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North Van naval cadets revive Second World War ‘ditty bag’ tradition

Community comes together to hand-sew bags filled with cards of thanks and sundries for HMCS Winnipeg crew at Esquimalt upon December return from deployment

North Vancouver naval cadets are reviving the "ditty bag" tradition of gifting to returning sailors, by sewing bags by hand and filling them with cards of thanks and small items.

A tradition steeped in wartime history, the Ditty Bags for Sailors program ran during the Second World War and the Korean War, and would often be filled with clothing, snacks, and sundries.

Navy League Lt.-Cmdr. Cliff Mah, B.C. Mainland division area officer, originally wanted to resurrect the tradition as a way to celebrate the Navy League of Canada’s 125th anniversary in 2020; however, the COVID-19 pandemic meant the project had to wait until the end of 2021.

Mah took the idea to local North Vancouver-Seymour MLA Susie Chant, who is also a former Coxswain of HMCS Discovery, and asked her if she still had contacts within the Royal Canadian Navy.

“Next thing I knew, she asked if we could have 255 ditty bags made for HMCS Winnipeg for Christmas. We said ‘yes,’ and we soon began the process of making the bags. It was a monumental task but we felt that we could complete the project in time,” Mah wrote.

Purchasing all the materials, draw strings and filler items for the ditty bags, a team of naval officers and friends, along with business partners in North Vancouver, got to making the bags in time for Christmas.

“We soon got the help of the cadets to fill the ditty bags with puzzle books, Christmas socks, Christmas stockings filled with treats and Christmas cards filled out by cadets from all over the division,” Mah said.

The next challenge was getting the bags to Esquimalt on Vancouver Island, where the HMCS Winnipeg would be arriving. Chant’s husband Rick offered to pick up the bags and deliver them to the Military Family Resource Centre.

Through other connections at MFRC Esquimalt from Chant, Mah and Lt. Ryan Moore went to the Island to hand out the ditty bags to the sailors.

“I had the pleasure of travelling over to Victoria to fulfill a dream that I did not think would happen,” Mah wrote.

On the morning of Dec. 16, Mah and Moore went to the dock to await the arrival of the sailors, with friends and family eagerly awaiting the loved ones, too.

Beginning to hand out the bags as the ship’s company disembarked, Mah said each person was grateful to receive one.

“One by one they disembarked, and we held out our ditty bags as they grabbed them and then headed into the arms of loved ones to welcome them home.”

Mah said over 200 hours' work went into making the bags, with the help of seven corps. The 225 bags were funded by Mah, the Richmond-Delta branch, and the NLCC Cormorant parents.

Mah said the tradition will continue on, with the next round of bags being distributed over Easter. Thanksgiving and Christmas will also be a time of celebration.

“This has been an awesome experience and to see the ditty bags laid out on the table gave me a very emotional feeling. I am committed to this project and with the assistance of officers, instructors and cadets of B.C. Mainland Division, we will see it through.”