There’s nothing quite like the experience of talking to a veteran. They have so much to tell us of a time we peacenik baby-boomers simply can’t comprehend. Death and carnage and mayhem all around them, seeing buddies blown up or shot before their eyes, killing enemy soldiers themselves, and yet they carry on with the fight. Not quite the ordeal of finding a downtown parking spot.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed veterans from the Boer War (no, I wasn’t there…), World War One (the worst of all wars), and the Second World War against fascism. Never have I failed to come away in awe at their courage in signing up, the hell they experienced, and their vivid recollections of a distant past.
My own personal hero is First World War vet, William “Duke” Procter. Duke was the sunniest centenarian I ever met, and the liveliest. But every time the war was mentioned and he remembered the boyhood comrades he had lost, his eyes would well with tears. He made a vow to himself that he would never forget them. So, every Remembrance Day, he would ignore his advancing years and march with all the younger guys to the small cenotaph in Lumby, B.C. I covered his last march for the Globe and Mail, when Duke was 104. You can read my story here. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/great-war-veteran-104-is-still-in-step/article18436414/
Recently, I had the good fortune to interview World War Two veterans Gordie Bannerman and Orme Payne, 94 and 93 years old, respectively. They were best friends growing up, farm boys from southern Saskatchewan. They enlisted in the same regiment on the same day, and went right through the fierce, bloody campaigns in Italy and Holland together. Both escaped with barely a scratch, and 70 years later, they remain the very closest of friends. But there was one harrowing night just three weeks before V-Day when….well, you can read about what happened and their extraordinary friendship in this piece I wrote for Wednesday’s Globe and Mail. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/brothers-in-arms-a-friendship-that-has-endured-long-after-their-warended/article27197709/
(Gordie Bannierman, 94: Yours Truly; Orme Payne, 93)
Despite their age, neither Bannerman nor Payne seem to have forgotten anything of their war years. Both are born story-tellers, still sharp as the proverbial tack. Their recollections are a treasure trove, made even more rewarding by the fact that so few vets from the Second World War are yet with us. I relished every moment of my time with them. Here are a few snippets from what they told me that didn’t make it into my story for the Globe. Such a time.
Bannerman: We made a decision to sign up. What were we going to do? There wasn’t 10 cents in most houses, and if there was 10 cents, your dad put it into the collection plate. So there was no money, no crop. Really, you might call it an escape.
We were in Aneroid until the beginning of September. It was the first train ride for a lot of the fellows, and there was waving goodbye to everybody, kissing all the girlfriends. Some older fellows from Moose Jaw were along. They knew some taxi drivers, and the next thing you know, the train is loaded up with beer and everybody is sloshed.
We arrived in Indian Head. They had the band out, and they had the 76th Battery, our sister battery, all lined up. And cripes, Major Jacobs called us to attention. I think the only two who didn’t drink were Joe Spork and me, and maybe Orme. Four guys fell flat on their faces. It was an auspicious entrance to Indian Head, I’ll tell you.
ARRIVAL IN ENGLAND
Bannerman: There were sunken ships all along the Mersey in Liverpool. One of our guys, Billy, he was a signaler with us, could really talk. Even better than me, and he could swear better, too. He was yapping away as we sailed in, and a seagull just crapped right in his mouth. He spit and swore for 10 minutes. And the Regimental Sgt. Major, who was pretty strait-laced, had to crack up over it. So that was our landing in England. We took the little train to Aldershot. Arrived there at night. We went into the old Waterloo Barracks, which had been there for a hundred years. I don’t think the blankets had been washed all that time.
LAYING TELEPHONE LINES
Payne: I was a land sergeant in charge of troop signals. My job was to stay out of trouble and keep the communications working. Basically, telephone lines. You could not depend on those radios. They’d break down when you needed them the most. I would set up telephone lines. Mile after mile after mile.
I would be given a map reference. We’re going to cross the river at Point X here and I got to have a line up there. It had to be done at night. You’re in a strange country, in the dark, and you’ve got to avoid roads and mine fields. Patrols were wandering through. I really don’t know how, but my crew and I always got it done.
YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW
Bannerman: When Orme was promoted, the officer he reported to said: “You see this paper, Payne?” It was a blank piece of paper. “That’s my shit list, and you’re on it.” Orme says: I just came in the door, sir. “Well, you might not be on it right now, but you will be.” He had to stick it out there all during the Hitler Line, and he had a pretty tough time, let me tell you, right up there with the infantry and forward observation officers.
Payne: My god, it was amazing anyone survived, not just the shelling, but eating out of those aluminum mess tins….
ON THE GOTHIC LINE
Bannerman: Orme had to do communication for the forward observation officers. There was one place in the mountains that we called ‘the mad mile’, because it was so exposed to the Germans. Every time a motorcycle went along that road, the Germans started shelling him. We’d take bets. Is that guy going to make it? No kidding. Orme never realized this was going on until a long time after. He said, Cripes they were making bets to see if I’d be hit…
Payne: The troop commander said we need you up here as soon as possible. I said: How do I get there? He said: Follow the burning tanks. There were 11 tanks in a row, all blown up. A 75 mm tank gun was hidden in the bush, and the guy waited until this column of tanks went through, then he just started with the tail end, shooting them all in the rear, right near the motor. He got every one of them. And then the bugger gave up. They took him prisoner. That’s war.
THE BEST OF FRIENDS
Bannerman and Payne, relaxing after 73 straight days of combat and shelling, as the Canadian Army fought its way up the spine of Italy against elite, battle-hardened German troops.
THE BATTLE OF OTTERLO AND A VERY CANADIAN PASSWORD
Payne: A bunch of Germans walked in on us in the middle of the night. I’ll tell you, it was blacker than the inside of a cow. If we’d been fighting by the book, we would have been goners. But we were so darned mixed up, we had them mixed up. And somehow we got out of it.
One of my own guys damn near shot me. Little Peter Powliss. He was a gun sergeant. Little short guy in a slit trench, We changed the password every day and that night the password was Hockey, and the answer was Puck. So he yells Hockey and I yell back Puck. He put this .303 right in my face pretty much. I kept saying “Puck… Puck… Puck”. I was sounding like an outboard motor. Finally, I just slapped that darned rifle, and it went off right by my ear. My head rang all night. The stuff that went on that night was enough to make a rabbit spit in a bull’s eye.
(Incidentally, the CBC had a first-hand report of the battle from none other than a young Charles Lynch, who went on to become an illustrious Parliament Hill correspondent. Here it is: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/ve-day-countdown-canadian-army-repels-desperate-germans)
Bannerman: On May 5, the Dutch celebrated, their liberation. But we all went to bed, sleeping on the floor. We were just so tired. We couldn’t believe it was over.
Payne: Well, they officially announced it, and I’ll tell yuh, my first thought was from my own point of view, What the hell am I going to do now? I’ve got to get a job.
Bannerman: We were coming back by train from New York, and we’d just crossed into Canada. There was snow on the ground. Suddenly, I heard this commotion at the end of the car. “Come quick, come quick.” And one of the prairie fellas said, “Look, Gordie, out there in the snow. Rabbit tracks.” All of a sudden, he was home. We were all home.