German film-maker focuses documentary on Great Impostor


Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr.

German film-maker Judith Voelker spent three days in June at CFB Esquimalt filming a segment for her latest documentary called The Great Impostor.

With the help of a local Victoria film crew from Gamut Productions, she researched Ferdinand Waldo Demara at the CFB Esqumalt Naval and Military Museum, filmed scenic shots around the base, and interviewed Retired Commander Peter Chance, who met the impostor during the Korean War.

Demara masqueraded as many people over his life, but his most infamous was as a ship’s surgeon on board HMCS Cayuga. After meeting a young doctor named Joseph C. Cyr in Maine, he took his identity and boarded the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer.

Peter Chance’s first encounter with the “Medical Officer” was in 1951 when he needed his infected toe looked at before shipping out in Cayuga.

“I went down to the ship, and met this affable, round-faced and beaming man who took a look at my foot and assured me that he would take care of it,” says Cdr Chance, 94.

Rather than treat the toe right away, Demara requested the small operation take place the next morning. Unbeknownst to the young Chance, Demara spent the night pouring over medical textbooks.

“The next day he injected my foot with freezing medicine, cleared up the infection, wrapped my foot up, and sent me on my way with crutches,” says Cdr Chance. “He knew exactly what he was doing, and he didn’t hesitate or falter at all. It healed perfectly.”

Cayuga deployed shortly after, taking Demara and Chance with it. Bound for west of the Yalu River, Cayuga was sent as part of a United Nations Task force of commonwealth naval allies poised to fight in the Korean War.

“Joe, as we called him, continued to get along well with all the men on board. He was bright and totally trustworthy,” says Cdr Chance. “His credibility rose enormously when our Captain, Cdr James Plomer, developed a swollen jaw as a result of an infected back molar, and Joe was called on to treat it.”

Cdr Chance says that, after examining the infected tooth, Demara requested the operation take place the next morning.

“He told the Captain that he hadn’t gotten a lot of dentistry training in medical school, but that he would go ahead with the operation anyways.”

Sure enough, Cdr Chance recalls, Demara had Cdr Plomer’s room prepared like an operating theatre the following day.

“Our Captain was lying there when Joe appeared in his scrubs. He went in with the numbing needle, froze the jaw, and then used a pair of pliers to pry out the offending molar. When everything was done, Joe sutured him up.”

Similar to Chance’s experience, Cdr Plomer’s jaw healed well.

His most notable surgical practices were performed on some 16 Korean combat casualties who were loaded onto the Cayuga.

“At that point, everyone on board agreed that Joe was due for a recommendation. We sent a message to naval headquarters, and the story went to press.”

Meanwhile in New Brunswick, Dr Joseph Cyr’s mother caught sight of his name in the papers. Her son was quick to contact the Canadian Naval Service Headquarters (NSHQ) with the complaint that his identity had been stolen.

During a night bombardment east of the Yalu River in Korea, Cdr Plomer received a surprising message from NSHQ: “Captain’s eyes only. Have reason to believe your Medical Officer is imposter. Investigate and report.”

The message was received with shock and disbelief by the ship’s crew.

“We sent for Joe, and he blew up at us,” says Cdr Chance. “We tried to reassure him ourselves, but he was very angry.”

The phony Medical Officer was turned over to HMS Ceylon, which transported him back to Esquimalt.

“We eventually found out that this man was a great artist – a con artist. He was a warden of a prison in Texas, taught philosophy at Duke University, and was an Anglican Priest on the San Juan Islands,” says Cdr Chance.

After searching Demara’s old room on board Cayuga, the crew found a duffle bag full of ecclesiastical garments, the costume for Demara’s next persona after departing from the ship.

“The whole crew was saddened about being deceived, of course,” says Cdr Chance. “But we weren’t about to nail him to the cross because he had been such a wonderful member of our ship’s company.”

When Demara landed in Esquimalt, his true American identity led him to be escorted to the U.S. border, where Canadian officials dropped him off.

“There were a lot of red faces in the Canadian medical world,” says Cdr Chance. “No charges were laid because they just wanted to put the matter to rest right away.”

Demara, it was found, had entered the real Dr Cyr’s office, taken his medical certificate off of the wall, and had it copied. He returned it to the office without Dr. Cyr ever knowing it had been stolen.

Understanding that the navy was desperately seeking doctors for Korean war deployments, Demara secured himself a position at the Royal Canadian Naval Hospital in Halifax using Dr. Cyr’s credentials.

“He fooled everybody so well,” says Cdr Chance. “Everybody believed him.”

Demara’s father had ran a chain of movie houses while Demara was growing up. Cdr Chance speculates the young boy was so impressed with the characters he watched that he chose to live his fantasies out in reality.

Even after deceiving the crew, Demara made an appearance at the ship’s reunion in the summer of 1969.

“He turned up as the Reverend Waldo Demara, a Baptist minister from Anaheim, California. He was wearing a big bronze cross, and was adorned in pastoral attire. He was beaming.”

The crew’s fond memories of Demara led him to be embraced by everyone at the reunion, before he went on his way. He died 13 years later in 1982.  

Cdr Chance’s 32 year military career came to end in 1969, but he says he’s been asked to tell the story of his brush with the great imposter time after time again.

“You can’t deny that it’s a captivating story,” he says. “Demara obviously enjoyed impersonating, but apart from that, he had mastered it as an art.”

The documentary is scheduled to air in Germany as part of a series about imposters in the fall.

– With files form Clare Sharpe, CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum.

Rachel Lallouz
Staff Writer

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