On the morning of Sept. 29, 1944, Ralph Frayne sailed into Halifax on the deck of HMCS Haida. He had spent the past four years at sea, first with the merchant marine and then with the Royal Canadian Navy. He was 19 years old.
Frayne’s ship was flanked by fellow Canadian vessels, gleaming in the morning sun. Their crews stood to attention. Water cannon sprayed in celebration. Approaching the harbour, greeters cheered.
“It felt like a royal welcome,” he wrote, describing his proudest moment. “I was seeing Canada for the first time after four years of absence. We were lined up on the forecastle to receive the salute, and I remember thinking, for the very first time, ‘Thank God I’m a Canadian!’ ”
Frayne and the ship’s 250 crew members were returning from Portsmouth, England, after service on the frigid Arctic run to the Soviet Union, the English Channel and off Normandy, France. He had slept in a hammock on the mess deck where he ate. On the way to Russia, as his boat crunched through ice, Frayne’s face was frostbitten. In his last year of service, HMCS Haida was involved in sinking 14 German vessels, including a submarine. “My memory of everything that happened that day is enveloped by the pride I had. I was proud of my boat, of what we’d accomplished,” he says. “And I was happy to be home.”
Frayne enlisted in the Canadian Army at the age of 14, when he decided he “wanted to go over.” He only lasted three months because, shortly before his unit was shipped to Europe, his older brother informed the authorities of his age and they promptly kicked him out. Undeterred, he joined the civilian merchant marine for a few years, working on supply ships supporting the Allied naval effort. At 17, still underage, he enlisted in the Navy. “I lied again,” he says. “When I was younger, I had heard about a town in B.C. called Vernon. I had always liked the sound of that name. So I said I was from Vernon. And off I went.”
After returning to Canada, Frayne finished high school and went on to law school. He has practised law for more than 60 years, and continues to serve his clients in St. Catharines, Ont.