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Turning in My Tin Helmet

from an interview with Dr. Tom Robson (condensed by Laryssa Landale)

I grew up in Windsor and had completed one year of medical school at the University of Toronto when the war in Europe suddenly heated up. It was the summer of 1941. My dad had served in the First World War, which made me predisposed to think seriously about this war. In the army everyone starts out as a private. I chose to enlist in the Navy since they allowed qualified people to come in and be trained as officers. Also, the Navy seemed to offer more of a chance to travel and see the world. So, I went down to HMCS Hunter here in Windsor and enlisted. And travel I did.

In May of 1942, with my second year of medical school and a few months of training and drill at HMCS Hunter under my belt, I headed for Halifax as a probationary sublieutenant. The Navy had taken over King’s College University as the officer’s training school. In September of 1942 I graduated and was appointed to a corvette, HMCS Quesnel, and we went to sea for the first time.

The Quesnel was part of a local escort force, and we shepherded and convoyed merchant ships on what they called the "triangle run." It was sort of a Halifax, Newfie-John, and New York routine. We dropped an awful lot of depth charges, but we never saw a submarine. The greatest enemy we faced was the North Atlantic weather. The officers had to live in bunks on the ship, while the crew lived in hammocks. When the ships were rocking the hammocks were remarkably steady; the bunks, on the other hand, were difficult to keep ourselves in.

In May of 1943, I was appointed back to training school as a training divisional officer. Four months later I was appointed to the frigate HMCS Cape Breton as both watchkeeping officer and anti-submarine officer. It was on a run back from Murmansk, in north Russia, that the Cape Breton ran into some German submarines. We were part of the advance screen of a convoy and ended up with two good explosions from the hedgehog (an apparatus that fired anti-sub bombs off the bow.) We aboard ship knew we had hit a German submarine. Our ship got credit for a possible sinking when the sonar records were submitted. The captain also put my name in the dispatches, which earned me a certificate of recognition "by order of the King."

While we were off the coast of Wales waiting for the word, our captain let each officer have an hour during the night to read the overall plan for D-Day. I don’t think too many people as far down the ladder as I was in command got a chance to see this ahead if time. It detailed what the various units were going to do. It was outstanding.

A while later, after D-Day, I got word that I had been accepted for a navigation course back at King’s College. But, my ship was not due to go back. So, I got dropped off on a jetty in the Faeroe Islands, off Iceland. Then a Royal Navy trawler took me to Scotland. The Canadian Navy had a depot just outside Glasgow, in a former insane asylum in Greenock. It was a standing joke in the Navy over there that the Canadians were in the insane asylum. Finally, I got passage on the Queen Mary back to New York.

After the four-month course at King’s College, I was reappointed as navigating officer of the Cape Breton. I was serving aboard her when we got the word about V-E Day. Around the end of August 1945, I was on a six-week leave back here in Windsor (which my new bride and myself used as our belated honeymoon.) I decided to get out and go back to medical school. I sent a telegram to the rear admiral in charge and received word that I was to report to HMCS Hunter, right here in Windsor, for discharge.

After the medical exam and forms were completed, they said, "You have to turn in your tin helmet." Well, I’d never been issued with a tin helmet; I never wore one; I had no idea what they were talking about. Still, they insisted they could not discharge me without the return of a tin helmet. So, I borrowed the $22 from my father-in-law who had driven me down there, bought a tin helmet from their supply and handed it back in. They signed my discharge papers and I was back in medical school for September classes in 1945.



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