signal lamps and deep in the bowels of the ship the growling engines. But Red Lead's favorite spot was curled up in the captain's cabin. The new captain, Hec Waller, always had a moment to spare for the playful kitten. During one day at sea, the cat got into red paint and walked all throughout the ship, leaving tiny paw prints everywhere. By order of the Captain, the paw prints were not removed.

But Red Lead had little time to settle into its new home. On 27 February, HMAS Perth joined a fleet of British, Dutch and American ships to stop a Japanese naval convoy from landing on the island of Java. The fleet was hopelessly outnumbered and one by one, the Allied ships were crippled, sunk or forced to withdraw. The sound of firing ack ack guns and the shouting of the men surrounded the kitten! Japanese planes zoomed over ahead - there was no safe place to hide, except its one special place, Captain Waller's cabin. There it firmly stayed until the Captain gave orders to withdraw from the battle. Embattled but not defeated the warship steamed back to the harbour.

Back in the safety of the harbour, Red Lead somehow knew it would not survive another battle like that. It was time to find another job and another home. Quietly and stealthily it crept down the gangway. "Where do you think you are going?" yelled out one of the sailors and scooped up the little kitten, returning it to the deck. Foiled, Red Lead tried again and again. Three times in total, the kitten tried to leave the ship but to no avail. Some of the sailors looked at the unhappy cat and shook their heads - this was a bad omen. The official log at the end of the day read
Red Lead, ship's kitten, endeavoured to desert, but was brought back on board, despite vigorous protests."

Red Lead was right that things would not improve. The next day HMAS Perth and USS Houston sailed for the south coast of Java and met a large fleet of Japanese ships.

In February 1942, the HMAS Perth survived the Allied defeat at the Battle of the Java Sea, and then to be very shortly torpedoed and sunk by the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Sunda Strait. Of the 681 sailors aboard, 353 were killed in battle. All but four of the 328 survivors were captured as prisoners of war. Of those captured, 106 died in captivity and the surviving 218 were returned home to Australia after the war.

It is said on HMAS Perth’s present namesake that the cat knew of the impending defeat, and tried to leave. 

This story was told to me during a port visit in Hawaii, where I was given a hat and had a chance to tour the new ship. There too, are tiny red paw prints throughout the flats just to keep the tradition alive.

I had an opportunity to land on HMAS Perth. I only did it once, but I have the hat to prove it.