It was arguably during the darkest days of the Second World War that the Town of Petrolia had an honour conferred upon it that only a few Canadian towns of its size have enjoyed before or since.
In April 1944 Petrolia Mayor Ken Kerr received word from the Hon. Angus McDonald, Minister of National Defense for Naval Affairs, that the latest addition to the Canadian war fleet, a corvette would be named the HMCS Petrolia, in honour of the "Hard Oil Town."
The front page of the Advertiser-Topic, the town’s weekly newspaper, heralded the announcement as something that would provide a much-needed boost to the town’s morale which undoubtedly, due to the vagaries of war and the loss of numerous young men, were certain to be at a low ebb.
"To the citizens of Petrolia the announcement should have particular significance and should revive something of the ‘Hard Oil’ spirit which carried other fighting organizations representative of the the town on the football and other sports fields, Petrolia sections of the army of 1914-1918, and in the oil fields throughout the world," the Topic stated.
The HMCS Petrolia was one of a dozen Castle-Class Corvettes assigned to the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War and were mainly intended for
They were essentially an updated version of the more numerous Flower Class-corvettes of the Royal Navy.
The British Admiralty had ceased construction of the Flower-class corvettes, which had originally been intended for coastal escort work and were found to be, in the main, unsatisfactory for Atlantic convoy service, for which the HMCS Petrolia was destined.
The Castle-Class Corvette began to appear in 1943 and were originally built for the Royal Navy but were transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy. All their pennant numbers, as well as their names, were changed when transferred.
The Castle-Class was somewhat longer, a little larger, faster, and more heavily armed than the Flower-Class corvettes.
While few in town were aware of it, Lieut. Peter W. Spragge of the Royal Canadian Navy, who had been appointed skipper of the new corvette, had covertly visited Petrolia the previous January with a view to learning something of the town for which his ship was to be named.
However, as the Topic later reported "at the time no announcement of the proposed naming could be released until official word had been received from Ottawa."
Lieut. Spragge later commented that he had never been treated more cordially than he was by the citizens of Petrolia.
When the announcement of the ship’s naming came in April 1944 no official reason was given as to why Petrolia was singled out to receive such an honour.
However, the Petrolia Topic speculated in its editorial pages that the "splendid response" of the town’s citizens to the government’s numerous Victory Bond drives had prompted the Department of National Defense to consider Petrolia when selecting a name for the ship.
"Every citizen who has bought war bonds can consider himself as having a direct interest in this unit of the navy," the Topic exclaimed.
Launched in Belfast
HMCS Petrolia was built by Harland and Wolff Ltd. At the company’s ship yards in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
It was also here, beneath its bows on June 29, 1944 officials of the Royal Canadian Navy commissioned the new vessel at what was described as a brief and simple ceremony.
Lieut. Spragge spoke to his crew and told them they would make HMCS Petrolia whatever she was to be.
"I expect her to be a fighting ship, an efficient ship, a ship that will do more than its duty," he said.
Representing the Town of Petrolia was former Petrolia resident Major James Armstrong, Ontario’s Agent-General in Great Britain. (Major Armstrong was the son of prominent Petrolia oil producer and businessman Joe Armstrong, a former town councilor and Member of Parliament from 1904 to 1921 for the electoral riding of Lambton-East).
It was reported that Major Armstrong spoke on behalf of Petrolia, "the oil capital of Ontario and the ship’s mother town."
The major told of the deep connection between the town that produced the oil and the ships that burnt it.
He told of how the oil drillers of Petrolia had crossed the seven continents, pioneering the great oil fields of Peru, Burma, Borneo, Venezuela, Iran and Arabia.
"If the town could be proud of it’s ship. HMCS Petrolia could certainly be proud of its town," said Armstrong.
The Petrolia Topic noted that following the singing of Oh Canada the commissioning pennants broke from the mast and the white ensign was slowly hoisted on its staff.
HMCS Petrolia had joined Canada’s fast growing, hard fighting navy.
HMCS Petrolia Corvette Association was born
It had long been the custom, particularly during the war years, for communities that had ships named after them to essentially "adopt the ship" and provide it and the crew with certain comforts beyond that supplied by the navy, such as cigarettes, chocolate bars, home-knitted socks and sweaters, or perhaps a ship’s bell or a tea service for the ship’s mess.
Consequently, following the announcement that the ship would be named in honour of Petrolia, representatives of the town’s various fraternal orders and service clubs were hurriedly called to a meeting in the town’s council chambers by Deputy-reeve Bloss Sutherland, chair of the town’s industrial and publicity committee.
Sutherland had been charged with organizing the town’s citizenry in this endeavor and taking the action required to instill the "spirit of Petrolia into the members of the crew of the HMCS Petrolia."
The Petrolia Topic reported: "If the spirit of the meeting of representatives of some 35 local organizations is any indication of the enthusiasm of the general public toward the adoption of the HMCS Petrolia by this town, there should be no doubt that the members of the crew of this unit of the Royal Canadian Navy will be well supplied with extra comforts when they are ready to go into battle."
It went on the note that representatives from every organization present expressed the desire to take some part in providing the ship with items which were not part of the regular navy issue.
That evening the HMCS Petrolia Corvette Association was formed and life-long resident Arnold Thompson was put in charge of organizing a Christening Ceremony for the HMCS Petrolia that would long be remembered in the town.
"Hard Oil" Battle Cry Passed On During Impressive Adoption Ceremony
Pledging their support to His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Petrolia, the residents of Petrolia packed Victoria Hall on the evening of April 26, 1944 for the official adoption of this latest unit of the Royal Canadian Navy.
In the following words Petrolia’s residents charged the crew of the HMCS Petrolia to make the ship worthy of the best in support and confidence.
"We, People Petrolia assembled, do here by dedicate and pass on this battle cry: "Hard Oil and Victory First" and we charge the crew of HMCS Petrolia to adopt and use it well. We trust it will renew energy, foster courage, and promote victory, and thus serve the ship as it has the town after which it was named."
As the Petrolia Topic noted the meeting, which was held in connection with the sixth Victory Loan Campaign, drew one of the largest crowds ever assembled at Victoria Hall. Enthusiasm, it noted, reigned throughout a program that was both novel and interesting.
Prior to the meeting a parade was formed consisting of the Petrolia White Rose Band, Sarnia Sea Cadets and navel personal on loan from HMCS Prevost, London.
After a number of speeches by prominent guests, Bloss Sutherland, chair of the HMCS Petrolia Corvette Association gave a report on the gifts received from individuals and local organizations to be passed on to the crew of the HMCS Petrolia. Among them were electric toasters, irons, 100 ditty bags, woolen knitted goods, subscriptions to magazines 125 packets of razor blades.
The Ladies Auxiliary of Branch 216 Petrolia Legion purchased a set of Silver Tea Service for eight in adoration pattern. Mr. Basil Anderson donated a walnut case to hold the silver tea service and had "Petrolia Corvette" inscribed on the cabinet.
A large size model corvette had been assembled on the stage of Victoria Hall and used as a replica of the HMCS Petrolia for the christening ceremony which was performed by local girl Claire Fairbank, who was, at the time, serving with the Women’s Royal Naval Service, more commonly known as the WRENS, at Toronto.
Legion Branch 216 organizes first reunion
Long after the Nazis scourge had been put down and life at home had returned to a modicum of normalcy, Petrolia’s residents were not about to forget its veterans who had fought so hard to maintain the freedom and liberty we continue to enjoy.
In December 1984, the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 216 decided to host a reunion for the crew of the HMCS Petrolia.
This reunion was to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Petrolia Legion and Ladies Auxillary.
With a lot of work by legion members Ernie Timperley, Mac Pauling, John Hammond, Jack Churchill and Ken Dixon, the branch was able to host the first reunion in July 1985.
Gwen Hammond recalled that the first reunion was held at the same time the Town of Petrolia was hosting its Petrolia Days and there were
"A parade was held and the Shriners offered some of the crew members a ride on the float while others joined the parade on foot," she said.
She noted that Capt. Spragge had passed away before the reunion was planned but his widow and their children were able to attend.
The reunion was held every two years thereafter, until 2,000, but not always in Petrolia. Over that period it was hosted in Burnaby B.C., Manitou Springs, Saskatchewan, Victoria B.C. and Russell, Manitoba.
The final reunion was hosted by the Royal Canadian Legion and Ladies Auxiliary in Sept., 2,000. It was found that many of the crew had passed away and the infirmaries of old age prevented many who remained from attending. At the final registration for the three-day event only 11 had registered.
A very special plaque of the HMCS Petrolia which was put together by Gwen Hammond and local photographer Jim Clouse was presented to each crew member.
Gwen Hammond noted that all the crew members who were unable to attend were also sent a plaque.
At the final event of the three-day reunion, the ship’s bell, which had been at the Petrolia Legion for many years and was present at all the reunions, was presented to Petrolia mayor Ross O’Hara and has since occupied an honoured place in the town’s municipal office.
Hammond noted that a beautiful cake had been made to commemorate that final reunion which ironically was cut by Capt. Simpson, the last Captain to serve on the HMCS Petrolia.
Many tearful goodbyes were said at that final reunion, it was noted.
The HMCS Petrolia was decommissioned in March 8, 1946. After the war it was sold to a New York buyer who renamed it The Maid Of Athens. In 1947 it was sold again under Indian registry and renamed Bharat Laxmi. The ship was broken up in Bombay, India in 1965.