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Jack Knox: On his 101st birthday, optimistic sailor gets his due

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Peter Chance cut the ribbon at a CFB Esquimalt museum gallery named in his honour. SUBMITTED

Navy musicians played Happy Birthday as Peter Chance caned his way up the stairs to the CFB Esquimalt museum.

“How are you,” asked the base commander, Capt. Jeff Hutchinson.

“I’m still here,” the 101-year-old grinned in reply.

Imagine that, 101 years old. In all of Canada, only 2,500 men are north of the century mark. Of the more than one million Canadians who served in the Second World War, fewer than 26,000 remain.

Our personal ties to such people are becoming tenuous, Hutchinson says. We have to savour the opportunities to honour them while we still can. Someone like Commander (Ret.) Peter Godwin Chance? Hutchinson says it might not be pushing it to call him a national treasure.

So, honour him they did Wednesday, asking him to swap his cane for a sword with which he cut the ribbon at the museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery, which now bears his name. The ceremony was supposed to occur last Nov. 24 on his 100th birthday, but the pandemic punted that plan. The ever-cheerful Chance didn’t seem to mind at all.

The Sidney man has had a fascinating life. Raised in Ottawa in a family with a strong sense of duty, one where Christmas morning meant standing to attention as the radio played God Save the King, he became Canada’s junior figure skating champion before the war relegated his blades to the shelf.

Already in the naval reserve when hostilities broke out in 1939, he was called in by an officer (“famous for his glass eye party tricks, which included one with an emblazoned Union Jack”) who asked if he wanted to go to sea. He did. He joined the crew of the destroyer HMCS St. Laurent as a midshipman four days after Canada entered the war, then sailed off with a convoy the next day. To his dismay, he was seasick for the first three months: “Each of us had a bucket on the bridge which saw considerable use caused by the generally foul weather.” That was the beginning of a 30-year naval career.

He spent the war on a succession of Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Navy ships, including HMCS Skeena, which in 1944 was lost along with 15 of its crew after running aground during a wild storm off Reykjavik, Iceland. The whole ocean was perilous during the Battle of the Atlantic, when destroyers and corvettes tried to protect the convoys providing a lifeline to beleaguered Britain. You think we have supply chain problems now? Try them with U-boats.

In his autobiography, A Sailor’s Life, Chance wrote of fending off submarine and Luftwaffe attacks, but on Wednesday he said what was harder to deal with were the bitter cold and heaving seas whose towering green waves would drench everyone on the open bridge. The oilskins they were issued were inadequate, their boots so heavy that they feared being dragged under if swept overboard — so they made sure that didn’t happen. “The winters were terrible,” he says.

But the camaraderie was good, and not all the memories were bad. At one point, he was in on the sinking of a U-boat, then the rescue of its entire crew, including a young officer on whom Chance tried his Ottawa high school German. “Excuse me, sir, I would prefer if you spoke to me in English,” the young Austrian replied. When put ashore for transfer to a prisoner-of-war camp, the submariners gave their Canadian captors three cheers.

Some of his stories are funny: en route to a posting to a Royal Navy ship in Scotland, he went to see Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator at a Glasgow cinema where an elderly woman confused his uniform for that of an usher. She had him escort her to her seat.

Some are simply human. He told The Lookout, the CFB Esquimalt newspaper, about being in a group that shyly sent three women a note asking if they A) had boyfriends and B) wanted dinner, to which they replied A) no, and B) they were hungry. “My future wife Peggy sat down next to me and I took one look at her and said to myself: ‘I’m going to marry her.’ Six weeks later we were married in Plymouth and stayed together until Peggy died in 1996.”

In 1974, he moved to Victoria, where he enjoyed a long association with the Duke of Edinburgh awards and immersed himself in community work, taking on roles in groups as diverse as the ALS Society, the Maritime Museum and the Saanich Peninsula Hospital’s foundation. He still lives independently in Sidney. (Alone? “No, I have a cat.”)

Are people the same now as a century ago? “I think so. Some are stinkers but most are good guys.” He has usually found that if you are outgoing and upbeat, it gets reciprocated. “I have always been an optimist,” he says.

Wednesday, he was smiling from ear to ear.

jknox@timescolonist.com