When Allan Bell showed up for his monthly breakfast with former shipmates of HMCS Kootenay in Dartmouth, N.S., in December, he quickly learned that a number of them were upset about a local newspaper article. It was about a sailor who had been compensated for harm he said he experienced in a fire on a Canadian warship more than 50 years ago.
The veterans were concerned because they don’t believe the fire happened.
The Department of National Defence also says there is no record of the fire.
“There’s just too much wrong,” said Bell, who goes by the name Dinger and is a survivor of the HMCS Kootenay explosion that killed nine people in 1969.
In a decision dated Aug. 31, 2021, the Veterans Review and Appeal Board — an independent appeal tribunal for disability programs administered by Veterans Affairs Canada — awarded the sailor an undisclosed amount of money for pain and suffering he experienced as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The panel acknowledged it awarded the compensation in spite of the fact there is no proof of the fire.
The panel also noted that the veteran testified in a “forthright and credible manner.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the review board — which comprises former police officers, lawyers and veterans, among others — said the panel is required by law to accept any uncontradicted evidence presented by the applicant that it considers to be credible.
“When board members are weighing evidence, they will look at it in the best light possible and resolve doubt so that it benefits the veteran,” Amber Nicholson said.
Veterans Affairs denied claim in 2012
Veterans Affairs Canada had previously denied the claim. In November 2012, it ruled that while the sailor does have PTSD, there was no objective evidence to support it being connected to his time in the Canadian Armed Forces.
The sailor, who at the time of the decision was 73, was in the regular force for four years, from September 1966 to August 1970, and was electrocuted in a civilian accident in 1995. That accident led to his diagnosis of PTSD, but the sailor and his psychologist now argue the PTSD was also partially caused by the alleged fire on the warship.
In his application for compensation, the sailor wrote that “on or around 1968,” an aviation gas fire was raging in a storage tank on his ship while it was returning from port calls in Florida and Bermuda.
He testified that when he arrived at his emergency station, he discovered flames coming out of a hatch that led down to the aviation gas storage. He said he had no choice but to close the hatch, unknowingly shutting in crew members, in order to fight the fire, and that “two or three” of them died.
The sailor said he was told at the time that he had done the right thing and that the deaths were not his fault.
“I have and still do feel awful guilt over this,” he wrote.
Sailor, ship and victims all unnamed
The sailor is not named in the review board’s decision, nor is the ship or any of the people who allegedly died in the fire. Veterans Affairs refused to answer questions about these details, citing privacy concerns.
The review board says it does not have the names of the alleged victims.
In its decision, the panel wrote that the fact the veteran was not able to obtain proof of the fire is “not proof that the fire did not happen.”
Allan Bell, 73, says he doesn’t believe the veteran’s story and reported the matter to the RCMP, alleging fraud.
A spokesperson for the RCMP in Nova Scotia confirms a complaint was received on Jan. 4 that a person had fraudulently received an award by fabricating information. The RCMP referred the matter to Veterans Affairs Canada.
Veterans Affairs says it has investigated and no further action will be taken at this time.
Decisions of the review board are final and binding.
DND says no record of 1968 warship fire
In a statement, the head of media relations for the Department of National Defence said there is no record of a major fire on a warship in 1968, as described by the Veterans Review and Appeal Board.
“In addition to in-house resources, the Royal Canadian Navy historian team consulted outside naval historians and ex-RCN personnel familiar with that time period, and none of them had any recollection/knowledge of such an event,” Daniel Le Bouthillier said.
The biggest fire on board a Canadian warship from that time period was on HMCS Kootenay while it was returning to Canada in the English Channel on Oct. 23, 1969. A catastrophic gearbox failure led to the explosion that killed nine people and injured 53. The ship was towed to Halifax and arrived on Nov. 27.
“I lost nine of my shipmates,” said Bell, his voice still breaking with emotion all these years later. “I burnt 50 per cent of my body, third-degree burns. I spent over a year in hospital.”
There was another incident on Dec. 3, 1969, on HMCS Bonaventure. That one did involve aviation gas, as the veteran awarded the recent settlement described from his experience — but the ship was off the Atlantic coast at the time, having just left Halifax, not returning from Florida or Bermuda. Two sailors died from deadly fumes and two more lost their lives during the rescue attempt.
A fire on HMCS Nipigon on Oct. 18, 1965, also involved aviation gas and killed three people. It happened a year before the sailor who was awarded the settlement joined the navy.
David Yeo, 75, who retired from the navy in 2001 at the rank of lieutenant-commander, was on board HMCS Nipigon at the time.
He said the ship was in the Bay of Biscayne, off France, when a ball of smoke and another big bang came out of the mess, or living quarters. He said that’s where his shipmates died.
“It actually picked me up off the deck and threw me against the wall,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Charlottetown.
Yeo said what is described in the decision raises some questions for him.
“It certainly doesn’t fit with Nipigon,” he said. “In 39 years in the navy, I’ve never once seen an accident or an incident that wasn’t investigated by either a board of inquiry or a thorough investigation.”
Three of four naval historians contacted by CBC News, who do not currently work for the Department of National Defence and have no independent knowledge of the review board’s decision, supported the view that any accident that causes significant damage — especially when there is loss of life — is thoroughly investigated and documented.
However, two of the historians noted that the unification of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Army also took place in 1968. They say the unification caused some confusion and some records were temporarily misplaced.
Author and naval historian Roger Litwiller, based in Trenton, Ont., said in an email that allowing this claim should be considered a positive milestone in recognizing PTSD as a condition.
Michael Hennessy, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., has also helped the Canadian Armed Forces with its handling of PTSD in the past.
He says the ship’s log should also have a record of the fire, but he acknowledges that the events are alleged to have occurred a long time ago.
“It’s obviously somebody who’s been through some traumatic events,” he said. “It’s hard to second-guess them.”
The veteran’s PTSD diagnosis was confirmed by a psychologist in 2012 and said to have “always been understood” to relate to the electrical fire he experienced as a civilian in 1995. His medical records show there were no mental health issues in 1970, when he was medically released from the Canadian Armed Forces due to “noise induced deafness.”
But in a submission to the review board, the psychologist wrote that the situation is complex due to the veteran’s extensive memory loss, and “it is highly probable that the shipboard event formed part of a cumulative experience that made the totality of the 1995 experience as traumatizing and debilitating over time as it has been.”
Bell says he’s angry and wants the board to reopen the case.
He says while he wants deserving veterans to be compensated, he also wants the truth to be known and that anything less is a disgrace to all of those who served honourably.
“Nobody died by fire in 1968 in the Canadian navy,” he said. “We don’t hide our dead. We mourn our dead.”