Orme and Gordie, friends for life.

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(Troop Sgt. Major Gordon Bannermann, left, and Sgt. Orme Payne, shortly after 73 days in action without relief.)

For the first time in forever, World War II veteran Orme Payne did not go down to the Legion to mark Remembrance Day. He’s had a rough patch this year. After a long spell in hospital, he’s lost weight and is weaker than when I last saw him a year ago. “I’m too damned tottering on my feet,” the feisty 94-year old vet told me over the phone when I called to check on him, his voice still strong. “I’ve lost 20 pounds. I put on my blazer and it weighed a ton.” His life-long friend and fellow vet Gordon Bannerman is in tough, too, having suffered a grievous personal loss just last week.

The two have been through so much. Boyhood friends in Saskatchewan, they fought beside each other all the way through the bloody campaigns of Italy and Holland, survived some close calls, and remain, today, after more than 70 years, the very best of friends. “We still talk pretty nearly every other night,” said Orme. Of those not claimed on the battlefield, time has claimed all but a handful of wartime enlistees in the prairies’ 60th Battery of Royal Canadian Artillery. “Yep, the ranks are thinning out, all right,” said Orme, mystified that two of the few survivors are himself and his closest pal in all the world. “It’s kind of a dream in way.” As we rang off, Orme said I could call him whenever I wanted. “Anytime you want to hear a lie…”

A year ago, I wrote about their remarkable lives and friendship for the Globe and Mail. I offer it here, with immense pleasure that they are with us, still.

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(With Bannerman and Payne. John Lehmann photo.)

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/brothers-in-arms-a-friendship-that-has-endured-long-after-their-warended/article27197709/

Lest we forget.

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A SPECIAL REMEMBRANCE DAY, AND SYRIAN REFUGEES

Last week, two days before the numbing atrocities of Paris, I went to the annual Remembrance Day ceremony at the Japanese-Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park. It was a simple, almost homespun occasion, far removed from the military-like precision of the packed event at the main cenotaph downtown. A black-robed priest gave a purification prayer, clapped three times and performed a spiritual cleansing by waving about a long baton festooned with white paper streamers. He then talked six minutes past the proscribed 11 a.m. time for the two minutes of silence. No one seemed to mind. Beside me, a teen-aged girl wiped away tears, while an elderly Japanese-Canadian woman in an ordinary gray kimono stood with head bowed, eyes tightly closed.

There was also a pointed theme to this year’s Remembrance Day in Stanley Park that made it unique across the country even more relevant today, given some of the hateful fallout to the mass murders in Paris. The ceremony commemorated this year’s 70th anniversary of the formal acceptance of Japanese-Canadians into the Canadian Army. At a time they were still branded “enemy aliens”, had been forced into internment camps and work gangs, and their families stripped of their possessions, 120 Nisei signed up for a special, military intelligence unit to help in the fight against, yes, Japan. And then, it was only pressure from British and American military commanders that finally forced Canadian authorities to admit them into the army. In an intensely moving moment, Kazuko Yatabe, widow of veteran Eiji Yatabe shuffled forward to lay a memorial wreath on behalf of her husband.

Kazuko Yatabe

(Photo by Randy Enomoto)

Was it all only eight days ago? After Paris, bowing our heads in remembrance on that sun-bathed morning feels light years away. Yet, looking back, as hearts harden towards welcoming desperate Syrian refugees to this land of relative bounty, the event seems to take on a deeper meaning. Some of the same prejudice and unwarranted fear that imposed internment on thousands of law-abiding Japanese-Canadians is sadly afoot, again. Since Paris, a mosque in Peterborough has been torched, a Muslim woman in Toronto severely assaulted, others verbally harassed and some have reported being shunned in supermarket line-ups, over worries they might be suicide bombers. Ant-Muslim graffiti is on the upswing. Meanwhile, and arguably worse, there has been a disturbing rise of opposition to Canada’s plan to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. A sensible suggestion by Premier Christy Clark that the northeast of B.C. might be a good place to settle some Syrians sparked an immediate online petition calling for a referendum on admitting refugees to the region. It quickly attracted more than a thousand names. Similar petitions across the country to halt the influx have also attracted widespread support.

Of course, the petitioners don’t come out and say they don’t want Muslims here. They site security concerns. The possibility that one of the suspected nine Paris terrorists might have been among the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming through Europe has been seized upon. No matter that the terrorist ringleaders were French and Belgian. And no matter that Canada is taking refugees from relatively-stable camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, not from the huge, heartbreaking crowds thronging to Europe. While the government’s ambitious refugee deadline might be well served by extending it a month or two to ensure the process unfolds smoothly, “security concerns” have been seized upon on as reason to keep “them” out. With proper screening in place, there is no evidence that these refugees, most of them families, pose a security threat, other than to those, perhaps, who think just being Muslim is suspect.

All of which brings me back to last week’s Remembrance Day in Stanley Park and the special attention paid to the internment of more than 20,000 Japanese-Canadians. As with the current hostility toward Syrian refugees and Muslims, facts and context meant nothing. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, Japanese-Canadians were overtaken by a tidal wave of irrational fear and prejudice that stigmatized all of them, based only on their race. In British Columbia, where almost all lived, there was wild talk everywhere about a sinister “fifth column” of Japanese, loyal to their mother country, plotting to undermine the country from within. Japanese-Canadians were looked on with suspicion, merely because of events far beyond the borders of Canada they had nothing to do with. They were different. They might be up to something. Sound familiar? Yet not one incident of sabotage or disloyalty was ever uncovered.

It is distressing to see the same emotions whipped up all over again. Lest you think I’m stretching the comparison, I give you Roanoke, Virginia in the United States, where the anti-refugee hysteria is far more deep-seated and pronounced. Calling for an end to assisting Syrian refugees to resettle in the area, Mayor David Bowers drew a parallel to the fears Americans had about ethnic Japanese in the U.S., after Pearl Harbour. He applauded their internment, which, he said, had kept America safe. Sometimes, words fail….

There is some good news, however. In 1942, almost no one, except a few brave members of the CCF and civil libertarians, spoke out against internment. This time, many, many Canadians are rallying to embrace Syrian refugees and denounce those who single out Muslims, who use their prejudice to stand in the way of these unfortunate victims of a terrible war coming to Canada. If only more had spoken out 73 years ago. “Lest we forget,” event moderator Gordon Kadota reminded us on Remembrance Day. Indeed.

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COMRADES-IN-ARMS, LEST WE FORGET

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.

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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/

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(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.

ENLISTING, 1940

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.

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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)

VE-DAY

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.

COMING HOME

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.

ILS SE SOUVIENNENT. FRANCE AND THE GREAT WAR

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As much as we rightly mourned the murders of two young Canadian soldiers last month, this past Remembrance Day inevitably lost some of its focus on the carnage that started it all. World War One ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, after four years of the most prolonged and terrible battlefield slaughter the world had ever known. That’s why we wear our poppies and bow our heads on November 11.

This was to have been a special Remembrance Day, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “war to end all wars”. Instead, the cold-blooded killings of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Cp. Nathan Cirillo, who was shot right at the National War Memorial, itself, overshadowed somewhat our remembrance of the First World War and the deaths of more than 60,000 Canadian soldiers far from home. It takes nothing away from the national outpouring of grief over the tragic loss of these fine young men, proud to wear the uniform of their country, to place them in the perspective of the many more who died before them.

Though it may seem odd to compare wars, the pointlessness, butchery and sheer hell of World War One puts it in a category all its own. Instead of talking about the bravery and heroism of our troops, it would be refreshing to hear some words of candour, acknowledging the enormous waste of human lives in a war that could claim tens of thousands of young soldiers in a single, doomed advance into the teeth of lethal machine gun fire. That wasn’t courage. That was commander-inflicted suicide.

At the same time, we tend to forget how much worse it was for France, where most of the dying took place. Other than Turkey, France, with 1.4 million killed, had the highest casualty rate among major combatants in the war. No village, however small, was left untouched. It was if a plague had swept through the countryside, claiming only young men. Many villages never recovered from the loss of an entire generation. The grim toll was an unsurpassed tragedy in a country that brought us the French Revolution and La Marseillaise.

All this was brought home to me, as I walked through rural France this September. Each village had its own stark, WW I memorial, commemorating their inhabitants who had “died for France”. It was sobering to see the number of names, no matter how tiny the population. And also to note the comparative handful of dead from World War Two, when France was beaten early.

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Some memorials had inscribed in large letters the words “Verdun” and “the Marne”, the worst of the war’s vast killing fields for French soldiers, their casualty totals almost too high to be believed. By 1917, mutiny began to sweep the ranks of the French. Division began to refuse orders. But the ensuing crackdown was fierce. Several thousand were sentenced to hard labour. Fifty were executed, a time illustrated in Stanley Kubrick’s powerful anti-war movie, Paths of Glory.

P1090754 (8)So the 100th anniversary of World War One was a big deal in France, marked by special exhibitions in many Image 1town halls and libraries, featuring local newspapers from the time, letters from the front, vivid photographs, including horribly disfigured survivors, military histories and conditions on the home front. I particularly liked a small commemorative garden by a central bus stop in the town of Firminy, west of Lyon. Placed among the flowers were regional newspaper reprints on stakes from the day war was declared. L’Humanité, the Socialist newspaper, featured, instead, the assassination the previous day of its founder and celebrated socialist, Jean Jaurés

Here are a few more photos I snapped along the way.

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DUKE PROCTER (1899-2005), WW1 VET, RIP

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Today, on Remembrance Day, as I have every year since he died, I will spare a few special moments to mourn my hero, William (Duke) Procter. I got to know Duke as part of a Globe and Mail series on remaining veterans from the terrible carnage of World War One. There weren’t many by that time, but one was Duke. He was 102, still living by himself in Vernon, still tending his large garden, still bowling, still square dancing, still….well, you get the picture. To celebrate his 100th birthday, he jumped out of an airplane (with parachute). The landing was a bit of a jar, but within moments, he was up on his feet, grinning.  He was as full of life as a 10-year old. I’ve never met anyone that I enjoyed talking to more than Duke. But every time we talked, and the conversation turned to the the war, he wept.

Duke and his brother managed to avoid being shipped to France because of their backwoods background, transferred to the north of England to cut down trees to shore up the trenches, while his mates went “over there”. Many died, and Duke  mourned them until his last breath, still feeling guilty that he survived and they didn’t. He vowed to never forget them, and every Remembrance Day, Duke Procter marched. I was there for Duke’s last march, when he was 104. Below are links to my Globe story on that wonderful day, followed by what I wrote when Duke finally passed on. It’s 100 years since “the war to end all wars” began, and Duke was part of it. Here’s to you, pal.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/great-war-veteran-104-is-still-in-step/article18436414/#dashboard/follows/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/incoming/william-duke-procter-soldier-and-logger-1899-2005/article18255618/#dashboard/follows/

MINORU YATABE, CANADIAN VETERAN

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Last year, on Remembrance Day, instead of heading to Victory Square, I went to the quieter, but equally heartfelt ceremony at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park.

For those unfamiliar with the memorial, whose jaws may have even dropped at learning of its existence, I hasten to point out that it pre-dates internment and World War Two. The imposing pillar was erected to commemorate Japanese Canadians who volunteered for the Great War of 1914-18. Fifty-four of them died, fighting for a country that denied them the right to vote and was rife with anti-Japanese sentiment. http://jccabulletin-geppo.ca/featured/the-japanese-canadian-soldiers-of-the-first-world-war-and-the-fight-to-win-the-vote/

There, I met the remarkable Minoru Yatabe, who had journeyed all the way from his home in Toronto, at the age of 90, to lay a wreath on behalf of Canada’s dwindling number of Nisei veterans.

Yes, you heard that right. There were Japanese Canadians who enlisted during World War Two, even after they and their families were branded “enemy aliens”, stripped of their property and possessions, forced into labour camps or interned, and of course, still denied all the rights of citizenship.

Mr. Yatabe was one of those who signed up. Although the Vancouver-born youth managed to escape the worst of internment by working on a farm in Ontario, his dream of graduating from UBC with an engineering degree was dashed, and the hardships and injustice suffered by Japanese Canadian internees were no secret.

Why on earth would he want to risk his life for a land that treated his people so shamefully? Well, he said, with a smile that cut through the late morning chill, “I had faith in my country. I knew that sooner or later, saner voices would prevail over the rantings of a few, misbegotten politicians.”

Not many Japanese Canadians shared his willingness to volunteer, the old vet admitted. “Those of us who did join up were a minority,” he told me. “We were subjected to a lot of abuse from some of the others, who had been treated very badly, who had lost their homes and businesses.”

Even then, Canada refused to allow Japanese Canadians into the armed forces. Only prolonged pressure from British authorities, who wanted to use them for intelligence work in Asia, finally lowered the country’s racist military barriers in early 1945. Minoru Yatabe signed up on Jan. 17.

The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the conflict against Japan before Mr. Yatabe saw action. But he and a few other Canadian Nisei were nevertheless involved in a fascinating but little-known chapter of the  war’s aftermath.

Because of their language skills, British officers charged them with “clearing” huge numbers of Japanese troops in northern Thailand, before they were shipped back to Japan.

“It was our job to check out the entire 15th Area Japanese Army,” Mr. Yatabe recalled. “We had to clear every single one of them, to make sure they were not guilty of any wartime atrocities, since they were very close to the Burma-Siam Railway construction.”

While that was going on, another Japanese company suddenly arrived. He was ordered to process them all by himself. “You have your sidearm and a Sten gun. Take the jeep and off you go,” instructed his commanding officer.

Mr. Yatabe still relishes the memory of what happened next.

“I took the jeep and drove out there. They were waiting for me. All the troops were lined up. The major saluted me. He said, ‘My men are waiting to be reviewed.’ I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like that. I stood up on my jeep. The men paraded past, and I had to return his salute. Then, I went  through them, one by one.”

Such a delicious and satisfying sight. A high-ranking, Japanese officer surrendering his troops to one young Japanese Canadian from Kitsilano.

I asked Minoru Yatabe whether he felt any emotion at being in such close contact with defeated soldiers from the land of his ancestors. He shook his head. “To me, they were Japanese, and I was Canadian.”

http://jccabulletin-geppo.ca/headline/they-went-to-war-japanese-canadians-and-the-battle-for-acceptance/

ImageMinoru Yatabe, with wife Lydia and myself, after laying a wreath at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park last year.