by Roger Sweeny
For this retelling I invite you to be my shadow as we climb to the open, moonlit bridge of the Light Cruiser HMCS ONTARIO to begin the Middle Watch (midnight to 0400) on this Battle of Atlantic Sunday, 20th May 1951. Also, since the story involves moon, stars and water, I have asked the Spirit of our own St. Francis of Assisi, lover of all nature, to be with us on the bridge.
Homeward bound from a training cruise to Australia, we left Suva yesterday and are now about 900 miles south of the equator, steaming North-East at 15 knots toward the Trans Pacific Cable Station at Fanning Island.
The bridge crew includes the Officer of the Watch (OOW), a seasoned lieutenant, who already has assumed command of the captain’s chair and called for his first mug of sweetest hot chocolate (kye); the Second OOW, a sub lieutenant working on his watch-keeping ticket, busily keeping the ship on track, doing all the things and gathering all the information he will need when writing up the log; the Midshipman, myself, lowest species of officer, general dog’s body and go-for, tasked to watch, listen and absorb all goings-on and to ensure a constant supply of kye to my seniors; the Signalman, and the Port and Starboard Lookouts, constantly scanning the horizon.
It’s a warm, starry night with a bright full moon high in the western sky astern (which casts you, shadow, in front of me). A gentle South-Easterly breeze coupled with our speed of advance puts the apparent wind on our Starboard bow at about 18 knots. Air scoops surrounding the bridge deflect all wind over our heads so we are in a calm zone. Sky and sea ahead are velvet black, with a scattering of clouds faintly visible along the horizon. Five hundred shipmates sleep soundly as the turbines far below hum on.
So far it has been a quiet watch, routine and uneventful. The stars seem so close we could almost reach out and grasp them. Now the time has rolled on to 0230. The moon is drawing down towards the sea fine on our Port quarter; another hour should bring the first hint of dawn.
“BEARING GREEN THREE ZERO, FAR, A LIGHT” calls the Starboard Lookout. Immediately all binoculars are trained on the bearing … and there, yes – looks like a tiny patch of light … a faint greyish glow on the horizon. “CHALLENGE IT” says the OOW to the Signalman, who switches on the big signal lamp, swings to the bearing, and flashes out the morse code message “WHAT SHIP, WHERE BOUND?” There is no response.
Within minutes the sighting has become a distinct semicircle of pale grey sitting upon the sea beneath a cloud. Minutes more and we are watching, fascinated, as the apparition, relative bearing unchanged, grows ever larger and comes on to meet us. By 0245 a great arc of softly shimmering grey light has blocked out the stars and filled most of our field of vision ahead. It must be within half a mile now … and look at that! – a perfect rainbow, faint but clear, running all around the rim from sea to sea. It seems alive! … (and in my mind I see the Francis Spirit gazing upwards beside us, eyes gleaming).
“QUICKLY, MID, GO SHAKE THE OLD MAN! NO. TOO LATE. STAY!”
The ship’s bow slices into the veil. For just an instant the light is everywhere, we within it. Then it is gone and the line squall engulfs us. Our calm zone transformed into a chaos of laughter, wind and driving rain.
Five minutes and we’re through it … but we’ve hardly time to catch our breath before “BEARING GREEN THREE ZERO, FAR, A LIGHT” calls the Lookout again.
ONTARIO’s log entry for 20 May ‘51 confirms that our Captain Hugh Pullen, a Battle of Atlantic veteran, was on the bridge for our second moonbow encounter that night. There is no mention of a Spirit, though of course he was there only in my imagination (or was he?) – he whose Canticle of the Sun inspired the inscription on our church’s memorial window: “Thou did’st make our Sister Moon and Stars. For Sister Water praise to thee, Good Lord”