Scotty Wells encountered not only danger but intrigue while serving his country in the Korean War.
The Scarborough man was treated by and served alongside an American imposter posing as a Canadian doctor aboard the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer HMCS Cayuga.
The imposter was Ferdinand Waldo Demara, who took the identity of New Brunswick doctor Joseph Cyr. Demara would later be known as The Great Imposter and would be the subject of a Hollywood movie in which Tony Curtis played him.
“He just seemed like a really down-to-earth, nice man. He used to come down into our mess deck the odd time, just to talk,” Wells said of Demara. “He did that several times on the ship, which was quite unusual. An officer didn’t usually do that. I was just a seaman.”
On one occasion, the ship’s captain, James Plomer, had an abscessed wisdom tooth and told the doctor he wanted the tooth extracted the next morning.
“The doctor said: ‘OK, well I’ve got a book on dentistry, I’ll study it up overnight,’ which he did,” Wells said. “He did take out the captain’s tooth, and the captain said he never had one done better, so he was pleased.”
Wells himself was a patient when he received various immunization shots from Demara.
Wells recalled when three badly wounded South Korean fighters were brought onboard the ship for medical treatment. (He snapped a photo of one of the wounded on a stretcher.) The imposter, with help from the sick bay attendant, operated on the gunshot victims, saving their lives.
“They used the captain’s table to operate,” Wells said. “I saw the doctor come out of the captain’s cabin. ... What I remember the most was he was just bathed in sweat, you could see beads of sweat on his face because he’d been through an ordeal in working on these people, especially now that we know he wasn’t a real doctor.”
A press release was issued on the life-saving surgeries, and it became nation-wide news in Canada. The real Dr. Cyr saw the story and contacted naval headquarters.
“The captain just couldn’t believe it when he got the secret signal from Ottawa,” Wells said. “My good friend Dixie Branter was the cryptologist on the ship and he got the coded signal which he had to decipher. It said that we believe your Dr. Cyr is an imposter.”
Denara, Wells said, was called into the captain’s cabin where he confessed. “We were all pretty well shocked,” Wells said.
Demara was sent to Ottawa and discharged from the navy. He would later take on other false identities to get various positions, including a deputy warden at a Texas prison and a teacher in a Maine village.
Wells met Demara again in 1979 at a Cayuga crew reunion. Demara, who at the time held a legitimate job as a hospital chaplain in California, was warmly greeted by his former shipmates, Wells said. Demara died of a heart attack three years later.
For Wells, the imposter wasn’t the only intriguing memory from the Cayuga.
While fueling in July 1950, leading seaman George Johnson rescued a puppy that was part of a litter being drowned.
The captain allowed the dog to be kept onboard as long as she was trained. The canine, named Alice, served two tours of duty to Korea and was the ship’s mascot.
Wells said the dog raised the morale of the crew. “When we were eating, it would make the rounds of all the different messes,” he said. “It was nice to have someone other than a human around.”
But one day Alice went missing. It turned out, she had fallen between the Cayuga and the ship it was tied next to.
“Over the loudspeaker came ‘Alice is between the ships,’” Wells said. “Every sailor that was able rushed up there, and we virtually held the ships apart somehow until they rescued the dog.”
A crew member eventually took Alice home. The dog soon began a second career: riding with a garbage truck crew in Victoria, B.C. She was accidentally run over and killed by the truck during a garbage run.
Wells joined the navy at age 17 in May 1948 and was transferred to the Cayuga in June 1950 when the Korean War started. The Cayuga, joined by the Athabaskan and Sioux, sailed for Korea on July 5, 1950.
The Cayuga became the first Canadian ship to fire in anger since the Second World War, bombarding the port city of Yosu.
Wells served as a signalman.
On Sept. 15, 1950, the Cayuga took part in the invasion at Inchon, which resulted in a rapid advance by Allied troops up to the Yalu River.
There were some close calls. On Oct. 16, 1950, the Cayuga got in a minefield while leading HMS Kenya north of Inchon.
“We heard metal scraping metal, which sounded like a mine was scrapping down the side,” Wells said. “Normally that should have blown us up, but it must have been a dud because we’re still here.”
Another danger came on Oct. 30, 1951 when the Cayuga was sent to resupply South Korean guerrillas behind enemy lines.
“We pulled into this body of water, dropped our anchor,” Wells said. “A small naval vessel took a bunch of provisions ashore for these guerrillas, and the next thing you know about 50 yards in front of the forecastle of the ship two great huge geysers of water shoot up as the shells started landing because there were gunners on the land, two or three miles away. They were firing at us and had us zeroed right in.”
The ship reversed out of there at full speed.
“As we proceeded backwards, the shells kept landing just where we’d been,” Wells said. “I don’t think there was real fright because we were busy. We had jobs to do. ... The fright came after when you started thinking about it, how close it had come.”
Wells served two tours of duty during the Korean War. He was discharged from the navy in May 1953 after five years of service. “It was an honour to serve,” he said. “The South Korean people are so thankful for what we did they can’t treat you well enough, and they’ve been like that ever since we came back right up to today.”