Fred Webb III looks out the window of the 1894 jetty services building in the heart of CFB Esquimalt that was his workplace for the past 36-plus years. “Was” is the operative word, as he officially retired the day before at age 77.
Webb long ago came to love the base and develop great fondness for the people in it, from those on the ships to the men he worked alongside in the jetty services department.
“The changes that I’ve seen … have been just absolutely phenomenal,” he says, looking at the heavy construction equipment working between his shop and the jetty below, where on this particular morning a change of command is taking place on HMCS Vancouver.
Indeed, the changes to the base since he joined the navy in October 1959 as a fresh-faced 19 year old, did his basic training and was stationed as a gunnery mate on the Esquimalt-based destroyer HMCS Skeena, have been dramatic. Gone are many of the old buildings and all of the old ships, replaced by new structures and vessels.
Reflecting on the beginning of his nearly 58 years on the base, Webb recalls his first commanding officer on the Skeena, Cmdr. Richard Leer. He had been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in the Second World War and was “an absolute gentleman” who never gave away what he had been through.
A short time later, as a crew member on HMCS Stettler, Webb found himself in the middle of a tense point in history.
“We were standing by to assist the Americans during the October missile crisis [in 1962],” he says. While there was a certain feeling of adventure as they prepared for whatever might come their way, he notes there was also trepidation knowing how serious things were getting politically.
In those days, many of his shipmates were veterans of the Second World War and the Korean conflict.
“They were our mentors, those guys gave us a feeling of confidence,” Webb says.
He had another guiding force as well, one much closer. His father, Fred Jr., served in the navy in the Second World War after spending years in the reserves, then became an officer in the early 1950s. He stayed in the navy until 1965, retiring as a lieutenant commander. Father and son were in the navy together for six years.
So what kind of advice did Webb’s dad give him?
“He always said, ‘treat your subordinates with respect, because there’s a lot more of them than there is of you.’”
After getting his 20-year medal, Fred III saw it was time for a change. He retired for a first time, but not before working himself into a civilian position with the Queen’s Harbour Master on the base.
Within a year he had switched hats and become charge hand for jetty services, handling such dockside activities as placing gangways, stands for special events and assisting tugs during the movement in and out of ships. Over the years he kept a thick journal filled with the names and requirements for visiting ships from various countries.
As for highlights from that part of his career, Webb listed being involved with the visit of the Royal Yacht Britannia in 1982, the 75th anniversary of the Canadian Navy in 1985 in Vancouver and the navy’s centennial here in 2015.
He has always felt his time in the forces made his transition to the jetty services position easier.
“Having been in the navy I was associating a lot with the personnel in the dockyard, so when I got into the civilian side of things I was still associating with those people,” he says. “I didn’t have to learn anything new basically, I knew how everything worked.”
Retiring at a more advanced age than most, he says, was a factor of his naval background, his continued involvement with the navy and his keen interest in all things naval.
“Once you’ve been in the navy, it’s hard to take the navy out of the guy.”