by Hugh Franks from Toronto, ON
Aug 9, 14
Saturday October 13th 1962 was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Queenston Heights. And we had been invited to Niagara-on-the-Lake to participate in the celebration of General Brock’s victory (and death) in that momentous battle of the War of 1812.
We, were two training vessels, stationed in Toronto, and we slipped HMCS York early Friday afternoon for the crossing of Lake Ontario. My participation was part of my two-week annual training; a requirement for those of us who had graduated from university but remained active in the naval reserve.
Along with me was my friend, Peter Jones, a fellow young lieutenant of stalwart character.
The weekend program included a black-tie dinner on the Saturday night.
One of the guest speakers at the dinner was a professor of history from the University of Syracuse. In his opening remarks the professor read from a press article, an article which reported that an American flag had been raised on General Brock’s Monument the very night before.
I turned to Peter Jones and declared we must retaliate. We must redeem our nation’s honour. We hatched a plan. Our plan was to raise the Canadian flag over the American Fort Niagara.
The dinner continued … late … and Peter and I stayed the course … then we proceeded back to our ship. Enroute we “borrowed” a large Union Jack being flown as part of the next day’s parade .
Prior to boarding, we investigated the local yacht basin for an appropriate craft to cross the river. We found a small punt chained on shore with its oars in place. Back on board our ship we appealed to the Chiefs and P.O.s for a loan of dark trousers, sweaters, toques, shoe polish for our faces, rope and hook and, most important, a hack saw. Once suitably attired we returned to the punt and proceeded to saw away at the chain.
We noted the hour of our departure was 2:30 am, the exact time the Americans made their crossing 150 years earlier to the day. We, of course, were going the opposite direction – we were invading the United States!
We made the U.S. side upstream from Fort Niagara and drifted quietly, hugging the river bank. Just before the Fort we found, much to our glee and excitement, a Coast Guard facility, and there, centred in the “U” shaped barrack facing the river, a magnificent eighty foot flag pole, stays and all.
It was too good to resist. And so we moved to Plan B. Instead of scaling the twenty-foot wall of Fort Niagara, we pulled into the slips of the Coast Guard Base. Although it was now close to 3:00am, we were confronted with two challenges. One, the courtyard was brightly floodlit. Two, hard as it is to believe, we could hear voices; personnel wide awake, with an open window to their room. We had to move fast!
We decided to secure the flag in such a way that once aloft, it could not be lowered.
So we raised it, with one halyard – as we did the masthead pulley squeaked loudly making an incredible racket.
But we got it up, and once it was, we scurried across the grounds, over the side, into our punt and we slipped down the coastline, hugging the shoreline in the shadow of the floodlights. I stopped rowing to listen for voices…nothing. So far, so good.
As we were pulling away from shore however we noticed, much to our horror, two huge searchlights mounted on the wall above us. Our hearts pounded as we rowed into the open. But the lamps remained dark. And we made it safely back to our ship and bunked in – mission accomplished.
The following day, late in the afternoon, as we slipped out of harbour and bid farewell to Niagara on the Lake, the order came: “Attention on the upper deck. Face to port!”
Acting as foc’sle officer that day, I ordered my crew to face starboard, and we all turned and saluted the Union Jack flying proudly on the United States shoreline – undisturbed.
A successful weekend … and the nation’s honour intact.