RRMC Memories

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Commodore (Ret’d) Richard D. (Dick) Okros, 3013 (RRMC 1948-50)

This interview was conducted by Royal Roads University staff person, Karen Inkster, and is part of the Royal Roads Oral History Project, a university initiative to preserve the military history of Royal Roads. Please contact Karen at karen.inkster@royalroads.ca if you would like to contribute photos or stories to the project.

Karen – How did you come to Royal Roads?

Dick – I grew up in Regina firstly, and then joined the navy in Toronto. I was serving as a Petty Officer Second Class aboard the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent, based in Halifax, N.S., working on getting my engine room “in charge certificate”. We received a message that anyone with senior matriculation could apply for officer training at a university of their choice, and would have their tuition paid for by the Department of National Defence (DND). I requested and passed the board.

On the day that Magnificent was to sail for Hudson’s Bay, I was posted ashore to HMCS Stadacona. After a week all of a sudden a message came through saying “Where’s this guy called Okros? On the next plane, get him out here.” That’s how I was advised that I would be going to Royal Roads. After being discharged as a Petty Officer Second Class at HMCS Naden, I was re-entered as an Officer Cadet on 14 September, 1948.

I arrived at Royal Roads about 10 days later (by Staff Car) in uniform and was met at the castle by Cadet Squadron Leader Trebell. As we walked from the castle to Grant Block he said, “These are the front stairs. You can’t use these. This is the main door to Grant Block. You can’t use these. These are the main stairs to Grant Block. You can’t use those. Salute the quarterdeck.” And so, the restrictions started. He then showed me the junior gunroom. The first cadet I met was Ralph Knowles (2906); his arm was in a cast from a sports injury. Since I was still in uniform, he thought I was the canteen server and said “Oh, the canteen server’s over there.” And I thought, “Well, that’s a great welcome.” And I then informed him that I’d be a cadet here as well.

Karen – And so did you have to catch up?

dick-okros3Dick – I caught up. There wasn’t too much difficulty. I’d had military training in cadets and I’d had military training in the navy. I didn’t have any trouble with the military part, but I’d been out of the academics for three years at that point and that took a bit of adjusting. We had compulsory P.T. Everybody did P.T. [laughs] And we played games and then we went for a run and everything was very controlled. We had a controlled study period in night time from 7 to 9 and you stand by beds at 10 o’clock and boy you were in bed and the next morning you were up… it was challenging.

Karen – What was the most challenging part for you?

Dick – I think probably the academic part and I’d been a petty officer and the chasing around took a bit of getting used to. I think everybody was the same that way and if you couldn’t stand that, then you got out. And a lot of the people dropped out.

Karen – Did you find that everybody was the same when they came here?

Dick – After the Second World War, RMC Kingston was delayed in restarting in order to ensure a more egalitarian selection of cadets from all walks of life and across Canada. This included selection from the navy, army and airforce. Our term, “The First 86”, therefore, was allotted 3 cadets from sea, land and air. We had three navy, one army and two air: only three of us graduated. After passing the interview board, the criteria for selection to Service College were that you had to be under twenty-one and single – otherwise you could go to the university of your choice. We had cadets from across Canada, including nine francophones from Quebec.

So, the purpose of the Canadian Services College was to bring all three services, and we were pretty well split between army, navy, and air force in the initial recruiting. I think we all had the same challenges and we were all faced by our seniors who moulded us into shape. Now I’ve got very, very great lifelong friendships with all of the people that were here. In fact, we’re having a 60th reunion, and I think of our term, 62 had graduated, some 28 will be attending and we had one five years ago, and I still correspond with a lot of my term mates.

We had a pretty high power term. Ramsay Withers (2951) became a four star and Dan Mainguy (2849) became a three star, which is equivalent of lieutenant general, and four of them reached two star levels and three of us in the navy reached one star. I became a commandant eventually. So, it was a long haul, but the training that they got out here I think was really the basics, the essential of leadership and working with people and working together. Of course the first thing you had to do was get yourself under control and get your self-discipline going and it wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. And quite a few people failed out. Quite a few people quit because it just wasn’t what they had expected, or what they really wanted. In fact, of our term, we started with 86. Only 22 went into the regular force. And of that, 12 in the navy. Our term did very, very well. We were very proud of them.

Karen – Do you think that the military college system was a good system for creating officers?

Dick – I think it was an excellent system. Our term had the chance of either staying in the military or opting out and, as I told you before, only 22 of our 86 went into the military. I didn’t have an option because I was in the military already, so I had to continue on, but if you failed out you had the option of becoming a civilian and a lot of our term went on to university. We’ve got quite a number of PhDs and people who did extremely well.

Karen – Did you ever participate in skylarks?

Dick – Oh, we had a lot of pillow fights and the initiation was the biggest thing, of course. That was just an absolute zoo and there were a lot of pictures to show you about that. The shoe polish race where you had to push a shoe polish with your nose to gravel and, of course, the mud fight is in there as well, which absolutely everybody was covered in mud.

Karen – Now tell me a little bit about the commandant.

Dick – Well, the commandant we first had was Admiral Rayner, and he was all about a naval captain, and the next one we had was Group Captain Millward and he came from an air force background. Both of them very inspiring leadership-wise, and the people we had out here were very inspiring. I think they’re, they tried to get us into the military as much as they could, but we still had the option of opting out.

Karen – And what made them inspiring?

Dick – I think it was their leadership, the way they reacted with people. Their ability to reach out and that was the one thing that you learned here, you were put together, we were put in dormitories, you had to live together, you had to make things work, and it’s very much aboard ship. It’s very much that way. And if you can’t work with other people it just will not work.

Karen – And did you have very much interaction with them?

Dick -Yes, on parades they’d inspect you, but not much more than that. Some people got a chance to go over to the commandant’s house, but we were very, very busy. We had a full university arts and sciences university load, and military training as well on top of that. And we had daily parade, we got very little time off. There was no leave granted to the junior term for the first three weeks at all and then after that your leave was restricted to 10 or 11 o’clock at night. Seniors always got an extra hour.

Karen – Did you have any dates?

Dick – Didn’t have much time for that, but we had a midterm dance and a Christmas dance, in total about three dances and in fact at one of them I met my wife. For our graduation dance, you had to have a lady, so I had a very good friend who had a steady girlfriend who was from Victoria and I said “Well, if you get me a girl that gets along with your girlfriend, I’ll get along with her because I get along with you.” And that was the way we worked it and it worked out. We’ve been married for 56 years.

Karen – Was there anything you did to unwind?

Dick – We had breaks in the gun room. From 3:30 until 4 you had tea, and that was a break, and then you had to change into P.T. gear and get out in the field out there and play your game and go for a run. And then we had a break again at supper time after P.T., to have a shower, have dinner, and then compulsory studies, I told you, from 7 until 9. And then we had a break from 9 until 10 and then stand by bed, into bed.

Karen – So tell me about the summer training, then. Everybody went to different places?

Dick – It depended. The army I think had general training but we went to sea and we did the normal routine, half time work and the other time was having lectures. But it actually was sea duty and the second year we did summer training and then we went in as midshipmen and we had a great career after that. We were appointed to cruisers and we did the Australian cruise, we came back from that and were appointed to an aircraft carrier and we did a Mediterranean cruise and ferried the first Sabre jets from Norfolk to Scotland in the aircraft carrier, came back, did our seamanship board, and then were promoted to sub-lieutenant. And we went off to the Royal Naval College for a year and a half to do technical courses and then we came back.

Karen – What’s one of your favourite memories of being at Royal Roads?

Dick – Oh, I think graduating. [laughs]

Karen – What would you want to tell people about Royal Roads?

Dick – Oh, it’s a great place. I’d recommend anyone to come to Royal Roads, to my grandsons and try to tell them it’d be a good career for them. In fact, my granddaughter is a student, Jessica Woodburn-McLachlan. She’s taking a masters, so it has trickled. And my son actually went through and did thirty, thirty-one years. He finished up as a naval captain, and in fact is lecturing at Royal Military College now in leadership.

Karen – So how do you think coming to Royal Roads impacted what you did afterwards?

Dick – Well, I think I learned a lot of the basic leadership skills here and working with people. The most important thing was learning to get along. And having enough self-confidence to prove to yourself that you could get through this very heavy academic and military activity and physical training activity that we had out here.

And I think that pretty well took me through most of my professional training, of course. Afterwards, professional training became very heavily loaded and I was a chief for a lot, half of my time in the navy pretty well. And you get your destroyer command exams and you get your commands and I’ve been very fortunate having quite a few commands. I had command of a minesweeper, a destroyer, command of the training squadron, commandant of the fleet school so I have a lot of command time and it’s teamwork, more than anything.

Douglas at Pandora - Photo by Belcher's Photography