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Sailor reunited with his old ship after 30 years apart

8 February 2016
More than 30 years after he last set foot on her, sailor Conrad ‘Whiskey’ Walker was reunited with his first Royal Navy ship – 5,000 miles from home.

The veteran engineer aboard HMS Defender – the Royal Navy’s second newest destroyer – began his Naval career all the way back in 1978 on the carrier HMS Hermes.

She is still in service but with the Indian Navy, now know as the INS Viraat she takes her final bow at this weekend’s International Fleet Review in Visakhapatnam before decommissioning.

With Defender flying the flag for the UK at the review alongside 70 Indian and international warships, the chance to say ‘goodbye’ to Hermes was too good to miss for Conrad.

It’s been a huge privilege to see her again. It’s brought back lots of happy memories<br>

CPO Walker

The 54-year-old joined her fresh out of training as an Ordnance Electrical Mechanic (OEM) – equivalent to today’s engineering technicians. And despite the many ships the now-senior rating has served in since, his three years aboard Hermes remain his favourite ship.

“It’s been a huge privilege to see her again. It’s brought back lots of happy memories,” he said.

“I hope the current crew have enjoyed their time on board as much as I did. I’m sure everyone will be sad to see her go.”

He completed three deployments in Hermes, visiting the Mediterranean, USA, and Caribbean, during which time the carrier was fitted with a ‘ski ramp’ on the flight deck to help Sea Harriers get airborne, while Prince Andrew conducted some of his training as a junior officer – who was put to work by a young Conrad scrubbing out the engineering department.

“The work was really interesting – I was learning my trade as a baby mechanical engineer,” said Conrad.

“The Hermes wasn’t as automated as modern ships so it was a more hands-on role for an engineer.”

After exercises in Norway in 1981, Hermes encountered the worst weather Conrad has experienced in his near-40-year career in the Navy, with waves so high they were coming across the flight deck – and with enough force to sweep equipment overboard, including one of Hermes’ landing craft.

“I remember being very scared, absolutely convinced the ship was going to sink,” Conrad said. “We had sprung a leak at the front of the ship, so we were all working together to fix it and pump out the water.”

That team spirit is what Conrad – the oldest member of Defender’s ship’s company of 200 men and women – remembers most fondly from his time in Hermes.

“Everyone knew everyone on that ship. People were really friendly and always ready to help each other out. Two of my mates from the Hermes are still my best friends 35 years later.”

The public will mostly remember the veteran carrier as the flagship of the Falklands task force back in 1982. Conrad left Hermes in 1983 a few years before he moved to Portsmouth where he has lived for the past 26 years with his wife Denise.

Construction began on Hermes two weeks after D-Day back in 1944 – only to be halted at the end of the war. Work resumed in the late 1950s and Hermes finally entered service in 1959.

She subsequently served into the mid-1980s, but with the arrival of HMS Invincible, Illustrious and Ark Royal, Hermes was no longer needed and was sold to the Indians, with whom she’s served faithfully for three decades.

The fleet review is her last hurrah – HMS Defender’s Lynx helicopter will be the last Fleet Air Arm aircraft to make use of her deck as part of the celebrations – with the Viraat decommissioning straight afterwards.

The plans are to turn her into a museum ship off the east coast of India.

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