STRASBOURG, Sask. — Ward Mortenson kept a watchful eye out for enemy ships during the Second World War while serving on board the HMCS Monnow.
The Royal Canadian Navy able seaman was responsible for launching depth charges, aimed at destroying German submarines lurking below them in the North Atlantic.
The river class frigate, which was named for a river in England, escorted the Allied ships and freighters that carried much needed supplies along the Norwegian coastline to Murmansk, a Russian seaport. Movement by land wasn’t possible because of the German occupation in Europe.
“It was a dangerous place because the Germans were based in Norway and had ports along the sea,” said Mortenson, who was 18 when he signed up with the volunteer reserves.
Russia recently honoured Mortenson with a medal for his war service at Government House in Regina.
He trained in Regina and Esquimalt, B.C., before a weeklong train ride took him to Sidney, N.S., to board a ship bound for Scotland for his first ever trip overseas.
The men slept in hammocks, 30 to a room.
Ward said he and other prairie men volunteered for war service partly because they got to choose where they served. The conscripted ones often went into the army.
His wife, Shirley, said men also enlisted seeking adventure.
“More of the prairie boys chose the Navy because they had enough dirt in their lives,” she said.
Mortenson recalled one fire fight where German dive-bombers were attacking his ship.
“Our gunners shot down the plane and we picked up the five survivors,” he said, noting the POWs remained on the ship for a couple of weeks until they got to port.
“We had to guard them all the time.”
Mortenson continued to make his mark following the war.
He used a federal government program for returning veterans to start a mixed farm, married Shirley, who he began dating in his teens, and raised four children.
Producing hog, cattle and sheep quickly cultivated an interest in breeding and showing.
Mortenson said high placements brought high prices.
His awards include premier breeder Suffolk in 2011, and reserve grand champion and grand champion lamb carcass in 1995 from Canadian Western Agribition in Regina.
Now 91 and living in seniors housing in Strasbourg, Mortenson continues to enjoy trips to Agribition, where he was among the show’s founders and served as a volunteer for more than 40 years.
Mortenson operated a ram test station on his farm, which served as a source of young breeding rams for the sheep industry for both commercial and purebred herds.
“It was a service to other breeders.”
He said the station took in young lambs and kept track of their feed, weights and rate of gain.
Mortenson ventured into the show ring after travelling to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto as a helper.
“My animals looked just as good as any down there,” he said.
He shipped his stock first by train, which was a three-day trek, and later by truck. He first showed hogs and later sheep, with funding provided by the Saskatchewan government.
He also served as president of the Saskatchewan and Canadian swine breeders associations.
Mortenson’s son, Don, who now oversees the picturesque farm near Last Mountain Lake in the Govan-Duval district, said his father participated because he had help.
“He was able to go because he had people at home plus a hired man for 40 years,” he said.
Don called sheep “dumb,” noting mothers often need help finding their own young.
“But it’s always better to get run over by a sheep than a cow,” he said.
Ward’s daughter, Lois Trowell, and her husband, Larry, maintain his flock and the “Ward” tattoo at Saltcoats, Sask.
Carolyn Sorenson, a longtime neighbour, called Mortenson her second father, noting how the two farms helped each other with farm chores, hay hauling and cattle sorting.
She remembers a photo of Ward receiving a lifetime achievement award from Saskatchewan Sheep Breeders wearing a halo brace after he broke his neck in a fall.
“This photo speaks volumes about Ward’s character,” Sorenson said. “He never let anything get in the way of what he was passionate about.”