Dennis Flynn follows the trail of scattered artifacts from a former WWI Naval Reserve training vessel.
The northerly wind buffets past Cabot Tower and tugs at uniform pant legs, naval caps and heavy pea jackets. The officer in charge of the Hotchkiss 3 Pounder gun pays the wind and the darkening clouds no mind, so focused on his appointed task and moving with military precision. He checks the bore and returns to place the round in the chamber, securing it with practised ease. A pocket watch upon chain is pulled out and checked. Within seconds of the appointed time to commence firing, the lanyard is passed over to me. I wait for the command and at the designated word gently pull, not yank, the cord. The great gun discharges with a satisfying roar that can be heard some three kilometres downwind and a dragon’s breath puff of smoke. I am thanked publically for my service to the Navy and discharged from my duties with requisite fanfare from the crowd assembled.
My guide through a weekend visit to the Signal Hill National Historic Site this past August is Robin Martin. He explains that the Noon Day Gun has been firing over St. John’s harbour for at least 150 years. The daily blast helped not only residents set the time, but also ship’s captains relied upon it to test the accuracy of their chronometers (device to measure time), necessary for navigation.
But there are other parts of the Calypso preserved in other places and other ways. For instance, one of her anchors is proudly displayed outside the Lewisporte town hall. Another of her guns, I am told, can be found about 65 km west of there at the Grand Falls Royal Canadian Legion. During a recent visit to the HMCS Cabot base in St. John’s, as part of the Doors Open weekend in September, I encountered another Hotchkiss gun and a wardrobe chair from the vessel, both given prominent display. The Murray Premises Hotel in the heart of downtown St. John’s has a Calypso Room and once displayed a replica of the Calypso’s ship’s wheel in the lobby. And at the Admiralty House Museum in Mount Pearl, a former top-secret wireless station for the British Royal Navy in WWI, there is a Calypso Room with a shot basket (used to store cannon balls) from the ship and a bench made from a wooden hatch cover. My favourite Calypso artifacts there were two small ceremonial cannons (dating from 1883-1922) donated by the Tooton family.
So why does the Calypso continue to hold such a special place in the hearts of so many? According to the Calypso Project website (a collaboration of Marine Institute-Memorial University researchers), “The Calypso was part of the last class of ships known as the steam-sail corvettes. She was 235 feet long, 44.5 feet wide and weighed 2,770 tons. She could move at a speed of 15 knots.” It goes on to say the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve started in 1900, training men aged 17-29 aboard the Calypso to be sailors should war break out. Many of the almost 1,300 reservists were fishermen from remote parts of the island. They were ready when their call came on July 28, 1914, to go to war.
Among them was the late Jacob Bussey of Port de Grave. I met his daughter-in-law Daphne Bussey when I visited Bay Roberts this summer to view a WWI commemorative quilt by the Pigeon Inlet Quilters Guild. Pointing to a panel depicting Jacob in his WWI naval uniform next to a replica of the Calypso, she said. “He really loved that ship all his life. He trained on her before going overseas and never stopped talking about Calypso. Jacob actually made the replica from the wood of Calypso and we have it at home.”
“It was a funny story, as I went out to Embree in my 1966 [Pontiac] Parisienne Sports Coupe and filled the trunk with the wood off a deck rail for him. He thought that much of the wood of Calypso I wasn’t even allowed to throw out the shavings [leftover scraps from making the model] until after he died. He took two pieces of plank and joined them together into a solid piece. He had no plans and only went from a photo in a newspaper clipping from The Evening Telegram in January 1969 and his memory. The anchor is made from the brass bearing from an 8 HP Acadia motor. Aircraft rivets from Gander he used to make replicas of the guns. He worked on it a couple of years, but loved it.”
Among Jacob’s wartime memorabilia were a uniform, papers, personal documents, diary, souvenir tins and a piece of shrapnel that almost killed him when a vessel he was serving on came under enemy fire. The shrapnel pierced the wall where his head had been just seconds before. Recognizing the significance of the near miss, Jacob dug the metal out of the wall with his pocketknife and kept it all his life.
“Father always said if Calypso has been down in the States somewhere and rich men’s sons trained on her, she would have been preserved as a museum today. But it was poor fishermen’s sons so they let her go.”