December 9, 1966 will forever be etched in the memory of Herb Hamm. That unforgettable day was when a telegram arrived at the Westminster Regiment from overseas announcing that the regiment had just had the title “Royal” bestowed upon it from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. What followed was “quite the celebration,” says Herb in his understated style. “It was a tremendous honour, and we were all delighted because it was a scarce title.”
The Canadian Armed Forces has a distinguished history of soldiers who fought valiantly in both world wars and continue to do so today. Locally, The Royal Westminster Regiment proudly traces its roots back to November 21, 1863 when the New Westminster Rifle Company Number One was formed as the first militia unit raised in British Columbia.
Herb, the former commanding officer of the regiment for many years, also calls New Westminster home. Born at the Royal Columbian Hospital in November 1930 meant he was too young to serve in the Second World War, though he did spend time with the Army Cadets while attending high school. His father, who worked helping to dredge the Fraser River, joined the army and went overseas to Europe, a decision that had a positive influence on Herb, the eldest of five children.
“I also had two uncles serving,” says Herb. “All boys were into this stuff because it was wartime, and I had always liked that kind of stuff.”
While growing up, Herb played a lot of basketball and some soccer, but one activity he really enjoyed was sailing.
“I had a high school friend named Dickie who really liked sailing,” he says. “He invited me to come along one time, and I was hooked. We spent a lot of time sailing little two-men boats down at Crescent Beach.”
Herb also worked part time at Fraser Mills on weekends prior to graduating and attending classes at UBC for a couple of years.
But a university education was not in the cards. Instead, Herb got an advertising job with *The Columbian* newspaper. He worked his way up through the system, eventually leaving the paper 34 years later as director of the company. This trait of working his way up to the top would also be a hallmark of Herb’s second career as a reservist.
“When I was in Grade 12, we put on a one-act play in our school and also invited the Vagabond Players and a few others to do the same that evening,” he recalls. “The Vagabond Players approached me and asked me to join them, which I did gladly. I had no illusions about why they wanted me. I knew my greatest talent was that I was six feet tall and a young man.”
This decision would lead to a long and storied relationship with the regiment. “When I was about 24, a fellow cast member was in the regiment and asked me if I would like to come along and try it. So, I joined the militia, the reserve forces as a private and became a corporal a year later. I stayed for another year before they suggested I take a junior non-commissioned officer course.”
The course consisted of two summers of field training and staff work for the rest of the year. Herb gained the rank of officer cadet, followed by second lieutenant and then lieutenant.
“All of this happened during evenings, on weekends and at summer camps. It was an interesting time. I met plenty of interesting people who became great friends.”
Herb also found time to go on a blind date in 1959 with a woman named Jean, whom he would marry the following March. They bought a home in New Westminster and raised three daughters. All the while, Herb continued to rise through the ranks, eventually becoming a lieutenant-colonel and commanding officer of the regiment on January 1, 1964, a post he held for four years.
In May 1967, George Pearkes, the lieutenant-governor of British Columbia, invited the entire regiment to Victoria to receive their new colours.
“We had quite a weekend,” says Herb. “We had a parade before the banquet with the lieutenant-governor and Princess Alexandra, the Queen’s cousin, who presented us with our new colours that were handmade of silk in England. There was another dinner afterwards followed by a young people’s ball for people under 40.”
In 1968, Herb left the regiment to serve as aid-de-camp for the next lieutenant-governor, Jack Nicholson. He did that for three years before returning to the regiment to serve as commanding officer for two additional years.
His military career would last for seven more years.
“In 1973, I went to the Militia Area Pacific Headquarters in Vancouver at Jericho, working for a year overseeing all the officer training in Vancouver. At the end of the year, I was promoted to colonel, responsible for all the Vancouver District Militia.”
Following one more lateral move, Herb was promoted to brigadier-general and commander of all the militia in B.C. - a position he held until his retirement from military service in 1979.
Wanting to make a clean break, Herb spent the next 14 years serving on the Library Board and then the Police Commission before returning to the regiment as curator of the museum around 1993, a position he still holds.
“I had no formal training, but I have learned a lot,” he says. “I am still learning today. I am also the president of the Royal Westminster Regiment Historical Society and secretary of the Royal Westminster Regiment Association, so they keep me busy. I also just finished a five-year stint as president of the Senior Services Society.”
Herb has a small staff of volunteers to work at the museum with him, mostly former members of the regiment. They open the museum Tuesdays and Thursdays during the daytime and by appointment for groups.
Because of his long and distinguished involvement with the regiment, Herb is proud to speak about the honours the regiment has accumulated over the years - from its early involvement in the Chilcotin War to their presence in Afghanistan today.
Two members have been awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour that is bestowed for valour in the face of the enemy. In the First World War, it was Corporal Filip Konowal, and in the Second World War, Major Jack Mahony. In addition to this, Herb proudly adds, “During the First World War, only 16 people in all of Canada won three medals of bravery, and the 47th Battalion, our predecessor, had two of the men.”
The regiment continued with its record of distinguished service during the Second World War. In addition to the Victoria Cross, “The Westminster Regiment Motor Battalion was under enemy fire for 232 days during the war, which was more than any other Canadian unit. They also never failed to take an assigned objective, and once it was taken, they were never knocked off. It is a good history and it keeps us on our toes today.”
The regiment was involved in almost every major Canadian skirmish during both world wars including Vimy Ridge, Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele, and Flanders among many more. During the First World War nearly 900 men from the unit lost their lives, while more than 170 were killed in action during the Second World War. Those were the last casualties suffered by the regiment until Master Corporal Bason died in Afghanistan in 2008. Today, the regiment deploys about 30 reservists to the mission in Afghanistan at any one time.
“The missions last six months and we have two groups of reservists training at any time. Each group gets trained for a year before being sent off.”
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had a special relationship with the regiment. Herb remembers, “When Montgomery was given his first command in India, when he was a colonel, we had a strong affiliation with one of the units he commanded. Later, in Italy he was in command of the Eighth Army, of which we were part, until he was called back to England to plan D-Day. After the war, he was Chief of the Imperial Defense Forces, and he would travel around the world to visit all the bases.
Now the regiment has one of Field Marshal Montgomery’s jackets on display in the museum - just one of the many exhibits and artifacts that serve as reminders of the sacrifices made by brave men and women to ensure that we can enjoy the freedoms we often take for granted.
To make an appointment to visit the museum, call 604-526-5116.
NOVEMBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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