Generation to generation: Veterans share stories of the fight for freedom

Rudyard Kipling once wrote that if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. The sentiment seems more relevant than ever, as fewer and fewer veterans of great 20th century battles remain.

As part of remembrance week, students at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic High School in Guelph received a unique opportunity on Nov. 5, as nine Canadian veterans took part in a Remembrance Day panel sharing stories of their wartime experiences – both light-hearted and tragic.

With various positions in the Second World War represented, as well as participants from more modern conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan, students were given a well-rounded perspective of Canada’s military service. Veterans shared anecdotes and stories from their past, followed by a brief question and answer period with students.

Eleanor “Bobby” Freeman was just 16 when she volunteered for the Canadian Women’s Army Corp in WWII, the first time women actively participated in a military conflict. Though their previous requests to join the fray had been turned down by government officials and deemed inappropriate, by 1941, the supply of men was dwindling and it was decided women could take on non-combat duties overseas, freeing up men for service on the front lines.

“Women proved that they had the skills and determination to help defend when they were needed,” Freeman said. “We were trailblazers for the women who came after us and we opened the door for women to have a career in the military.”

These women trained as drivers, cooks, clerks, typists, telephone operators and messengers. Freeman took on the role of a truck driver.

“Women have come a long way since that day I joined to help the war effort,” she said. “I would cut off my curls and throw away my stiletto heels and everything else to serve my country again. I am very proud to be a Canadian, so please take care of this country.”

One conflict that goes relatively unmentioned in the Canadian history curriculum is the war in Vietnam. Gerry Conway told students Canada’s role is often not acknowledged and its veterans have received very little support.

“When we came back from the war in Vietnam, we had zero in the way of support, because officially Canada was never in the war,” he said.

“You either accepted the fact you were going to get zero support or you had to [deal] with it yourself, which led to a lot of people drinking far in excess, drug use, nightmares and various health issues.”

The civil war between the northern and southern portions of Vietnam was fought between 1954 and 1975. The United States allied itself with the South, resulting in violent demonstrations of opposition at home. Canada officially was involved as a neutral peacemaker, providing medical supplies and technical assistance.

Conway says the stigma surrounding the war still exists and those who were there continue to feel a sense of “self-failure.”

“Someone will say, ‘when were you in Vietnam?’ and most guys will answer, ‘last night’,” he said.

Colonel Frank Bayne joined the Canadian military when he was 16, but by the time he was 18 and ready for the front, World War II had ended – so he went to Korea instead.

“What was it like? It was a dirty war,” Bayne told students. “We lived in bunkers and holes in the ground. There were lots of rats, mosquitoes and flies because the fields were fertilized with human excrement.”

He said soldiers used to coat themselves and their equipment in DDT – unaware of its potentially hazardous side effects.

“We used to take DDT and spray it into our sleeping bags, rub it on ourselves and put it in our jeeps,” he said.

The three-year conflict from 1950 to 1953 was the result of tensions between the communist northern state and the democratic south. When the northern military made its advance, the UN decided to step in and contribute its forces – Canada being one of them.

“The North Korean [side] only fought at night because we had air superiority … and they would just keep coming in waves,” Bayne recalled. “We couldn’t fire our machine guns and rifles fast enough to stop them so we had to call down artillery fire on top of ourselves … it’s pretty bloody scary when the rounds are coming down on top of you.”

The conflict ultimately resulted in a truce, with an armistice signed in 1953 and the country remaining divided.

World War II veteran Bill Winegard finished the war as the youngest navigator in the Canadian Navy. He said he found himself at sea before his 18th birthday, decoding all messages that came on board. Ironically, many of the moments that stand out for Winegard have nothing to do with the conflict itself, but involve rowdy comrades and inclement weather.

“My most difficult time was during a four-day terrible storm in the North Atlantic. It blew everything off the ship – the lifeboats couldn’t be used and all the upper deck lockers were gone,” Winegard reflected,

“That’s where we stored all the vegetables, and I was so young and stupid that when they went, I was so happy because there would be no more turnips, which was the standard fare every day.”

Steve Nesser flew with the Canadian Air Force during the Second World War and being fluent in many European languages – including German – made him an invaluable asset.

“We did radio jamming by air. We would jam the radio signals that the ground called up to the German fighters to locate bomber aircraft,” he said. “We would pick it up and jam it so there was static and they couldn’t hear.”

He said in the air force the casualty rates were high, so he was very lucky to return relatively unscathed.

“About 15 per cent of air crew was fatalities. To tour was 30 trips and very few finished their 30,” he said.

Another World War II vet Frank Taylor served with the Canadian Army Corps and said he was part of the less-known team behind the scenes.

“I was in the ancillary troops. They’re the ones who do all the work behind the lines to supply the man at the front. For every man at the front, there was 10 people behind to supply him,” he said. “Everything that moved in the Canadian Army depended on the army service corp.”

Peacekeeper Maurice Ferris served in the Middle East as part of the Canadian Navy for 13 years. He says because of the way wars are fought today it is difficult to tell who is an enemy and who is a friend – you only know who is shooting at you and who is not.

“Today you’re wearing a uniform and you have rules of engagement when you go over there – they do not have rules of engagement,” he told students. “It get’s scary taking a life, but you have to look at the lives you’re saving on the other end.”

When one student asked about post traumatic stress disorder and nightmares after returning from the front, Ferris responded that it can be difficult to open up to loved ones about war experiences because the things they witness are unfathomable to most.

“How do you talk to your wife, she doesn’t know what you’ve gone through. How do you talk to your children without scaring the living daylights out of them?” he asked.

“How many people here could walk into a house and pick up a baby full of bullet holes? These are the things that are hard to talk to anybody about.”

Another peacekeeper, Michael Seitz, served during the Cold War in Northern India and Pakistan and emphasized the importance of education, saying without it, it is impossible to fight extremist groups.

“In the Himalayans it’s quite poor and education is practically nil because of the poverty that’s there and the people because of this don’t have a great depth of knowledge,” he said. “You as students in this country have the advantage of an education system that is second to none … you should use that in your later life to take care of people in other countries.”

Afghanistan veteran Sergeant Jordon Bromwich reiterated this sentiment.

“There’s really not a lot of hope in educating these people up to the required speed to sustain life on this planet and this is something that is going to fall into your laps,” he said.

Bromwich served as part of the close protection team for NATO’s deputy commanding general during the Afghanistan mission and says the experience really opened his eyes to everything the younger generations have taken for granted.

“Freedom has come free for many of us, myself included, but not for the individuals who stand before us here,” he said. “Growing up, we haven’t really had any of the hardships that these individuals speak of, so it’s easy to forget.”

As of March 2014, Veteran’s Affairs said there were 88,400 remaining WWII veterans, with an average age of 90, making first-hand stories all the more valuable.

Ferris asked students if they knew how much time they will have given to veterans by the time they turn 60.

“We give them two minutes a year of silence, so in 60 years, these gentlemen and ladies who have given everything, get two hours back out of your life,” he noted.