When thinking of veterans today, many think of old men, stooped and forgetful. But to us at Vintage Wings, they will always be young men and even boys - handsome, dashing and brave. The Halifax bomber crew of P/O J. Major of 433 Squadron RCAF was typical of this youthful camaraderie. They are shown here following their return from an attack on Berlin on the night of March 24, 1944. The crew L to R: Sgt A. Sumner F/E (RAF), Sgt D.D. Skingle M/UG (RCAF), P/O J. Major Pilot (RCAF), Sgt J. Young B/A (RCAF), F/Sgt B. Mose WAG (RAF), Sgt J. Greening R/G (RCAF) kneeling, F/O R. Bower NAV (RCAF). Photo courtesy of www.bombercrew.com
Nigel Harris grew up in England immediately after the Second World War. Steeped as he was in the history of that immense conflict and Britain's role in it, Harris has just recently come to fully understand the true nature of those times and those men and women. After a life time of business successes in the high-tech sector, he has spent some of the past two years in the company of six Canadian veterans of the Second World War. On Remembrance Day, his words show us one simple fact - time is running out. Let's let Nigel speak:
"As we flew over Holland, we were shot down by the Jerries. I spent the next two years as their guest, latterly as a POW in Poland."
"But how did you get from Holland?" I enquired, leaning forward.
"They took us by train, loaded us up into boxcars. It was kind of nice to see Europe."
"But those boxcars didn't have windows did they?
No, but they had ventilation slits which allowed us to look outside. After five days in those boxcars we were glad of those slits. Each boxcar took 40 men or 8 horses, and a hole in the middle of the floor served as our latrine."
I was leaning so far forward, I was almost in his face. But this wasn't how it was supposed to be, I thought to myself. I volunteered my time to be of some comfort to elderly veterans of the war who were living out their last days at the Veterans Home in Ottawa. Little did I realize how much I would be the beneficiary of this experience as much, if not more so, than these men themselves.
I had never done any real volunteering before. Oh, I had served as President of our tennis club, collected monies for various causes, but had never actually given of myself. However, the more I reflected on how good my situation was, I more and more about how I should start helping others.
I wasn't cut out for the more traditional forms of volunteerism such as fund raising, entertaining, driving, but the idea of visiting older gentlemen who had put their lives on the line so I could make decisions for myself, seemed fine.
The volunteer office told me that I would have to get references, two TB tests, and an up to date police report, and once accepted, undergo a "Volunteer training course."
The police reports and the medical clearances were no problem and I lucked out with the references so a couple of months later found myself sitting in the training course.
Having built and run companies, I thought the course would be a no-brainer, but found myself getting a real primer on what it means to be responsible for the health and well-being of veterans of the Second World War. "They are not patients," the head nurse told us. "They are our guests, and our job is to make things as pleasant as we can for these men."
After "graduating" I was given six veterans to start visiting; two Navy, two Air Force and two Army, all between the ages of 86 and 90.
In addition to building relationships with two veterans of the RCAF, Harris was assigned two veterans of the Canadian Army. Photo: DND
And two veterans of the Royal Canadian Navy. Here, survivors of the sinking of a Royal Canadian Navy warship are rescued. Photo DND
I was awkward at first, under the mistaken impression that conversation had to be constant and that silence indicated boredom. It took a number of visits with each of them to realize that these fine men take longer to process thoughts and events, and patience is imperative. As my visits increased I was welcomed by some, still unrecognized by others. Their long and medium term memories were stellar, "but ask them what they did last week" said one cynical resident.
In most images of veterans of the Second World War, mustaches, tired eyes, and hard faces lead us to believe that these were older men, but every once in a while we run across photos that clearly tell us these men were boys. Photo DND
I became engaged by listening to the same stories week after week of where my "boys" had grown up, what they had experienced in the war years and how they had adjusted when they returned to Main Street. I learned about life as a POW, being torpedoed by U-Boats and chased by Messerschmitts.
Boys indeed. Photo DND
Of course, they were not all boys. Photo DND
I became so involved with these six that they became my genuine friends and I looked forward to being with them and wheeling them around the building or to the pond to see the ducks, the simple pleasures that meant so much to them.
And then, one day, I was shocked into reality when I arrived at the Home and after donning my volunteer badge, went upstairs to see the first of my six. As I approached his room I noticed it was shut and a hand-written sign on the door asked anyone to "see nurse's station before entering."
He must be out for an outing I thought, and approached the duty nurse. "I'm here to see Bill" I said. She looked at me and said in an almost whispered voice "I'm sorry, he has gone upstairs."
"Upstairs? We are on the top floor already," I said idiotically.
And then the penny dropped. I had lost one of my pals.
"When, where, why?" I asked.
"He had breakfast, went to his room and just passed on. Would you like to see him?"
This was a part of my volunteerism that I hadn't prepared for, but she was offering me closure.
We walked to his room and there was my friend at peace at last. "Goodbye" I said, and "thank you for sharing your life's experiences with me."
I went to a quiet place, and shed sincere tears for a man whose life had touched so many and who had blessed me with his experiences. I went to his memorial service and was welcomed and thanked by his family, for having spent time with him in his final chapter.
As I left, I thanked whoever was responsible for leading me into the world of these veterans and asked the volunteer office for some more names who might appreciate my time.
I shall attend the War Memorial again on Remembrance Day , but with a whole new sense of understanding and pride for these wonderful men and women.
Nigel Harris, Ottawa
As well as the thoughts of Nigel Harris, we have received some poetry by other Vintage News subscribers.
In addition to Olson's poetry, Vintage News reader John Chalmers send us a very poignant poem by Andy Michaelson about a veteran of the Raid on Dieppe.
He is a pile of clean clothes untouched by an iron
talking to himself,
wrinkled face, white hair,
tucked into a corner of the bar
He never stays past three in the afternoon
sips a single beer
takes no space at all
waits to join the rest
knows there were five
knows he is the last
Each August 19th
he arrives in a shiny blue blazer
a white shirt, starched
a tie with regimental markings
sits straight, front and centre
at a table with four empty chairs
he lays out the memories
snaps an order for five beer
He drinks each, by name
one by one
chases away any intruder
with a hard command
Remembering the run up to the beach
hearing the Sergeant
over landing craft engines
over shell fire
“Don’t be afraid, boys
sing something to chase the fear”
remembering five voices,
“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you”
seeing the ramp drop,
knowing instantly they were four,
tasting bitter surrender
marching, 300 kilometers,
surviving three years in the camp,
being freed as three,
in time just two,
now him alone
-- Andy Michaelson