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Ted Doc Kearn

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Ted "Doc" Kearn

It was both a sense of family pride and a small amount of bravado that led Ted "Doc" Kearn into the Royal Navy and subsequently the Korean War, in 1950.

"I wanted to win them and wear them," Kearn said with a hearty laugh as he moved his hand across the medals on his chest. "But seriously, my father was in the Navy and I was eager to serve as well."

Ted was born in Weymouth, England in March 1936. His father had joined the Royal Navy and fought in the First and Second World War. At the age of 15, Ted decided to follow in his father's footsteps and joined the navy as a boy seaman.

Ted did not have to lie about his age to join. The rank of boy seaman was established in the Royal Navy in the 1860s when children as young as 14 were able to join the British fleet.  

 "I was first sent to a place called HMS Vincent, a shore base and did 12 months of training," Kearn recalled.  "We referred to shore bases as stone frigates. HMS Vincent was located in Portsmouth, England."

The training establishment was divided into two main areas of discipline ­- seamanship and gunnery.

"It was brutal training," Ted stated. "But this was at the end of the Second World War. Jobs were scarce, we were on the brink of war in Korea and it seemed like a good idea to sign up and have a steady paycheque for the next few years."

Following his year at HMS Vincent, Kearn moved on to an aircraft carrier called the HMS Implacable and commenced actual on-ship training.

"Once we completed our training there, we were asked what we wanted to specialize in," Kearn said. "I wanted to be a diver. I was sent back to Portsmouth and assigned to HMS Vernon, a large diving school. I did six months as an underwater demolitions technician dealing with explosives, mines and things of that nature. By then I was 16-and-a-half, so I was able to go overseas."

Ted soon found himself involved in the Korean War. The war was a military conflict between South Korea, supported by the United Nations and North Korea, supported by the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union.

The war, which began on June 25, 1950 and ended on July 27, 1953, was the result of the physical division of Korea due to an agreement by the Allies at the end of World War II.

 "I was sent to Korea and joined an aircraft carrier by the name of HMS Ocean," Ted recalled.

The HMS Ocean was first launched in July 1944. It was 695 feet long and more than 110 feet wide. The ship had more than 1,000 crew members, held 42 aircrafts and, most importantly for Kearn and the other divers, was one of the few vessels that contained a decompression chamber.

"I was part of the United Nations Underwater Dive Team," he said. "There were Canadians, Americans, French and Brits. We were all part of it."

Kearn and his team were underwater demolition experts. They were mainly assigned missions in harbours behind enemy lines and tasked with clearing the way for landing craft.

"We knew there were mines in the harbours," he recalled. "We'd try to plot our course for the landing craft to make their approach unharmed.

"At my age, I was considered a rookie and I wasn't considered to be too important. I was mainly a gopher and told to fetch items. I'd often be running around and they'd be shouting, 'Kearn get this,' and 'Kearn get that.'

"The majority of the guys in my unit were World War II veterans. They had years of experience and I was doing the equivalent of on-the-job-training."

On most missions, Kearn would be assigned to a Carley float, a light-weight raft used by many naval forces.

"I was one of the horses," he said. "When we got close to shore, I would jump over the side with a harness around me and swim the float to shore.

"Once the troops got to shore, we'd have to go out and clear the mines.  Any wandering mines we'd have to detonate."

By the time Kearn was 17, he had a wealth of demolition knowledge and had earned the respect of his more senior colleagues. They decided it was time for the youngster to get his hands dirty.

"They finally said, 'Okay young Kearn, it's time to blow up your first bridge,'" Ted recalled. "In the span of four days I blew up a bridge, railway tracks and a couple of Korean ships."

As Ted explained how he used limpet mines to destroy the boats, he pointed to a small pin on his tie that resembled a black pirate flag complete with a white skull and cross bones.

"I'm entitled to wear this because I sank those ships," he said in a matter-of-fact manner.

In terms of his time in the Navy, Ted said his experiences have changed him for the better. Ted said he volunteered to stay in the Far East following the war. He studied hard to upgrade his diving skills and participated in salvage missions.

"I was based in Hong Kong at a Royal Navy shore base called HMS Tamar," he said. "I was attached to inshore mine sweepers, which had to have divers on them. We cleared mines and others had to be detonated. We just didn't just blow them all up though. We tried to save some of them and use them again. We knew about recycling before the rest of the world did."

In 1954, Ted returned to England from Hong Kong. He was just 18 years old and soon realized he didn't have much in common with the friends he left behind.

"I looked at the people I'd gone to school with and realized it was like I was older than them now," he said. "I was more mature than them. Not just because I'd seen death, but because you grow up fast in the Navy. I'd been to far off places and been involved in different activities that most of them would never experience."

Ted said he decided to make a career out of the Navy because he enjoyed the comradery and team atmosphere. He also learned his father was a respected man during his service in both World Wars and many people remembered him fondly.

"Kearn is not a common name and often people would come up to me and ask if my dad was in the Navy," he said. "As a result, some people took me under their wing."

One low-ranking Navy man with several years of service, that Ted would only identify as Tom, took the youngster on as a pupil of sorts.

"He was a guy in his later 30s with more than 20 years of naval experience," Ted recalled. "He had never been promoted and was almost ready to retire. Guys like that were often looked down upon, but Tom knew everything about seamanship, he just didn't want to get promoted.

 "He encouraged me to take my career forward and get promoted. I was prepared to be one of the boys, but he told me not to be like him. I was a Leading Seaman because of him by the time I was 19. Normally, you had to be 21 or 22. He was like family to me. He was like a big brother."

Tom was also a boxing fan and was responsible for giving Ted his nickname, Doc.

Jack "Doc" Kearns was a boxing manager who is most famous for partnering with legendary heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey between 1912 and 1923. Tom decided this was a fitting name for his young friend.

"After awhile everyone called me Doc," Ted said. "I got to the point where I literally forgot my real name was Ted."

Like Tom, Ted was also an avid boxing fan. However, Ted was not merely a spectator. During the course of his Royal Navy career, Ted fought in more than 200 boxing matches.

"If you were on the rugby team or the boxing team you got favoured a bit," he said with a smile. "And I was never one to turn down a favour. You work the system."

In 1956, Ted was shipped to Egypt and was involved in the Suez Canal crisis. The conflict was a short war in which Britain, France and Israel joined forces against Egypt. The crisis began after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided the canal should be under his country's control.

Britain, France and Israel defeated the Egyptian army in just 10 days. In retaliation, Nasser sank ships in the canal and blocked passage. That's when Ted and his team were sent in.

"We were there for 19 months just clearing out the ships," he said. "Hundreds of ships were blocking the canal. We lost a lot of men just due to booby-traps."  

Following global outrage over the handling of the conflict, the canal was turned back over to Egypt in 1957 on the condition that all countries were allowed free passage through it.

During the same year, Ted became a sub-mariner after the Royal Navy decided to place one underwater demolition expert on each of its submarines.

"Due to the fact that submarines carry mines onboard, it made sense to have a trained explosives expert onboard as well," he said. "I volunteered to be one of those men. I fell in love with submarines, I have to admit."

In 1958, Ted arrived on the East Coast of Canada on the submarine HMS Ambush. He was stationed in Halifax and met his future wife in 1959.

Their courtship lasted a total of nine dates over the span of two months due to Ted's schedule at sea. The couple, who were married in England in March 1960, have lived in the Town of Aurora for the past 28 years and raised two daughters. They currently have four grandchildren.

Ted left the Royal Navy as a Leading Seaman and joined the Canadian Navy in 1964.

"I had a friend in the Canadian Navy and he wanted me to join," he said. "Canada was about to get submarines and he knew I had plenty of experience."

In the Canadian Navy, Ted gave up his diving career and became a radar operator and radar maintenance specialist on the country's new submarine fleet.

In 1978, Ted retired from the navy with a rank of Chief First Class and became a streetcar driver for the TTC. He also had a sideline business resurfacing bathtubs and sinks.

In 2000, Ted left the working world, but has stayed very active in the community. Ted currently acts as a liaison with Veterans Affairs Canada in an effort to provide benefits and services to veterans.

"I don't want to sound pompous, but the work I do is very fulfilling," he said. "It feels great to be able to help someone knowing that they are so thankful for your assistance. When I get a simple thank you it means the world to me."

Ted said he encourages any veteran, or anyone who knows a veteran, in need of assistance to contact him through the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 385, in the Town of Aurora. There are approximately 120,000 allied veterans alive in Canada today. Unfortunately, many of them have no knowledge of the benefits that are available to them.

"The system can be difficult and complicated to manoeuvre through," Ted stated. "If I can do anything to help someone, I will."

In addition to his work with Veteran Affairs, Ted teaches boxing to youth at Point Blank Martial Arts in Aurora.

"I like to think I'm pretty good with kids," Ted said modestly. "There have been a couple of kids that have come through my program that have been in trouble. Now, they're going into the army. Not because I've pointed them in that direction, but I've talked to them and given them advice and this is the path they've chosen."

Ted's work with youngsters also extends to lectures. He regularly attends schools in York Region to talk about his experiences as a child living in England during World War II, his service in the Korean War and his military career. 

"It's surprising how interested the kids are," he said. "It's important for kids to understand history and the events that shaped the world as we know it today. I enjoy the opportunity to share my experiences with them."