This Remembrance Day, it stands out to me how many people offer their thanks to the veterans and to those serving our country currently. What stood out to me was how vague many of the sentiments were. I thought about it more and realize that it makes sense. Especially, when the second World War (the last war that involved most of an entire generation) ended 70 years ago. I know that even for those who are my peers, some of their grandparents were too young to be a part of the war effort. Even if people do have grandparents who served in the war, many do not hear of their story. Perhaps it was too horrible or perhaps it simply doesn't come up. Many will hear stats such as that there were over 1,000,000 Canadian soldiers with over 42,000 of them dying during the war. Even though those numbers encapsulate many individual tragedies, they are just numbers. Humans have a hard time feeling bad for numbers.
That's why a personal story and a personal connection can turn one of those numbers into a someone we can identify with. It can bring the ideas of sacrifice and honour to a tangible picture.
I wonder if that many people lack that personal connection to someone from that era and although they intellectually understand the danger and sacrifice involved in such an event, maybe they feel detached from it all.
Growing up and going to Remembrance Day services at the school, I recall some of the other students and how disinterested they were in it. Now, I can understand it, but back then I could not.
That's because my own dad was a veteran of World War II. I was invested in those ceremonies because it involved my dad's own friends, classmates and even his other siblings. This was important to him and so it was important for me.
What I want to share with you today is what I can remember from what my dad told me about his experiences and my hope is that it will be a record for my own benefit, but also hopefully for those of you who feel so far away from the war. I want to take one of those numbers and make it real. I realize that I have a unique position of being closely related to someone involved in the war. I got to spend so much time with him because he was retired by the time I was 5. We would go for long walks around Minnedosa in the summer time. Sometimes we would talk about the war and his experiences and it's not until now that I realize how rare and beautiful a gift that was.
My dad, Les Rae, was born in 1925, which means he turned 18 in 1943. Four years of the war had already passed when he was enlisted and join the war effort. My uncle Frank was already over in Italy as artilleryman and my aunt Nina was a radar operator for the Navy. Dad told me about how there was a sense with his friends and peers that they needed to go and join. He told me that a few of the others who were too young would lie about their age and join. It was a sense of duty that drove them. Perhaps even the adventure of it.
He lived in a farming community west of Virden, Manitoba called Two Creeks. He told me about how throughout his teen years, the pilots who were training in their fighter planes would sometimes fly overhead and swoop down and fly right over your head with the roar of the engine blaring in your ear. My dad really wanted to join the air force. When he was old enough, he tried to join, but he was rejected because he failed his eye test. Not to be discouraged, he went to another place where the air force was recruiting and hoped to pass. To his chagrin, he got the same eye doctor and was once again rejected.
Enlisting in the army instead, my dad was sent to Kingston, Ontario which was the major army base of the Canadian Forces and went through basic training. He told me about the gruelling day long hikes with 80 pounds of gear on his back. One of the drills he had to do was to crawl through the mud underneath barbed wire as they shot live ammo over them to simulate what it was like to crawl through the battlefield. They'd have to make their beds perfect so that if a commanding officer checked, they could bounce a quarter off the perfectly tight bedsheets. To contrast, I take up to an hour to get out of bed in the mornings.
After basic, my dad was assigned to be a signalman, which means he got to ride Harley Davidson motorcycles. Although it was not the same as flying a plane, it was still pretty exciting. The signalman’s job was to hand deliver messages when the officers did not want to use the radios to transmit secret plans. This also meant that the enemy would target the guys on motorcycles first to stop the messages from being delivered. My dad was sent to England for motorcycle training where they had learn how to expertly handle their machines. One of the tests was the riders would have to drive their bikes underneath a wire that was only a foot above the height of the bike and they’d have to duck.
Once done his training, my dad was sent to Germany to join the fight there. He was not there long when the German army surrendered. He was really fortunate given the dangerous role he had. Dad had told me about one signalman who he had met who had been involved at the battlefield. This other signalman was riding along when he stopped and looked around and realized that he was in the middle of a mine field. The enemy was firing at him and the only thing he could take cover behind was his bike. As he took cover, he prayed for the first time in his life. He realized he needed to move. Slowly pushing his bike along, he carefully navigated the field. Once out of the minefield and to safety, the reality of how close he was to death hit him as he looked upon his shrapnel-ridden bike.
Another one of the stories that stood out to me was about the night the Germans surrendered. He and some of the other signalmen took the local German kids for rides on their bikes. Many Germans hated the war and some of them were opposed to the monster at the top as much as anyone else and were relieved that it was over.
It's also worth noting that no one really knew of the holocaust while the war was going on. Much of that information came out after the war. Many people were unsure whether to be involved. Especially the United States. The States were cautious and stayed out of it. The presidential election taking place at the time had both candidates promising to not get involved because it was not the job of the United States of America to police the world. Funny how the times change.
Despite the German surrender, the war was not over. My dad was sent down to the southern United States to do some specialized jungle training so that they could send him to fight in Japan. While he training, the Americans dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan which lead to the surrender of the Japanese.
My dad was sent home. In the end, he never participated in any actual fighting. He’d tell me that some of the men who had seen fighting avoided talking about the war and what they saw because it was such a scary memory for them. War for many was not the exciting, flashy action movies and comic book stories that you see. War meant people were putting their lives, their minds and their souls on the line for their country.
I realize that this story is not a flashy story of heroism and sacrifice. One of the things I take away from my dad's story is that there were others like him who didn't have such a happy ending. They shared his hope for adventure and the deep sense of duty for his community. I can see how it was resonate with me to be involved in a such a vital way. This was a way you could have a strong sense of purpose. These men and women would serve selflessly because it was right to help your fellow countrymen.
Another thing that has struck me over the years is the idea that some veterans would not share their experiences because of the emotional trauma of what they saw. It's another kind of wound that would follow them for the rest of the their lives. I never met my uncle Frank. My family always spoke very highly of him. How he was funny, smart and handsome. He died sometime after the war when he was hit by a train as he was walking in Virden. What's interesting is that my family claims that it was an accident. That he didn't hear the train coming because of the wind. It sounds like a comforting lie. I always wondered how the war impacted him. They said he changed after the war. He was one of those that would not speak of his experience. I suppose we'll never know for sure what happened.
It's one of the reasons that I am grateful that my dad didn't experience the horrible realities of war like others faced. Many didn't get that benefit. They either died or came back never the same. Perhaps even living with those memories and unable to purge the horrors from the cages of their mind.
I hope my dad's story is a reminder that the people who were involved in this war were like the rest of us. That war changes people. That war destroys people. That we must not take war lightly so as not to needlessly endanger those brave enough to defend us. That we push for peace. That we should live well so that the soldiers did not sacrifice themselves in vain.
I tell you this story in hopes that we do not forget and do not repeat.
"Kudos, my hero
Leaving all the best
You know my hero
The one that's on
There goes my hero
Watch him as he goes
There goes my hero
- "My Hero" from the Foo Fighters album "The Colour and the Shape"