20 years ago, when I was 18, my senior English Writing class and I travelled the short distance to our local branch of the Canadian Legion. We each were "assigned" to a veteran of the second world war, who we were to interview, and then compose an account of that interview. This was to be done in time for Remembrance Day. The Canadian Legion that year hosted some Remembrance Day-themed literary contests. I believe I took third place for my account of the man I interviewed, and I won 1st prize for senior poetry.
That trip to the legion left a big impression on me, and I can still picture the quirky old man I interviewed. He has since passed away, and I'll keep his last name out of this to protect his family's privacy. Here's my little teenage essay, which I happily just located from a folder of highschool writings, down the basement.
Jack W. - A Canadian Veteran
I must admit, I didn't quite know what to expect when I walked into the Canadian Legion. My 'job' was to interview a vet from the Second World War. What did I know about the war? I knew 560 000 Canadians were in the conflict but I had no idea what it must have been like to be 18 and heading off to war. Jack W. knows what it was like; he was 21 when he went off to war.
Jack sat down before me. He told me, "smoke em' if you got em'." I didn't smoke but I told him I didn't mind if he did. He seemed taken aback; "I'll damn well smoke if I want to smoke!" Okay, I figured I had better let him take it from there.
Jack W., Sergeant of the Lake Superior Regiment, was an army man. He had tried to get into the airforce but they wouldn't take him. He left for overseas in August of 1934, landing in Scotland that same month. He trained there then went to the South Coast of England. A lot of training time was spent in Brighton and on the Salisbury Plane which is "very flat, very wet, and very cold." Jack remembers his first action in Normandy. They were in an apple orchard. The Germans had dug themselves in behind the trees. "The first carrier to be knocked out was in our regiment...A shell hit the carrier and took the back wheel off...2 of my men were wounded and 1 was killed...shrapnel took one man's arm off at the elbow--I remember this very clearly."
Jack spent most of his time in France. "The German Army stripped France of anything they wanted." Jack's job was to go up along the left flank of France with his men and clear as many seaports as they could. I asked him if he could remember his best experience during the war. A wry smile came to his face and he said bluntly, "My best experience? yeah, one day we got lucky and knocked off a German paymaster. We were pretty rich boys for a while. We got about 700 000 francs."
Jack told me of a few things he saw and learned during the war; "...you don't carry much with you--just what you figure you're going to need...anything you could hear, you were safe. Anything you couldn't hear--they were the ones that got you." He saw towns where Jewish people had lived, their towns obliterated. He saw no Jewish people though.
On May 5th of 1945 the war was over; Jack remembers finding out: "...we were up in Varel Germany. We just pulled into this farmyard and we got shelled pretty heavy--the Germans were still pretty active...I was called to an orders group...I radioed to artillery and was called back...when I got back everyone was jumping up and down..."
Jack stayed until November of that year in Holland. After this, they started shipping the men out to England to come home.
But what about Jack himself? How has the war affected him? He tells me all of this bluntly like it has affected him little but his hands shake lightly and his eyes mist slightly when he tells me how he lost 4 good friends. He tells me that sometimes "he wished the hell he hadn't gone!", but still with pride he tells me he would go again. He tells me of the medals he wears; the Victory medal, the Canada Volunteers medal with Class (Class if you served in Britain for 18 months), the Defence of Great Britain medal, the France and Germany star and of course, the 1939-1945 star.
I agree with Jack when he says that they don't teach enough about the war. Too many people like Jack are being forgotten, their stories never to be told. Jack and all other people who served in the war deserve our recognition, deserve to be heard, to have their stories told. I wonder if Jack would agree with me when I say that he is a brave man. He'd probably tell me that it wasn't bravery that brought him into the war, it was just something he felt he had to do.
Before I left that day, Jack pinned a poppy on my jacket. He told me; "Don't lose it because if I see you on the street and you don't have it, I'll charge you a buck and a half for it!" You need not worry Jack, because I won't lose the poppy and I won't ever forget.
(me, in grey, interviewing Jack, who gave me the picture: "this is to show you weren't playing hooky!")