BACK WHEN: The day shrapnel fell on Clallam Bay

BACK WHEN: The day shrapnel fell on Clallam Bay

JANUARY 29, 1962, a day that will live on in lore and legend. It was a day when the citizens of Clallam County would face a demanding situation with spirit and resilience. Was that a little over the top? I suppose so. It is actually a day most have forgotten about.

In “The Art of War” Sun Tzu says “Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.” That would fit the Canadian Navy perfectly, except their shelling of Clallam Bay was totally by accident. So, what is the story here?

It was 3:20 in the afternoon of Jan. 29, 1962. Four ships of the Canadian navy began to engage in a training exercise in the Strait of Juan de Fuca opposite Clallam Bay. The four ships were the destroyer escorts Skeena and Saguenay, and the frigates Antigonish and Ste. Therese. All four ships were conducting gunnery exercises in the Strait using live ammunition. Pulling a drogue target behind a jet aircraft the Skeena began anti-aircraft gunnery practice. The Skeena was about 1½ miles outside the firing area. What could possibly go wrong?

The Skeena aimed its 3-inch twin-mounted guns at the target and fired. Their aim was a bit off. The Skeena opened fire too soon so instead of hitting the drogue, they lofted shells toward Clallam Bay. The first burst reached the shoreline. As anti-aircraft shells are designed to do, most of them exploded in the air. So, it was mostly shrapnel that fell on Clallam Bay. Miraculously, no one was injured.

Probably the greatest concern was the fact that at least one shell burst over the school while classes were being dismissed. One shell, which turned out to be a dud, landed in the schoolyard. Principal Charles MacLean ordered all students inside until the shelling ended. One student found fragments in the playground.

One larger piece bounced off the roof of Mrs. Louise Gossom’s house. She took cover until the shelling stopped. The damage was minimal. She was very upset and had a hard time sleeping that night. Representatives from the Canadian fleet personally gave Mrs. Gossom their assurance it would not happen again.

Bits and pieces landed near other people, too. Word quickly spread to wait for the U.S. Navy’s demolition experts to come and clean up the duds.

This was quite an embarrassment for the Canadian navy. Regardless, the Canadian navy representatives were a stand-up bunch and accepted responsibility and personally apologized to the people of Clallam Bay. The folks in Clallam Bay were also upstanding and cordially received the Canadian navy representatives.

Canadians could also poke fun at themselves. The cartoon shown here was drawn by Len Norris of the Vancouver Sun. Norris’ cartoon makes a lighthearted reference to NASA’s Ranger 3 mission to study the moon. Ranger 3 was launched Jan. 26, 1962. Its mission was to gather data and photographs before impacting the moon’s surface. By January 28, 1962, malfunctions caused the probe to miss the moon by 22,912 miles. Norris saw the humor in both nations inability to hit their target.

The HCMS Skeena was built in 1952 as Canada’s involvement in NATO grew. The Royal Canadian Navy was assigned responsibility for anti-submarine warfare and controlling sea space in the western North Atlantic. The Skeena was decommissioned in 1993 and scrapped in 1996.

During this incident, the skipper of the Skeena was Cmdr. Richard H. Leir. After an investigation Cmdr. Leir faced a court martial. A five-member court convicted Cmdr. Leir of “committing an act which prejudiced good order and discipline.” That sounds so proper and British. Possible penalties ranged between dismissal from the navy and “a lesser punishment.” Cmdr. Leir received a “severe reprimand,” the second lowest penalty.

No single incident should define a person. This incident did not truly define this fine officer. Leir joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1939. During World War II he was posted in the Far East. He was assigned to the HMS Prince of Wales, which was sunk by Japan, but he was rescued. He then joined the HMS Exeter only to be sunk again. This time he was picked up by the Japanese and spent 3½ years as a prisoner of war. After he was released he continued his career in the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1970 he was promoted to real admiral as Commander Maritime Force Pacific at Esquimalt, B.C. He was truly a fine officer and a gentleman.

Another side story involves Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Charles Dunsire, who managed to survive his own near miss. He flew by air service to Clallam Bay on a Stinson Aeronca float plane to report on the shelling of Clallam Bay. He interviewed the witnesses and was preparing an article for the Post-Intelligencer. On the way back his attention was drawn to the plane’s gas gauge, which consisted of a clear plastic tube above the instruments. The liquid in the tube was falling at a rapid rate. He pointed it out to the pilot who, after a colorful metaphor, began his emergency procedures. They were over the Olympic Mountains and Dunsire had visions of crashing onto a snowcapped peak. The pilot nursed the plane back to the Strait just as the fuel ran out. They bobbed around on the water for some time until a fishing boat came over and towed them to shore. The pilot had neglected to replace the gas cap when he fueled in Clallam Bay. They refueled again and flew back to Seattle. The air service fired the pilot.

It is important to remember that a single incident does not define the person or community. Remaining honorable and cordial to one another is always the best path to follow.

Over the years I have felt that Clallam Bay has missed a wonderful opportunity. They should have had a large party every year on the anniversary of the shelling. Sis Boom Bomb Days? Festival of Shells?


John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].

John’s Clallam history column appears the first Sunday of every month.

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