Kenneth M. Isles was recently honoured with a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his outstanding service to his country, and his community.
It's a fitting tribute for the 82-year-old Mount Uniacke resident as he is not only a dedicated local volunteer — perhaps best known for being the president of the Uniacke Heritage Society and being the driving force behind the annual Uniacke fishing derbies — but a retired senior naval officer with the Royal Canadian Navy.
Isles served in the navy for 29 years before accepting a position as the marine superintendent of Princess of Acadia, serving as the marine safety officer for the C.N. Marine Ferry services in Atlantic Canada, and eventually running Isles Marine Consulting Ltd. and Atlantic Yachting Academy in Dartmouth. Isles retired in 1990 to pursue his volunteer activities.
A family history
The willingness to fight to protect one's country runs deep in the Isles family genes.
His great-great grandfather, William Isles, enlisted in the Prince of Wales Tipperary Regiment and was involved in the seizing of Castine, Maine.
“On Aug. 26, 1814, 10 transport ships, containing nearly 10,000 men escorted by a squadron of war ships under the command of Admiral Griffith sailed from Halifax to Penobscot Bay in Maine,” recalled Isles. “This expedition was conducted by Sir John Shebrooke, lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, with the objective to occupy as much of the district of Maine as necessary to ensure uninterrupted communication between Nova Scotia and Upper Canada. I got that all through the military libraries.”
The regiment that his ancestor served with was disbanded in 1818.
Isles said the next to see combat was his father, Arthur Max Isles, when the First World War broke out. In 1916, he served with the Nova Scotia Highland Regiment 85th Battalion and was shipped overseas.
He was wounded at Vimy Ridge but continued on until Passchendaele, where he was injured again by shrapnel and sent back to Canada. Isles’ uncle, John Boyd Isles, served with a Winnipeg regiment in the First World War.
As Isles was growing up in Bear River, Digby County, he witnessed firsthand the devastating toll the Second World War had on Nova Scotians. His father was responsible for telling families that their loved ones had died while overseas.
“I was only nine years old when the war started. In a community where there was quite large families, men from my neighbourhood were called overseas,” he recalled. “I had a next door neighbour on each side killed.”
Three of his older brothers also served in the Second World War.
The eldest, Robert Arthur, served with the Royal Canadian Air Force as an aircraft technician overseas from 1939-45. He was involved with the D-Day landing at Normandy. Isles is currently creating a display case for his brother to showcase his many medals.
His brother Harold Elburne served as a flight sergeant from 1940 until May 1944. He completed more than 175 hours of day operation and more than 141 hours of night operation out of England with an RAF bomber squadron. His aircraft was reported missing over France on May 8, 1944. He is one of the thousands of Canadians buried overseas.
His other brother, Clarence Edward, was in the Royal Canadian Naval Voluntary Reserve and mainly served aboard torpedo boats during the invasion of Europe. Clarence survived the war but has since passed on.
Isles was finishing up high school when the war ended and the soldiers were returning.
“My father wanted me to be a lawyer... and I found it was difficult to get into college at that time. So, I don't know why but I came to Halifax to visit my relatives and they talked me into going over and joining the navy,” he said.
He enlisted in February 1948.
“At that time, the Cold War was on and they were looking for recruits to build up after the war,” he said.
“When I did join, they earmarked me for engineering right from the beginning,” said Isles, who retired as a lieutenant commander.
“I followed through with my engineering training and all aspects of it,” he said. Isles was made a fellow of the Institute of Marine Engineers in London, England in 1979.
Isles completed his naval officer training in Esquimalt, B.C., Cornwallis, N.S., Montreal, Q.C., aboard HMCS Iroquois DDE 217 and at the Royal Naval Engineering College in Plymouth, England.
“I completed my apprenticeship in the spring of '53 and went directly to Korea,” he recalled.
Isles served on a variety of vessels during his distinguished naval career. During the height of the Korean War, he was aboard HMCS Iroquois. He says his career with the navy has taken him “around the world.”
In recent years, Isles has been researching various aspects of his family's involvement in military endeavours. By doing so, he's even discovered facts he didn't know about his own naval career.
“I was in a ship in 1962 and we were in refit... and I was an officer. I had to take a special message to the commanding officer of that ship. It was to get the ship prepared for war because of the Cuban (Missile) Crisis,” he said.
“We didn't realize, at that time, how close we were to war. We were only 20 minutes, apparently, from war in 1962.”
Isles said he also learned that some of the patrols they did off the coast of Halifax were much more important than they realized at the time.
“We would go out and just drift. We had an area that we had to patrol. We thought we were just patrolling for fishing violations. Now, I just realized we were monitoring Russian submarines,” he said.
During Isles' career with the navy, he served aboard the HMCS Haida, HMCS La Hulloise, HMCS Iroquois (Korea), HMCS Toronto, HMCS Bonaventure, HMCS Kootenay, and HMCS Terra Nova.
As an engineer officer, he served with the HMCS Outremont, HMCS Athabaskan, HMCS Skeena during Expo 67, and HMCS Iroquois DDH 280 (during construction and during post-commission trials in Canadian, European, Mediterranean and Caribbean waters).
“We didn't realize, at that time, how close we were to war. We were only 20 minutes, apparently, from war in 1962.” - Ken Isles
Remembering the sacrifices of youth
Isles is a board member of the Nova Scotia Naval Officers Association and is a member of the Canadian Forces Retirees Association. He's also a trustee with the Royal Canadian Navy Benevolent Trust-HMCS Sackville Foundation. Isles is a member of the Royal Canadian Legion, Sackville branch — a legion with one of the most robust memberships in Eastern Canada.
He was also a member of the Canadian Advisory Council of Marine Safety for about 10 years.
Every Remembrance Day that he is able to, Isles travels to his hometown of Bear River to lay a wreath in memory of his family. For him, carrying on the tradition of Remembrance Day is of the utmost importance.
“I think we have to continue Nov. 11 and sow the seeds on what the veterans have done for this country — not only the veterans, but we have to think of the people that are home supporting the military while they are abroad,” he said.
Isles met his wife, Barbara, in 1949 in Halifax and married in 1950. They have five children, 10 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren — and all but one reside in Nova Scotia. The Isles moved to Mt. Uniacke in 1995 and began volunteering with various groups and organizations.
He feels more credit should be given to the spouses, like his wife, for working tirelessly behind the scenes during the war effort.
“At that time, the women were home — guarding the home front, bringing up our children,” he said, noting nowadays, it could be either a man or woman holding down the fort.
Isles said honouring those who fought and those who died defending our freedom is incredibly important for all generations to do. Most of the people signing up to fight in the wars were just 18 and 19 years old.
“(We) have to remember what our military has achieved — and our young people — has achieved for this country.”
Isles said that same sacrifice can be seen today as young people continue to see the importance of serving Canada overseas.
“Look at the ship HMCS Charlottetown. It just got back from eight months. When you're over in those conditions, and your family is home, you're always worried about them,” said Isles.
Although serving Canada has changed a lot over the past 50 years — there's better communication systems, Isles noted — the same dedication to the country can be seen by the men and women who don the uniform today.
He hopes the number of people attending Remembrance Day services grows instead of declines as the years wear on, as remembering and honouring the sacrifices made must carry on.