The letters are cut into the cold grey granite, aligned with the precision of a military parade, and marking the final resting place of the man who was my father. It’s time to say goodbye at this, the final intersection of our lives.
But the letters also indicate a rank my dad held before I was born, about which I knew little. Before he was my Dad, before there was Mom and Dad, before there was our family, he was a Canadian soldier. One who lived firsthand through World War II, experiencing a life that few of us will ever know. A life about which he shared little.
Those letters force me to reflect upon the crisscrossing of our adult lives, moments where we were in the same place but at vastly different times under completely different circumstances. Over time, I would come to realize the importance of those intersections in gaining insight into his life as a soldier.
He rarely spoke of his wartime experiences but, over the years, would reference bits and pieces of where he was, or things that happened. The bigger questions – what he thought of the war, how it shaped him, what misery he saw or experienced – remained largely unspoken. But we do know somethings, through the breadcrumbs he dropped, through research, through stitching together information accumulated over a lifetime.
He was French Canadian and spent his early years in the cloistered religious life of a small Quebec town in the 1900s, the oddly-named St. Louis du Ha! Ha! that, even today, is one of those blink-and-you-miss-it places. It was fitting in a way for he was one who saw humour in almost everything and never missed a chance to tell a joke, pull a prank, or make someone smile.
Chafing at the insular nature of the town, life in Quebec and perhaps tiring of overly bossy sisters, he left home at age 19 or 20, heading to Montreal where he promptly joined the army and almost as promptly experienced the implications of a bigger, broader world.
He was mechanically gifted and because of this was immediately assigned to the Calgary Regiment, also known as the 14th Canadian Armour – Calgary Tanks. He had, unknowingly, become the first French Canadian to be assigned to a Western unit. When the Regiment arrived in Montreal he marveled at how big and tall they were for he had never before seen English people. Speaking no English, he joined the Regiment, heading to Halifax and to war in Europe.
It is 1980 and I am in Long Beach, California for a business conference. It’s not my first. The world is expanding with opportunities and shrinking in distance and this has, at age 21, already taken me to many parts of the globe. But this conference has something unlike any other. It includes a tour of the RMS Queen Mary, the ship that carried my father to war.
Walking her decks and looking at her wartime photos, it’s not hard to imagine her jammed with troops, somber people likely filled with fear and misgivings about what might await them in war-torn Europe. Here, on these decks, my father steamed toward the great unknown unable to communicate with the people around him. He must have felt utterly alone.
He once told the story of a soldier who was shot by a naval officer for smoking on deck at night. The glow of one cigarette in the middle of the Atlantic could draw U-boats from up to 30 miles away. One cigarette – one cigarette! – was imperiling the lives of thousands. He had not even reached Europe and his war had already claimed its first casualty. Such was the desperation and danger of his reality.
My reality was something else altogether, one where smoking presented a completely different kind of danger. But for one sunny afternoon in California on the decks of that ship I walked in his shoes. I took no pictures, bought no postcards because I did not need to. That ship, and his courage, is forever seared in my memory. At a similar age, he went to a world war to exchange hostilities; I went to a global conference to exchange ideas.
When he landed in England, he faced two immediate problems: he could not speak English and he had never driven a tank.
He learned English via the Salvation Army but they were unable to do much about the very heavy French accent he carried the rest of his life. He always admired the Salvation Army and would remain forever grateful for what they did for the troops. He much preferred them over the Red Cross because, among other things, they didn’t charge the soldiers for items they supplied.
Operating a tank was a different matter. While learning to drive, in a moment of youthful exuberance he and another tank decided to have a drag race. It did not go well. He inadvertently clipped one of the country’s main electrical transmission towers, putting half of England, including London, in total darkness for 2 or 3 days. He received 2 weeks of “extra duty” as a result.
In raising a family, there were two things about which my father was completely adamant. We would all learn to speak English and we would become excellent drivers. And that is exactly how we turned out. Of the six kids in the family, most are fully bilingual and none of us have ever had an at-fault car accident.
However, growing up near Ottawa in the 1970s, a common pastime for teenagers was to spend many a Saturday night drag racing along Carling Ave in the city’s west end. I once was busted for doing just that. Standing before my father, he stared his patented stare but said very little. There was no need…the message had been received. Nor did I get any “extra duty” as a result because, I suppose, the lights of Ottawa remained on the whole time.
My father fought at Dieppe which, according to research, was the bloodiest single day for the Canadian military in the entire second world war. Some 5,000 Canadian soldiers took part in this raid on occupied France. More than half became casualties and almost 1,000 lost their lives.
His regiment – the Calgary Tanks – was part of the main battle group. The attack did not at all go as planned for the tanks proved to be too heavy for the beach and quickly bogged down in its sand. They became sitting ducks and target practice for the Germans. The first two waves of tanks were obliterated. His tank was in the third wave and was called back as they approached the beach. We have no more information than that about what he did next.
However, after Dieppe the Calgary Tanks were assigned to the British 8th Army and landed at Sicily. They went on to mainland Italy and he fought at Monte Cassino.
Monte Cassino was a costly series of four assaults by Allied forces involving 240,000 men, 1,900 tanks, and 4,000 airplanes from about one dozen countries. The last assault involved 20 divisions attacking along a twenty-mile front. When it was finally captured, there were some 55,000 Allied casualties. German losses were much less at around 20,000 killed and wounded.
He did not speak of these assaults but did indicate this is where he met the Ghurkas, soldiers native to Nepal, part of the British Army for more than 200 years, and known for their fierceness in combat. Clearly, he was impressed for this is one of the few stories he mentioned more than once.
We also think this is where he had his encounter with an armed German soldier. What we know is that he was helping to carry a wounded soldier on a stretcher when they saw the barrel of a gun aimed at them at point-blank range. My father fully expected to be shot in the next instant. Instead, the German soldier stared at them at length; they stared back. Eventually, the German moved off without saying a word.
We will never know why he wasn’t killed. Perhaps the sight of a wounded man on a stretcher evoked sympathy. Perhaps even in war there are small moments of compassion. Perhaps the German felt there had been enough killing for one day. Perhaps it is enough to know that he survived.
We are not entirely certain of where he went after Monte Cassino and how he got there but, once again, a few offhand remarks provided some clues.
My business travels have taken me to Italy and I am home again with hundreds of photos of the places I’ve been. I’d been to Europe a few times and my father always took pains to carefully study every photo from any trip I’d taken there. Usually, his comments were very brief, most times there would be none at all. He would simply look, study and say nothing.
So I was completely unprepared for his reaction to my picture of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. The Piazza is the main point of the origin and history of the Florentine Republic and still maintains its reputation as the political focus of the city. It is ringed with a great number of imposing statues, including copies of works by Michelangelo, Donatello and others that draw tourists from around the world.
In other words, the Piazza exudes history, culture, civilization, art and so much more. But not to a 20-something Canadian soldier seeing the world for the first time through a war-torn lens.
My father took the photo into his hands and they began to tremble. He stared intently and said nothing for a few minutes. I watched the edge of the photo continue to shake nonstop. Suddenly, it stopped. His eyes sparkled, he broke out into a broad smile and blurted out “Balls Square!”.
For that brief instant I saw the 20-something Canadian soldier. A young man grappling with the beauty and strangeness around him. Full of life and bravado and not much else. Enjoying a welcoming distraction to another dreary day of war. It was clearly a happy place for him.
Only one other photo from my European travels elicited a reaction from him, that of the Hauptbanhof (train station) in Frankfurt. This time, his hand did not tremble, it clenched. His eyes did not sparkle, they glared. His face was not joyous but grey. “Hasn’t changed much,” he grumbled. It was all he said and cast the photo aside.
My father never spoke of war in terms of great victories, pitched battles and terrible losses. We never knew what he thought about the Germans, the Russians, the Americans or the British. Instead, the stories he told related to the daily life of ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances.
He talked about how the regiment dealt with one man whose snoring was so bad that no one could sleep. Eventually, a solution presented itself. They tied a string around the man’s penis and yanked hard every time he started up.
He talked about the kindness of his commanding officer, who would seek him out (as the only Catholic in the regiment) to let him know that a priest was nearby. He was called Frenchie (yes, Frenchie) by everyone and it appears he was well-liked.
He spoke glowingly of the Salvation Army and what it had done for him.
He also spoke of darker moments too, albeit briefly. Notable ones include watching a jeep strike a landmine and get obliterated in a flash. Or an even darker one of some Allied troops taking pot shots at German POWs.
From these stories, it is clear he saw no greatness to war, no clarion call to duty and honour. War was something to survive. It was about keeping your head down, doing what you needed to do to live another day and go home. Although he spoke little of it, it was clear that he saw and experienced things that no one ever should.
Based on what we do know, it is not surprising that he chose to lock away this part of his life. Maybe he simply could not talk about it. Maybe he simply wanted to shield his family from the pain and horrors he experienced. And so, for the rest of his life these memories remained largely tucked away, out of sight but not likely out of mind.
War shaped his life as a young man and it was the lens through which he was introduced to the Canada outside of Quebec and the Europe that had shaped civilizations. After the war, he would never return to Europe nor speak of it, seemingly content to experience it vicariously through the journeys and stories of his sons and daughters.
It was because of war efforts of thousands of people like my father that I am able to travel freely and naturally elsewhere, to see and experience everything this great world has to offer. I live a life of prosperity, peace and happiness that has been built in no small measure on the backs of their pain and sacrifice.
As I gaze at those letters carved into the granite, I thank him and say goodbye. And I will not forget.