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His Excellency Gordon Oscar Wells – Jamaican Diplomat and Canadian Naval Officer
by John M. MacFarlane 2011
The University Naval Training Division has produced an accomplished group of alumni that includes Lieutenants-Governor, Senators, MPs and MLAs, titans of industry and academia, judges, senior civil servants and many others since its inception in 1943. Former members tend to keep track of former shipmates and, from time to time, recount anecdotes of interest. The UNTD was unusual in that several of its members came from Commonwealth countries who were studying in Canada.
UNTD Officer Cadets Celebrating Track and Field Victories
Gordon Wells, who came from Jamaica, was appointed as a Naval Cadet (UNTD) RCN(R) (With seniority dated 02/01/1953). He served in HMCS Cataraqui for UNTD 1952. He served in HMCS Stadacona for Training (Cadet Captain) 1955. He was appointed as an A/Sub-Lieutenant RCN(R). He was appointed as a Sub-Lieutenant RCN(R). (He was released.)
Wells was the son of Sutherland Wells, a Kingston Harbour Pilot. After his time at Queen's University in Canada he was appointed as a Cadet (Administrative) in the Jamaica Government Service. He was appointed as an Administrative Officer, Government of Jamaica 1956-58. He served as Trade Officer, West Indies Commission (Montreal QC) 1959-60. He was appointed as the Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs Kingston Jamaica 1962-64. He was appointed as the First Secretary in the Permanent Mission of Jamaica to the United Nations (in New York) 1964-66.
He was appointed as the Counsellor (Economic and Trade) in the Jamaican High Commission Trinidad 1966–1970. He served as Minister/Counsellor (Economics and Trade) in the Jamaican Embassy (Washington) 1970-71. He served as Executive Director of the Jamaica National Export Corporation 1971-73. He was appointed as the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs 1973-75. He was appointed as the Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister 1975-79. He was appointed as the Jamaican High Commissioner for Trinidad 1979-81. He served as the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of the Public Service 1981-1986. He was a Past Chairman of the Broadcasting Commission and Past Advisor to Government on Public Service Reform to the Government of Jamaica.
This is the record of an illustrious career, to be sure, but he is remembered as one of a trio of UNTD (University Naval Training Division) Cadet Captains who had a unique encounter with an interesting personality whom at the time did not realize that they were in the presence of greatness. In his book, Spindrift: UNTiDy Tales of Officer Cadets, Commander Robert Williamson recounts a fascinating story of the encounter as told by Wells:
"It was the summer of 1955 and I was a Cadet Captain in charge of a division of first year UNTD cadets at HMCS Stadacona in Halifax. I had only been made a Cadet Captain, I am sure, because of the amount of trouble I had given the navy in the previous two summers. Indeed, probably most of the Cadet Captains had been promoted that year for the same reason, The system worked like a charm. We all became dedicated and loyal members of the establishment."
"But this story relates to the cruise which took us to Boston that year. Our first stop was at the US Naval Base at Argentia Newfoundland - in those days a pretty dull place by any standard. However, everybody was looking forward to Boston and was happy to put up with this less lively port of call for a short visit."
"I remember clearly that the stern line had just been cast off as we were departing Argentia at 0800, when suddenly, what seemed like the whole US Navy came charging on to the pier. At first we thought they were there to see us off, but soon realized that there was a commotion and were surprised when we heard the reason for it."
"Evidently during the night the US Admiral’s flag on the base had been taken down and replaced by a motley assortment of not so recently laundered socks and undergarments. The Americans were not amused and naturally took the view that as the only strangers around, the Canadians were guilty of this dastardly act."
"Our commanding officer summoned the three Cadet Captains and instructed us to find out who were the guilty cadets. He assumed quite rightly that the only people sufficiently spirited and untamed to undertake such a risky enterprise would be the cadets. Knowing my fellows pretty well, I went below confident that it must have been a group of undisciplined cadets from one of the other divisions that were responsible."
"When I sternly demanded of my division whether any had been involved, there was total silence. Then I saw one face just very slightly crack. Having myself been a part of similar adventures in the previous two years at Stadacona and the West Coast, I needed no further evidence and my heart sank. So I had to crawl back up to the bridge and deliver the bad news. The Captain listened to me but took the view that most of the cadets knew what was going on and issued the order that there would be no shore leave for any cadet for the remainder of the cruise. The depression thereafter among the cadets was awful. At the time I thought the sentence was harsh, a view shared by my fellow Cadet Captains and some of the officers who in those days didn't seem to mind seeing the Americans' noses being tweaked. Happily, by the time we got to Boston the C.O. probably felt that the cadets had been sufficiently punished and to a very large degree relented. Shore leave was granted and peace and happiness restored."
"The three Cadet Captains were invited to a reception given for the Canadian officers by the US Admiral in charge of the eastern US seaboard. As was to be expected, the three of us were largely ignored and stood in a corner talking to each other. After a while a gentleman came over to us and introduced himself. He appeared genuinely interested in our youthful experiences in the navy. His name was Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachussetts. In talking to us he expressed surprise that of the three Cadet Captains, only one was Canadian, the other two being from Northern Rhodesia and Jamaica."
"He must have been impressed with our experience because he invited us to have dinner with him at his club. We told him that we would love to join him but hardly thought that in light of the escapde in Argentia that permission would be given. Besides, we had our duties to discharge on board ship after the reception. He laughed and went straight over to our Commanding Officer who to our surprise, graciously and readily agreed to the Senator's request. In those days we probably thought that our Captain outranked a mere US Senator from Massachusetts."
"Many years have passed and I have now only a hazy recollection of a most splendid evening at a large, elegant club by the sea. An orchestra played during dinner and I do remember at one point they were persuaded to play the Canadian National Anthem in our honour. I was certainly impressed but being inexperienced in matters of diplomacy, wondered how the band had the music at hand. It was a memorable occasion and over the years has had a singular impact on my UNTD recollections."
The three Cadet Captains were: Gordon Wells, Jim McKeen and Bill Milne. Bill Milne later added some additional background to fill out the rest of the story:
"The disappearance of the Admiral’s flag from the U.S. Navy base at Argentia Newfoundland was a good lark by the UNTD cadets but it put the three Cadet Captains in a very awkward position with the squadron commander, Captain Finch-Noyes RCN, a rather stern man. However, not only was he concerned about an international incident by some high spirited cadets but a fire had broken out in the boiler room of one of his destroyers. He was not a ‘happy camper’.
"When we arrived in Boston, it was a Saturday and they were experiencing a heat wave. We were tied up to a wharf beside a steel-sided warehouse. There was no breeze and the radiant heat pushed the temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Nevertheless we had to clean our Messes. It was so hot, salt pills were distributed to the crew and some cadets were suffering from heat exhaustion. Then we were told that the three cadet captains had to attend a reception and the dress was formal. The most suitable formal uniform we had was our navy blue woollen battle dress known as #5Bs. We were boiling in that rig and our shirts were saturated with sweat when we met Senator John F. Kennedy in the story related by Gordon Wells."
In 2004 Wells was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Law degree by Queen's University. He is retired in Kingston Jamaica.
Author’s Note: I am indebted to Commander Robert Williamson, Bill Milne and Bill Clearihue for the background of the story and permission to reprint material.
To quote from this article please cite:
MacFarlane, John M. (2012) His Excellency Gordon Oscar Wells - Jamaican Diplomat and Canadian Naval Officer. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Wells_Gordon.php