The Wages of War

I was born the year the war started. My mother told me once that she’d just come out of the hospital with me when the parade for the King and Queen was taking place in Winnipeg. She saved the newspaper from that day. She showed it to me. She said she’d stood at the side of the road, holding me, watching the parade. She was seventeen.

My life has been inextricably woven through with WW2. That’s because an airbase for training pilots was built two miles west of Gimli. That meant that my earliest childhood memories are of young men in air force uniforms.

My parents were very young when they got married. A year after they married, they had a house. Other young people didn’t have houses. It meant that their house became a gathering point, a place to visit and my parents had an open door. Young men in uniform sat in our kitchen drinking coffee, sat in our living room playing cards, lay about our front porch in summer. They held me, carried me, bounced me on their knees. One of them, when I had colic, took off his jacket and shirt and let me sleep on his warm stomach.

Young men like this training for war, preparing to place their lives at risk for all of us.

All the talk was about war. About what was happening in Europe. Sometimes, about the young men who had been killed. I was still very small when I understood that being dead meant never coming back. As I grew older, I sometimes cried when I heard that one of the young men who had carried me around on  his shoulders, chased me around the yard, tickled me, told me stories, wasn’t coming back.

My father couldn’t join the armed forces. He had bleeding ulcers and nothing the doctor did would cure them. It would be many decades later, after antibiotics were discovered and a lot of research was done that there would be treatment. He lived on milk, cream of wheat and ice cream.

Two of his brothers joined up. One in the airforce. One in the navy. Close friends were in the forces. We listened intently to the news, particularly to the theatres of war where our friends were fighting. One of those friends, Dave MacIntosh, see, I remember his name after all these decades, disappeared. We didn’t know if he was dead or a prisoner.

I hated it when my friends were transferred away. Gone and maybe never coming back. It was like a great beast was eating them up. Sometimes, I cried.

I don’t remember the end of the war, the announcement that it was finally over. What I do remember is listening to the radio in the living room, to long lists of the names of POWs. At last, we heard Dave MacIntosh’s name. He’d been a prisoner. He was still alive.

When the war was over, the airport continued to operate. Pilots trained on Harvard trainers, yellow planes that were noisy as they flew overhead. We grew used to them. Air force people lived in the PMQs, some lived on the economy, that is, they rented in town.  When we went into grade nine, air force kids were bused to town to go to school. Maybe the biggest impact of the air base were the romances between the airmen and the local girls and the romances among the high school students. The air force kids were exotic. They’d been many places, moved from city to city, town to town, province to province. Some had even been overseas. None of us had been anywhere. They brought us messages from the bigger world.

We discovered that though the airbase had an impressive fence and a guard at the highway entrance, if we walked through the PMQs, we could go right onto the base and make use of the splendid gymnasium. We also went to Air Force Days. There, we got to see the planes up close, to watch weapons being fired, to look at displays, to hear military music, to see, for the first time, men jumping out of planes on parachutes. Just like in the black and white news clips from the war.

We learned about death for the Harvard trainers crashed. One crashed right in town. My cousin Dilla took pictures of it for the local paper. Another went down as we watched, perpendicular, straight into the graveyard. The death in Europe had been far away but here it was immediate, happening sometimes right before our eyes.

It never occurred to me that there was anything different about Gimli having the airbase. I took it for granted. I had no idea that I was living in a world that was larger than that in most small Manitoba towns. I took it for granted that people from many different parts of Canada then, later, from Europe, were neighbours, friends and, sometimes, turned into relatives by marriage.

The Harvard trainers were replaced with T33s, and we learned when there were crashes, to share the distress of our classmates because, often, their father’s were jet pilot trainers. The T33s were known locally as flying coffins.

When we were in high school, there’d been problems in some of the classes we were taking. A friend mentioned to me that we could take classes along with the air force men who were upgrading so they could get promotions. We signed up, our parents paid up, and we got some of the best teaching we’d ever had. Here was a different world, a world where studying and learning were connected directly to a useful outcome. There were no hijinks, no fooling around. Education was a serious business. That was a wage that was priceless.

The wages of war? Some people, those in armaments production, or providing supplies of various kinds, made great wages, made fortunes. We were just a small town with seasonal commercial fishing, with summer cottagers but we earned something, more sophistication than we otherwise would have had, knowledge of far flung places. Sometimes even money. My grandmother rented out a house to an air force couple. In the summers when I set pins at the bowling alley, a lot of the customers were young single air force guys with nothing to do on a summer’s evening. I got paid by the game and took care of two alleys. Those were precious dollars that I stuffed in my pocket at the end of the night.

I remember my air force friends from high school fondly. They added to my life in immeasurable ways, provided wages that could not and cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. I remember the young men in uniform preparing for war who in their spare time, came to visit. I remember having conversations with young airmen who were lonely for home and family. They enriched my life, made my world bigger, gave it a depth that it would not have otherwise had.

On Remembrance Day, I think of them, all those people who passed through, the few who returned to stay, the beloved air force uncle from Boston who joined the Canadian air force at eighteen because the USA wasn’t in the war yet.  He came with his Boston accent, his brush cut, his smile and married my aunt. He took her travelling across the world, from one post to the other, but when he retired, they came back to Gimli and it was like they’d never been away.

Let Us Remember

My mother’s father came to Canada from Ireland. In Winnipeg, he joined the militia. When war broke out, he volunteered. In 1915, he went into the trenches as a machine gunner and sniper. He survived some of WWI’s major battles but was gassed.

After medical leave for being gassed, he was sent back into the trenches. During a battle, shrapnel ripped through his right hand.  He was bandaged but infection set in so he was invalided out to England. There were no antibiotics in those days. Infection wards crammed with soldiers were common. At the end of the war, he was still sick with infection. He was shipped to Montreal and stayed in a hospital there until the infection was cured.

He had risked everything for King and country. For the rest of his life he suffered from the damage done to his lungs. Back in Winnipeg, he spent a lifetime working for the Great Northern Railway. He couldn’t afford a car and rode his bicycle to work summer and winter. In the cold weather, he sometimes could not breathe and my grandmother told me, he crawled through the snow.

I asked him once, when I was a child, had he killed anyone in the war. “Thousands,” he replied and would say no more. Machine gunners laid down enfilade and slaughtered German troops as they struggled through the mud of No Man’s Land. When the Canadians attacked, the Germans did the same.

He and his companions seldom talked about the war. It was too disturbing. Once, he told me about a young replacement from Saskatchewan. A farm boy. Nervous, curious. He kept putting his head above the trench to see what was happening. He was told not to but did it anyway. A sniper shot him. He arrived in the morning and was dead by evening.

My grandfather had no use for stupid comments from civilians. It wasn’t returned soldiers that made ignorant statements about the Germans. It was the civilians who had risked little or nothing, in many cases, civilians who had grown prosperous on the war. He had no patience for the stupidity of romanticizing the war. There was nothing romantic about trenches deep in water, trenches where the rats were so thick, feeding on the dead, that the soldiers used to entertain themselves by trying to bayonet them. One Christmas, the senior officers dined off fine china and crystal, had a real Christmas meal, while the soldiers ate tinned meat and strawberry jam. They were down to nine bullets per man. He remembered these details with bitterness.

He’d met my grandmother when he was on leave in Ireland. He’d taken a fancy to her and wrote, asking her to come to Canada and marry him. She wrote back and said that her mother was dying of cancer and she was looking after her. However, once her mother died, she’d come to marry him.

She came, they got married, they bought a house. His wages got cut, then cut again, then cut again. It was brutal. The boss would show up and say, “We’re cutting your wages and if you don’t like it, get down the track. There are a hundred men who want your job.”

Finally, he couldn’t pay the mortgage. The bank foreclosed. When the foreclosure notice came, it was delivered by one of the soldiers he’d served with in France.

 

“How can you do this?” he asked. “We fought together. We were comrades in arms.”

His former comrade said, “Bill, what can I do. I have a wife and kids. If I don’t deliver this notice, I’ll be fired.”

If my grandfather had retreated during battle, one of the officers coming behind would have shot him. He would have been called a coward. He would have been condemned by politicians and civilians who risked nothing. Thousands upon thousands of men died in the trenches where he fought. Death came from every direction. Men were killed by the body parts of their friends who were blown up by exploding shells.

The politicians and the senior army officers had no mercy, not just for the Germans, but for their own soldiers. No mercy. It didn’t matter how many men died in an attack, a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand. It didn’t matter that they drowned in the mud and water. That they died coughing their lungs out after breathing mustard gas. They were expendable.

It didn’t matter that they’d risked everything, their limbs, their lives, their sanity. When they got back to Canada, they didn’t matter. They were no longer an asset. They were a liability. They needed things like medical attention, jobs, things that cost the taxpayers money, and that could cost the politicians votes.

I am proud of my grandfather. He was brave. I am proud of the other members of my family that served in the war. But Stephan G Stephansson was right. It was a slaughter house. Only someone incredibly stupid could think it wasn’t. He was also right about the war memorial he opposed. He said collect the money, give it to the soldiers who are returning. Help them deal with their personal cost in the war, their ruined bodies, their ruined minds. Statues are about glory. My grandfather didn’t think there was any glory in the mass slaughter in which he participated.

What he would have appreciated was the bank saying, he’s a returned veteran. He risked everything. He nearly lost his life. He is handicapped by the injuries he received. We’ll do whatever is necessary to see that he gets to keep his house. Or, the government that was prepared to send its young men to their deaths, to step forward and help pay the mortgage. Or, the community, in an act of appreciation for the courage and sacrifice of its soldiers, to raise money and donate it to see that returned soldiers received as much as they had given.

Statues, by their very existence, imply that there is glory in war. There is no glory. There is no glory in having your body torn apart by explosions. Your limbs blown off. There is no glory in being shot and lying in the mud, dying. There’s no glory in being burned to death by a flame thrower or in a tank. There’s no glory in drowning in the mud. Whisper into a young man’s ear, a young man drowning in the mud, this is glorious. I dare you.

After WWI ended, there was a conflict in the Icelandic North American community. Some people wanted to raise money to build a memorial to the soldiers from the Iceland NA community. They were opposed by the poet, Stephan G Stephansson. All through the war he had written poems opposed to the war. The argument had grown so bitter that a member of the Icelandic Manitoba community had wanted him charged with treason. Now, that conflict was resurrected with the argument over the building of a monument.  Those proposing the monument wanted to honour the soldiers from their ethnic community. Stephansson had a different vision.

In Wakeful Nights, Viðar Hreinsson´s biography of Stephan G. Stephansson, he tells us that Stephan, after the war was over, thought “What was important…was the welfare of the living – the returned soldiers and their famlies. The soldiers had been promised all kinds of benefits before they went to war and the Icelandic communithy should demand that these promises be kept….those who had been seduced into the army with nationalistic fanfare should have the right to a job and other benefits.“

It was an unfortunate conflict between people who had views about the role of the Icelandic community in North America. What made it even more difficult is that Iceland never had an army, never had a role to play in warfare. Armed conflict in their history went back to the vikings and that was in ancient times. There was no history and tradition to guide anyone.

Both the ideas put forward were good, even necessary. Those who supported the idea of the memorial should have continued raising money and, when they had raised all they could, created a memorial for which they could pay. Those who felt that money collected should go to help soldiers returning from the war should have done that. The idea that there could only be one right way to acknowledge and honour our returning soldiers was wrong. Both the memorial sculpture and the immediate help for servicement who needed it would have been a powerful expression of our respect for those who died and those who returned.

That monuments do  help to preserve the memory of battles fought in past times is without doubt. However, history has shown that Stephan‘s concerns were valid. Today, 94 years and a number of wars later, the newspapers regularly feature stories about veterans being denied benefits. Every possible reason (excuse) is found to deny benefits. It is true in the United States. It is true in Canada. The CBC reports on Oct, 23, 2012, “Injured ex-soldiers often unfairly denied benefits, AG finds”.  Or The Huffingtson Post, 9 Oct 2012, “Former members of the Canadian military who are struggling with mental health problems say they’re being denied benefits”. Or Sympatico CA.news, “Veterans denied funeral expenses by Canadian government program”.

The maimed, the dead need to be remembered. We need to honour those who have sacrificed their health and their lives for us. However, when we build our statues, let them not be used to absolve us of our responsibility to our soldiers. My grandfather, Irish as he was, would have agreed with Stephan. He’d rather have had help with his mortgage, help with finding a decent job, help with improving his education and qualifications, help with making up for the five years lost from his life than a statue.

Let us remember. Let us wear poppies in memory. Let us lay wreaths at our monuments. Let us tend and care for those monuments and teach each generation about the sacrifices of those who fought. But, never let us forget that our first duty is to those still living who have risked everything for us.