Local Navy vet recalls days at sea

CALEB NICKERSON
For the past 20 years or so, Mark Keller has been a staple at the Remembrance Day ceremonies in his hometown of Ladysmith. This year’s celebrations were a little different, but Keller said things were more or less business as usual.
“[It was] basically the same only we were more spread out … most people stayed in their vehicles to keep the distance, it was good,” he said. “It was actually nice to be warm again. Last year I didn’t have the white gloves and it was cold as heck. I nearly dropped the rifle a couple of times.”
The retired navy mechanic spent 20 years in the armed forces, sailing all across the Atlantic Ocean and beyond. He has consistently made an effort to mark the occasion, and even attended both the local service and the one in Shawville for a time, since the ceremony used to be held in Ladysmith the Sunday before Nov. 11. He said that honouring those that served is deeply important to him, and he rarely fails to break out his old uniform and participate.
“I’ve done that since I retired, only missed a couple of them,” he said. “I do it for my grandfather, who was in the military, and all the poor [souls] that didn’t make it back. They’re the heroes, I’m just honouring them. That’s why I do it. They deserve it. We shouldn’t forget.”
Keller grew up in Thorne and made the decision to join the navy in 1981 when he was just 17 years-old (he required a permission slip from his mother Lynn).
He said that he needed a job and the armed forces were an appealing option, since he had relatives that had served. He said he made the choice to join the navy after ruling out the other two branches of the military. He couldn’t picture himself marching around in the bush, dealing with bugs and heat, and he also didn’t have strong feelings towards the air force.
“I didn’t like heights,” he said with a laugh. “I figured with ships … you get to see more of the world.”
The first stop on this adventure was CFB Cornwallis in Nova Scotia for 11 weeks of basic training. From there, he was transferred to Halifax to continue his schooling as a ship mechanic.
“There’s still … a course that’s about a month long, then you’re assigned to a ship,” he said. “You’re either on a steam turbine ship or a gas turbine ship. I lucked out with one of the newer ones at the time, HMCS Athabaskan.”

Photo courtesy of the Royal Canadian Navy
HMCS Athabaskan (pictured here in Lisbon, Portugal in 2015) is the destroyer that Thorne resident Mark Keller served on during his time in the navy. The vessel was decomissioned in 2017.

Keller took to his job as a mechanic, working on four turbine engines that he said were comparable in size to those used on airliners. The Athabaskan was a destroyer that was operational from the 1972 to 2017, and was capable of carrying two Sea King helicopters as well as a variety of armaments.
However, the first few years on the job, Keller said that they mostly conducted training exercises in the Caribbean and western Europe.
“Every January we’d go down south and we’d do exercises with the Americans at sea, plus we’d paint the ship,” he said. “Best time to do it while it’s nice and sunny.”
In the fall they would typically head over to Europe to train with other NATO forces in a variety of locations. Keller said that to break up the monotony of sailing, he read frequently, mostly westerns or war stories.
“You’ve got pretty limited entertainment,” he recalled. “Being the early 80s, we still had reel to reel projectors … I filled my locker half full of books just about. You have to keep yourself occupied.”
However, this routine was broken up in August of 1990, when the Athabaskan was appointed the flagship of a group of vessels deployed to the Persian Gulf in the lead up to the first Gulf War.
Along with another destroyer, HMCS Terra Nova and the supply ship HMCS Protecteur, they were refitted in Halifax and set sail across the ocean.
“We trained all the way across to make sure we’re in top shape,” Keller said. “We trained by ourselves, then we trained with the other ships and stuff like that until we get over there.”
Their role was to guard and monitor tankers in the region, but once the war kicked off in January 1991, they also escorted hospital ships and other vulnerable vessels. One incident in particular that Keller remembered was coming to the aid of the US cruiser USS Princeton after it struck mines.
A 2013 article in Helicopters magazine described the operation in detail:
“In February 1991, the cruiser USS Princeton was disabled by two Iraqi mines at the north end of the Persian Gulf. While the Athabaskan was not assigned to the area, the commanding officer of [the] Princeton specifically requested assistance from the Canadian ship as she was the only warship in the region that could simultaneously operate two helicopters. The Athabaskan and her helicopters helped both ships avoid mines until a minesweeper and naval tug arrived to tow the Princeton to safety in an operation that stretched over two days.”
Keller made the decision to retire back to Thorne in 2000, as he said the job had become too monotonous. Training exercises had been scaled back by that time, and after 20 years of service he returned to civilian life.
“We weren’t going out as much [after the war],” he said. “The price of fuel was high … I was getting sick of Boston, going back and forth.”
After a brief stint working as a refrigeration technician, Keller started a small horse farm, which he operated with his mother from 2002 until 2007. Nowadays, he gets by working odd jobs as a handyman. He said that while he enjoyed his time on the high seas, he is content with small-town living.
“I enjoy it because I have no urge to go anywhere,” he said. "I haven’t been in Ottawa for about three or four years. I have no urge to travel anymore, I’ve seen everything pretty well.”

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