Our readers share wartime memories and stories

Veterans trapped in the experiences of hellish war

I asked my dad one day: “Why did you volunteer for the Korean War?”

He said, “Because I was logging at the time in about two feet of snow and I thought that nothing could be worse than this.”

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Then he said, “I was wrong.”

Dad was from Sointula, a fishing community off north Vancouver Island. At 17 years old, he saw an ad in the newspaper looking for volunteers, so he signed up.

He told me that the trenches were the worst. Lots of huge rats that would bite you if you were sleeping. Inevitably you’d be attacked. He described men tangled in barbed wire, screaming, shooting, unimaginable hand-to-hand combat.

All in the dark.

He was overseas 18 months. His old friends told me that he was never the same after he came back from Korea. Nobody understood post traumatic stress back then.

We had the absolute pleasure of having him and his pug, Walley, live with us for the last year of his life. We would have coffee every morning and I would ask him how his night was. About once a week he would answer: “It was horrible, I was killing men all night long.”

Dad passed away just shy of his 86th birthday, on April 14, 2019.

Our vets need to be honoured, respected and understood. They have been, and continue to be, trapped in places in their experiences of war. As he served, we were honoured to serve him for the last year of his life.

Conrad Madill

Courtenay

‘You are very lucky that the woman saved your life’

Working at Veterans Affairs, I heard many good war stories. This one I particularly recall, as I saw this veteran just after lunch, my first afternoon appointment.

As I called his name, he arose and grasped my hand: “Doctor, may I congratulate you. You are the first doctor I have ever seen in my life who saw me on time.”

His story: “I was flying a Lancaster Bomber at age 18 on a bombing raid over Germany when we were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. I advised the crew to bail out while I held the aircraft steady so they could exit safely.

“When they had left, I realized that we were now too low for me to parachute out safely and that I would have to crash land. Seeing the ground approaching, I held onto the joy stick with a strong grip as we crashed.

“I awoke on the ground; I had crashed through the plexiglass windshield and was knocked unconscious.

“An angry crowd surrounded me as an elderly woman brandishing a pitchfork bestrode my supine body. She protected me from the mob. Just then the police arrived and arrested me.

“An English-speaking officer told me: “You are very lucky that the woman saved your life.”

I said: “But why?”

He replied: “She said she has a son on the Russian front, and if he were ever in trouble, she hoped someone would assist him.”

Dr. Ian Buckingham

Victoria

‘Real’ Germans thanked for helping brother

My older brother, Jack, was an RCAF navigator in a Lancaster Pathfinder bomber. His job on night-bombing was to drop incendiaries leading to intended targets to help the following heavy bombers find where to drop their bombs.

One night, when Jack was enclosed in his steel-lined cubby-hole and “shooting stars” through his navigation dome window, the tail-gunner warned the crew: “Here comes the enemy.”

As Jack reached for his parachute, his plane’s bomb-load exploded, blowing him through the side of the plane. He found himself in mid-air, with his parachute in his arms. He gathered the parachute shrouds in his arms and pulled the D-Ring.

When the parachute opened, the shrouds were snatched out of his arms, but tangled around his ankles, and he found himself hanging upside down, falling to earth.

Jack managed to pull himself into a crouching position before he hit the hard earth on a farm in Alsace-Lorraine. Too injured to go into the “underground railway,” Jack spent the rest of the war as a prisoner, mostly in Stalag Luft III on the east side of Germany.

When the Russians started to advance into east Germany, the Nazis had the POWs march across Germany and Jack got to meet the “real” Germans, who provided the Allied POWs with food and shelter. After the war, Jack went back to Germany a number of times to thank the people who had helped him to survive the death march.

Robert Radford

Duncan

To the young wives who kept the fires burning

When war broke out in 1939, my dad enlisted immediately.

Like many others, it was the only job he could get. He was paid $1.30 a day. My mom got $35 a month. There was also an extra $12 a month for each child, but this only applied to the first two. My younger brother and I didn’t count.

To make ends meet, my mother had to take a streetcar on blistering cold winter nights to work at a restaurant on the other side of Winnipeg. She didn’t get home until after midnight. My nine-year-old brother was put in charge of supervising his three younger brothers.

We didn’t have the electronic gizmos like everyone has today. A half-blacked- out letter could take up to a month to arrive.

My mother’s life was filled with uncertainty. She was always fearful that this might be the day she would get the dreaded telegram letting her know she was now a young widow with four young sons to raise.

When I observe the two minutes of silence during Remembrance Day ceremonies, I reflect back and extend a debt of gratitude to my mother and the other young wives who kept the home fires burning.

Doug Poole

Courtenay

Remembering the horrors of trench battles

My father, Cpl. Graham Elder of the Canadian 44th Battalion, was decorated for carrying a fellow soldier off the battlefield under fire in the First World War. Survived living through the horrors of trench battles. Wounded in the leg, lost a big toe to gangrene. Recovered in London and Montreal hospitals.

He never talked about the horrors he had seen. But every Nov. 11, as he stood at attention during the ceremonies, I would see tears streaming down his cheeks during his annual recall of the dead and dying.

Don Elder

Duncan

A struggling soul’s medals, and memories of war

Whilst stationed in an RCMP detachment in northeast Alberta, I was working on Nov. 11 when one of the frequent visitors to our drunk tank came to the door.

He asked if he could come in just to be with someone, as he was lonely for his friends. As we sat down, he took off his jacket: on his chest were his medals.

Over the next couple of hours he talked about the Second World War and being the only one to come home among all his friends and Nov. 11 was such a struggle for him to get through.

Donald C. Cohn

Victoria

Indelible images of parachutes and candy bars

While marching with our veterans on Remembrance Day last year, my thoughts went back in time.

All around me were the Allied soldiers I saw so long ago when I was a youngster in the war-ravaged Netherlands.

On my right walks the pilot of that Spitfire I saw shot down in a dog fight. You bailed out, my friend. Falling with your parachute you were shot at and wounded.

You survived because the Resistance found you first and snatched you away; they rushed you to a trusted doctor who patched you up. The back shed became your hiding place until you were smuggled back by fishing boat to England. I know you well.

There is the Canadian Second Battalion driver who drove into town on Liberation day. You opened the hatch of your Sherman tank! We danced around you and threw flowers at you, remember?

And over there I see that soldier who was a courier on a motorbike. You stopped and gave me a handful of candy bars; I rushed home and shared the treasure with my family. I remember getting quite sick on the rich chocolate after a long diet of sugar beets and tulip bulbs.

I will never forget.

Jan Garenkooper

Cat’s purring drowned out distant bombs

I was a nine-year-old lad in Surbiton, Surrey, England, during the height of the bombing of London and surroundings in 1943.

It was always after we were in bed at night that the air-raid sirens would start to wail. My grandparents, mother, step-father and I would gather in a very cramped space under the stairs, which we were told was the safest place to be prior to our acquiring a proper shelter.

We also had a large ginger-coloured cat named Rusty who, once we were all established under the stairs, would jump faithfully onto either my mother or grandmother’s lap, and begin to purr. When the bombs were released from the aircraft they would scream as they descended, and dear Rusty would purr so loudly that he would drown out the descent of some of the distant bombs. I’ll never forget Rusty’s purring.

Many years later after moving to Canada, I met a gentleman by the name of Horst who was my age and who had grown up in Germany. We often compared our childhood experiences and how similar they were, even to fattening a turkey (his family fattened a chicken) for Christmas dinner.

Horst now lives in Victoria and we are friends to this day.

Antony Merry

Sidney

Shooting paused at Christmas, then back to war

In 1963, I was duty officer at RCAF Station Winnipeg when an elderly gentleman appeared in the officers mess saying, “I am Major George Mullin on my way to a Victoria Cross reunion. Is there anywhere a man can get a drink here?”

I replied that if you have a VC you can certainly have one here. I then had a generous libation poured for him and he began telling stories. This one stood out:

“As a boy on a farm in Saskatchewan I became a very good shot. I joined the army at the outbreak of war and my sharp shooting was soon recognized and I was selected to be a sniper.

“I sailed to England with the 1st Division in October and was sent to the front. There I was on Christmas morning 1914. Fighting had stopped and it was strangely still and quiet.

“Suddenly we heard a voice from the German lines saying: ‘Hello English, Happy Christmas.’ Some of us replied: ‘Happy Christmas to you.’

“Next a German voice said: ‘If we come out will you shoot at us?’ We replied: ‘No, not today.’

“With that, soldiers from both sides came out and joined each other in no man’s land and started talking and sharing cigarettes. Later a German brought out an accordion and started playing Christmas carols. We all had a great time singing along in our own languages.

“At the end of the evening, I said: ‘I am a sniper, so you fellows better keep your heads down tomorrow.’

“The next morning the war was back on and I was at my post when who should I see but the accordion player. I did not have the heart to shoot him that day but later on during the war I would have done it.”

Richard Acton

View Royal

Heartbreaking letters, and hopes of coming home

He was 42 when he enlisted. He left Victoria and went by train from snowy Vancouver to overcrowded Halifax.

It was March 2016. He was designated a sapper. Digging trenches in France was backbreaking.

We have his letters to Olive Street, read aloud often by Granny to her blended family of nine children aged three to 18. His story of the trip across the country shows how keen they were to get to training in England and on with the work to be done.

He went for two reasons; one was that he was a patriot and wanted to do his part. The other was that as a typesetter at the Dawson City newspaper he had earned a very good wage, but when he returned to marry my grandmother there was a recession and he couldn’t find a job. Enlisting meant my grandmother would receive a stipend and, if he died, a war widow’s pension.

His letters from the front are heartbreaking. He tells of the ribbons he bought in Belgium for the little girls. He asks if they received his cards, beautifully stitched in pastel threads. He says when he comes home, he will take her downtown for a film.

He was wounded in the leg in France and, eight months later, died of sepsis/infection in an English military hospital.

His name: William J. Johnston (known as WJJ).

Gail Simpson

Victoria

Female gunners brought down first enemy raider

Each Nov. 11, two lines from a war poem by Lawrence Binyon are always read:

“They shall grow not old / As we that are left grow old.”

And those of us who are left have grown very old, indeed. But there was a time when we were needed and we went gladly, leaving our homes and families to do what was right.

My home was in southwest England. I sat one night high on a hilltop overlooking the Bristol Chanel and watched as German planes dropped their bombs on the ports of Bristol and Cardiff. Great fires and explosions lit the night sky. I said to myself: “Well, I have to do something about this.”

With three of their children already in uniform, my parents were reluctant to send another child off to war, but I finally persuaded them. I joined the women’s army, the Auxiliary Territorial Service, in August 1941. I was just 17.

I was attached to the Royal Artillery in a mixed (male and female) anti-aircraft battery on the North Sea coast.

On the night of Dec. 8, 1941, our team of women manning the instruments was given credit for our part in bringing down the first enemy raider as it dive-bombed shipping in the ports around Newcastle. We were the first women in history to receive such a recognition.

Female gunners shared almost all duties with the men and finally received the praise that was well deserved. Our major general in charge of Anti-Aircraft Command said of us: “The girls live like men, they fight like men and alas, they die like men.” More than 600 of us would die before the war’s end.

Yes, I go to the cenotaph on each Nov. 11 and I remember.

Barbara Fosdick

Victoria

The Hunger Winter gives way to liberation

I was eight years old, part of a family of 10 in the Hague, when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940.

New rules effected us all: Radios to be turned in, as well as copper items for the war machine. Jews had to wear the Star of David visible on their clothes; their future was known to all.

The last eight months of the war affected me the most. It was called the Hunger Winter because of the cold temperatures and the lack of food as northwestern Holland was cut off by the advancing Allies.

Germans had priority for the food. Our family meals consisted mainly of flower bulbs, sugar beets, cooked potato peels and a soup of vegetables cooked in water.

Rations became so low, that city switched to central kitchens. My dad arranged for permission for us kids to scrape the kettles, which gave us some extra food.

There was a shipment of potatoes frozen during transport; to this day I won’t eat potatoes that are not peeled.

I sometimes beat some foam on sugar beet juice and ate that.

The central kitchens had a complete meal on weekends, complete with potatoes and meat. Always only one scoop per person.

Two shipments of food came from Sweden, by means of the Red Cross. Allied Lancaster bombers dropped seven million kilograms of food over the last couple months of the war, by arrangement with the Germans.

No fuel, no heat, no electricity. People took wood from vacated homes, trees, bomb shelters and, including myself, wooden blocks between the streetcar tracks. Illegal, but there was always a lookout to issue warning when police were approaching.

A misfire of a missile came down three kilometres from our home on Jan. 1, 1945, resulting in our living room window landing on the street. My dad replaced it with one from a vacated home.

I had a chance to visit the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in 1962 when posted to West Germany with the Canadian Army. It was the last place where Anne Frank lived, but did not survive. No birds to be seen or heard in surrounding trees. Just large piles of soil, with signs that indicated how many thousand Jews were buried on that spot.

I was happy to see the Canadians as liberators in 1945. I was 13 then. I collected many autographs from them and was disappointed when my notebook got lost.

Gerry Van Swieten

Victoria

Waiting for the Canadians, and freedom

In the spring of 1945, at the end of the Second World War, I was five years old, living in the Nazi-occupied northwest of Holland. Daily, our hearts were beating like a drum, waiting for the Canadian liberators to arrive.

Our family — Mom, Dad, two girls and me — had endured severe hunger and had gone without heat in the dreadful winter of ’45. The Nazis had taken everything that even looked like food. If one dared to go into the woods for slivers of dried wood, look out, it could be the last time.

My courageous dad often went out in the total dark, somehow managing to elude the patrols. By the way of the small, frozen canals behind our home, he would arrive home with several older, dry tree branches clutched in his arms.

This sparse supply of wood was mainly used in his little shack at the back of our home to cook a sugar beet-mash that we almost gagged on as it was our breakfast, lunch and dinner for months.

Anyway, it did keep us alive. On the day the liberators finally arrived in our town of Heemstede and the Nazis had vanished, all hell broke loose.

As the Canadian tanks rumbled into town, some went right through the pavement, leaving deep tracks some of us walked in as we followed them to the centre of town.

Tulips, daffodils and all sorts of flowers rained down on those “good-looking” Canadians (so my mom and sisters said). It was the first time I tasted a piece of chocolate. It was tossed from one of the tanks, which now were actually a bit difficult to see with all the girls sitting on top, laughing and cheering.

I have never, ever forgotten that time in my early life. It was freedom!

John Van Bakel

Victoria

The Little Street That Went to War

In Winnipeg is The Little Street That Went To War. Newman Street was just one block long, but 31 young men who resided there served in the Second World War.

In their own way, mothers and wives of the 31 men also went to war. They established the Newman Street Neighbours’ Club, using weekly member dues of 10 cents to make food packages for the sons and husbands and garments for civilians living in war-torn regions.

They offered accommodations to servicemen training nearby. Remarkably, they purchased a depth charge for the first HMCS Winnipeg, a minesweeper commissioned in 1943.

Mothers and wives in the Neighbours’ Club worried about the safety of their men. Among them was my grandmother, Cassie Hill, whose son-in-law and three sons were away at war. Her three sons returned uninjured while her son-in-law, my father, was seriously injured in Italy in 1944. He mended in England for much of the remainder of the war.

Thanks to those who have served, whether in war or peace.

Janice Owen

Sidney

A taste of battle brings resolve in rural France

Cowichan Bay’s Denis and Carolyn McDonald send on this story written by her father, Gordon Alliston, who who served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada. He lived in Shawnigan Lake until his death in 2010.

“After landing in France, we headed toward Caen. Once we got to the outside of the city, we knew that we were in a war. Almost every building was an empty, bombed-out shell. It was really awful to realize that these were once the homes of people. There were very few civilians around since the Germans were close and you could hear shell-fire in the distance. We could smell death. There were still bodies in the rubble and it was too dangerous for anyone to try to retrieve them. The buildings looked like they could collapse at any moment. I never forgot that smell.

“I saw my first dead German. The body was half-buried in a pile of dirt. I thought ‘That poor bastard has a mother and father somewhere in Germany and they probably don’t even know their son is dead.’

“We dug slit trenches to sleep in since every once in a while a shell would come whizzing overhead. I think most of us were a bit scared since this was the first time we came under any kind of fire. A shell landed not far away and we could feel the vibration in the ground from the explosion. I said to Rocky, my sergeant, ‘These guys are trying to kill us.’ He looked at me: “You idiot. What the hell did you think it would be like? Some sort of picnic? Keep your bloody head down and don’t try to see what’s going on.’

“The next afternoon we heard that two of our guys had been killed. It had been a nice warm day and quite quiet. These two had been enjoying the sun with their shirts off when a shell landed near them. Our first two casualties. I thought: ‘Oh boy, here we go.’ It was then that I decided that I was not going to be some sort of hero. I would do my bit, but I just wanted to get through this war and get home in one piece. I think that everybody in our platoon felt the same way.”

Fireworks a nice birthday present at end of war

On the original Armistice Day in 1919, my father went up to the gazebo in the family home. When he came down, he announced to his father that it was jolly nice of them to have fireworks for his birthday.

Dad was born on Nov. 11, 1911.

H.S. Barron

Soldiers willing to sacrifice lives to save a buddy

Lance Cpl. Raymond Pengelly was seriously wounded.

Back home, weekly newspapers summoned his family to study the long lists of the dead.

Raymond’s tank was hit by Panzer fire. His fellow soldiers escaped in a haze of smoke and flames, but the hatch lid was prematurely dropped on Raymond. He had to get out before the burning tank exploded; he crawled thru the floor to face the enemy. 

Mortar fire ripped across the darkened sky. The burning tank’s explosion was seen by his buddies fleeing in the woods. A fallen soldier was hidden under the molten smoke, shrapnel having ripped through his body. 

Later, they would never talk about this day. Later, they would never mention how brave they had been to have returned to the burning tank in the face of enemy fire.  

Later, they would never mention how they had saved Raymond’s life.

There had been no notion to escape to safety. True to their valour and courage, these soldiers left the safety of the woods and ran towards enemy fire for their fallen friend. 

Never was a word ever spoken again.  

Never was a medal for their courage ever given.  

Saved by all the others leaving the safety of the woods that day as each soldier had been willing to give the ultimate sacrifice to save one soldier, one life.

Helen Pengelly

Victoria

Remembering six lost Canadians in West Yorkshire

For the past 75 years, the villagers of Oakworth, West Yorkshire, have been gathering each Jan. 2 in Tewitt Lane to give dignity and remembrance to six Canadian airmen who died there in 1944. Their training flight in a Wellington bomber failed to gain height and they hit the Oakworth quarry, killing all six on impact.

In 2002, my husband and I were invited to attend, he in his role as defence attaché at the Canadian High Commission in London.

The service is held up at an ancient drover’s lane at the crash site, where a cairn to the memory of the aircrew is mounted into the ages-old dry stone wall. The villagers came out in goodly numbers — teenagers, families with children and dogs, elderly veterans with walking sticks dressed in their Legion best. The vicar and members of the Village Society led the short prayer service. We placed a wreath at the foot of the cairn and all sang Abide With Me.

As the chilled crowd started to disperse, a farm woman named Jean invited everyone back to hers for tea.

“Give me head start,” she added in her broad Yorkshire dialect. “Enough time to put t’kettle on t’hob.”

As I clutched my hands around my teacup, I looked around at these selfless people, none of whom had any personal connection to the airmen. I thought of the comfort their annual remembering brings to the Canadian families who, through distance and time are unable to be there and I was humbled.

Pat Kelly

Duncan

How a mother reconnected with her fallen son

In 1970, I was a captain in the Royal Canadian Dragoons, stationed in Germany.

In April my wife and I, along with three very young sons, took a holiday in our VW Westphalia camping bus to Italy. We stopped for lunch just north of Ortona in the Italian region of Abruzzo, my grandfather having immigrated to Canada from that province. I noticed a small Commonwealth grave site nearby and discovered that it was mainly Canadians buried there.

A stone caught my eye and I took a picture of the gravesite of Trooper William Smith, Royal Canadian Dragoons, who was 20 years of age.

At the bottom was carved, “My Billy boy, a good baby, a fine young man, died a brave soldier.”

Weeks later, having just picked up my holiday photos, I heard the commanding officer and regimental second in command discussing a letter received from a Toronto lady whose son had been killed in Italy with the regiment.

I could not believe it when the colonel said the son was a Trooper Smith.

I had just picked up the picture of the gravestone of Tpr Smith! I passed the photo to the colonel: “Is this the soldier you are talking about, Colonel?”

In due course, a letter was sent to the lady with the photo.

She was so pleased with the picture of the grave, but then asked “Who put that wonderful inscription on his grave stone?” 

We were never able to give her a satisfactory answer, and assumed that her husband may have done so.

Families were entitled to put a statement at the bottom of the stone, according to the regulations of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Each Remembrance Day at the cenotaph, I think of Trooper Smith in Italy, and then of a friend of my youth of the same age whose grave is in Korea.

Gary Del Villano

Mystery of grandfather’s gravesite solved

My maternal grandfather, Richard Vickers, died in a German POW hospital in Mannheim on June 2, 1918, aged 40 years.

His wife and two-year-old daughter (my mother) received the news but never knew where he was buried.

Over the years, I did exhaustive research through British military channels, the Red Cross, Switzerland and officials in Mannheim with no results. The general replies indicated the First World War information was most likely in buildings blown up in the Second World War.

Then success! I contact the German Embassy in Ottawa. Within three days they had not only identified the cemetery, but sent me photos of my grandfather’s gravesite.

So, 100 years after his death, the puzzle is complete. You can imagine how thankful we are, and how pleased my mother and grandmother would be.

Sheila Richards

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