Retired reserve PAO Peter Ward, was honored earlier this month for his efforts in saving part of RCN history.
Ward is the final surviving, founding member of Haida Inc., a group of five who saved the RCN’s “fightingest ship”, the Second World War Tribal-class destroyer HMCS Haida, from disposal. On October 4, he was virtually presented with the Naval Association of Canada’s Admirals’ Medal in recognition of his contribution to the advancement of maritime affairs. Vice-Admiral Craig Baines, Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, congratulated Ward, and said “hearing your moving story has made me a prouder sailor and a prouder Canadian.”
“I was left speechless at the honor when it was announced that I was awarded the Admirals’ Medal, which I share with the departed Neil Bruce, Norm Simpson, David Kidd and Allan Howard, who co-founded Haida Inc. with me,” said.
“We established a not-for profit corporation together to save this wonderful ship and to honor Canadian sailors, underlining our proud history of the Battle of the Atlantic.”
Ward has spent a lifetime connected to the military and the RCN. An acclaimed retired journalist, military editor, war correspondent, broadcaster, author and wine columnist, Ward served as a public information officer with Toronto’s Naval Reserve Division HMCS York from 1962-1978.
In 1963, Ward sailed in HMCS Haida during its Great Lakes deployment, which served as the inspiration to save the ship from the breakers. HMCS Haida, which saw action in both the Second World War and Korea, has been credited with sinking more surface tonnage than any other RCN warship. For Ward, however, his connection with Haida is personal.
Ward’s father, Lt Leslie Ward, was one of the 128 sailors killed on board HMCS Athabaskan when it was sunk by the enemy off the French coast in April 1944. It was Haida that ventured back into the thick of things to rescue nearly four dozen survivors, with others later becoming prisoners of war.
For Ward, ships have personalities, and Haida’s was like that of a plumb – straight, absolute and true.
“Meeting Haida was like meeting the love of your life,” he said, acknowledging how interwoven his life has been with that of the famous ship.
Ward and his four fellow founding members of Haida Inc. put up their houses as collateral to save the famous ship, with Ward negotiating directly with the then-Minister of National Defence, Paul Hellyer. When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited Canada to mark the centennial of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, Ward managed to get an invite to the Royal Yacht Britannia, using the opportunity to ask Prince Philip to become Patron of Haida.
“Most people went straight for the Queen,” he recalled. “But not me, I went straight for Philip.”
When Ward asked Philip to become Haida’s patron, he reared back a little, stating that there were protocols that needed to be followed before such a thing could happen. And then the Prince leaned in, advising Ward on the steps he needed to take to make it happen. Two months later it was official.
“Having Philip as patron made raising corporate donations so much easier. He would be so very happy to see the fuss they’ve made over that ship now.”
Haida, moored in Hamilton, Ont., is now a National Historic Site, and ceremonial flagship of the RCN.
Ward’s relationship with both Haida and Athabaskan continued. In 2003, he was on board the surface vessel when his son, Mark, became the first Canadian to dive on the wreck of HMCS Athabaskan, at a depth of 86 metres, to lay a wreath and install a commemorative plaque supplied by the RCN on the keel.
In speaking about how important it is to maintain Canada’s military history, Lt(N) Ward noted that “we have to have these symbols. They are a rallying call for our national identity and unity.”
A photographer-journalist by trade, Ward worked for the Toronto Evening Telegram for 20 years, eventually becoming military editor. In 1972 he spent two months in Cuba as an embedded reporter, and his photos and stories were published in Canada and the New York Times Syndicate. While in Vietnam, Lt Ward talked his way into becoming a side gunner with a U.S Army helicopter unit, after he demonstrated his M60 machine gun skills. He received the Vietnam Decoration for this action.
Ward served as the public information officer with the Canadian UN Forces in Cyprus in the summers from 1965 to 1968, earning him the Peacekeeping Medal, while also reporting on the realities of the UN peacekeeping mission from the front lines. In 1968, he broke the story about Unification of the Canadian Armed Forces, which saw the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force and Canadian Army lose their status as separate legal entities and merge into one organization (in 2011, the names of the three commands were restored).
In 1957, he married Jane Perkins and they raised three children, Tim, Wendy and Mark. Jane passed away in 2015.
Ward is a member of the Naval Association of Canada (Ottawa) and is a supporter of the NAC Endowment Fund. He remains dedicated to Haida to this day.
“Here’s to the departed, plus all the others who have had a part in saving this wonderful ship for Canadian posterity,” he said. “Here’s to Haida!”
Parks Canada photo from Facebook