SUDBURY, ONTARIO – Canadians adorn their lapels with small plastic poppies to honour the memories of those wounded or killed in action. On Nov. 11, we assemble in arenas and at cenotaphs to lay wreaths, pay our respects and shed tears. But what is the experience of war? What does it mean to those who have known it first-hand? Which memories continue to haunt the hearts and minds of those who served on the frontlines?
In this series, A requiem in four parts, The Sudbury Star sits down with veterans to discuss with them their experiences. We spoke with men who fought in Europe during the Second World War, in Korea and in Afghanistan, as well as a peacekeeper who served in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.
The following are excerpts from those conversations, which detail the memories and lessons learned — from those who lived to share their stories.
Veteran recalls Nazi-occupied Europe
Tom Baker, 91, was just 19 when he was sent to England in 1941. A member of the Highland Light Infantry and then the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, he spent three years in Britain before moving on to France, Belgium and Holland.
“In England, we had more bombing raids because we were on the southern coast — the bombers would come over low, drop a few bombs and then zip out again, or shoot up the place with machine guns,” Baker recalls. The Germans favoured V-1 flying bombs, which carried one tonne of explosives and could obliterate a city block.
In France, he recalls stumbling upon a cemetery where one third of his platoon was buried — they were soldiers who were killed during the D-Day invasion.
Although time has scabbed the wounds of war, Baker still remembers the rudimentary living conditions his unit endured. They spent about a month sleeping in dug-out trenches, before they received tents. He says only a lucky few had tarps with which to cover their dug-outs — most men were exposed to wind, rain and cold.
Baker says by far the worst part was “being out in the cold” while on patrol in Holland in 1944-45. The only time their hands were warm was when they were holding a hot mug. He blames their poorly designed woollen pea coats, which were not nearly as warm as parkas and basic knitted gloves.
He had many close calls, including the time a sea mine was swept into shore and landed not 20 feet away.
“It blew up. Glass was tinkling down, so I dove under a truck. My buddy was outside admiring the view in the moonlight and it blew him about 20 feet away. He landed in the sand, so he wasn’t hurt badly,” he says, laughing as he remembers the chaotic scene.
“About all you can say is that when the war ended, you said ‘wow, I’m still here.’ ”
Baker, who was stationed in Holland from February to August 1945, participated in that country’s liberation. He returned in 2005 for a commemoration ceremony and says the veterans were “treated like kings.”
At 91, overt traces of anger and resentment have dissipated. Baker seems like a thoughtful man and his home’s living spaces overflow with memorabilia, including dozens of war-time photos and medals, as well as a few berets. I am certain it is a source of endless fascination and discovery for his nine grandkids. His book collection is equally impressive and it appears he has become a bit of a historian. But he says integrating back into civilian life was challenging.
“Well, it’s a little bit tough at first, you don’t feel anything,” he explains. “I had a bottle of whiskey my mother was not happy about. But I was inquiring about jobs, or going back to school.”
Eventually, Baker graduated from the University of Toronto as an engineer; he found work at Inco and moved to Sudbury. He also studied philosophy and piano at Laurentian University.
A young man’s dream leads to life-long wounds for a Korean vet
Vern Roy is a spirited storyteller and has bright, smiling eyes, which remind me a little of an imp.
A young man’s arrogance and appetite for adventure led him to enlist at 13. He wanted to fight in the Second World War.
Roy only lasted 45 days in Europe, but in 1950, still thirsting for travel, he joined the Canadian forces again, to contribute to our efforts in Korea. He says he wanted to see Asia.
Things did not go well.
In 1951, Roy was on patrol when he was shot through the hand and chest, while another bullet grazed his neck.
“I can see the bullet that went in my hand and I can feel the blood from the one that scraped my neck,” he says. “I didn’t feel the one in my chest because when I got hit, I spun like a top. … If you’ve ever been stung like a bee, that’s what it feels like. You feel the pain and then the numbness.”
He walked back to headquarters.
“I was getting weaker and weaker,” he says. “I went to the first-aid station and they asked me if I’d been hit anywhere besides my hand and neck. I said no, so he opened my tunic. A big chunk of blood fell out. No wonder I was getting weaker.”
He was rushed to hospital by helicopter, but before leaving the base, he swiped three bottles of Canadian Club whiskey for the journey.
Roy had 13 operations on his left hand. The bullets fractured one of his spinal disks, so he was wrapped in a body cast and spent 10 months at Toronto’s Sunnybrooke
hospital. He was discharged from the military in 1952.
Despite injuries, Roy maintains the hardest part of war was losing his comrades. He learned to forget names — that way, he says it was easier to forget the death of a friend.
“I was five or 10 yards away from a guy, and a mortar hit him right in the head and blew his head right off,” he recalls. It is his worst memory.
After decades of reflection, Roy, 87, has no lingering affection for war. He says it smells like dead people and despite his medals, he maintains that “war is stupid — very stupid.”
“In war, (people) fight each other so rich men can get richer,” he says. “Politicians always cause war. Realizing that was very disappointing.
“Ask anybody who has been under fire and they’ll say the same thing — that war is stupid,” he adds. “Although I have 18 medals, they don’t bring back what I lost.”
He continues to have trouble with his left hand, as well as “bad dreams,” which he treats with medication. The dreams cause sleeplessness, and sometimes make it difficult to breathe or sit still.
Like Baker, Roy worked at Inco, as a machinist and millwright, before retiring with 42 years of service.
On the frontlines of the Afghan war
On good days, Cameron Kidder and his unit joked around, played poker and fell, but were not hurt. On bad days, he saw friends get maimed or killed. In total, Kidder lost 19 people — buddies, colleagues and acquaintances to varying degrees — during his seven-month tour of duty in Afghanistan (September 2008 to April 2009). He also witnessed Gaetan Roberge’s repatriation ceremony in December 2008. (Roberge was a warrant officer posted with 2nd Battalion, The Irish Regiment of Canada, which is based in Sudbury).
Kidder spent his 21st birthday in the country and has seen tremendous loss of life for such a young person.
A member of Operation ATHENA, he was involved in sweeping Afghan villages for bomb-making equipment. The operation, which began in July 2003 and concluded in December 2011, was Canada’s contribution to the International Security Assistance Force. During phase two of ATHENA, it moved into Kandahar province to become Canada’s longest-running combat mission.
A little more than a year after he returned from Afghanistan, he lost a dear friend, Andrew Miller, a medic from Sudbury, who was killed in action on June 26, 2010. It hit him hard.
“I got a call at about 2 p.m.; it was Wendy (Andrew’s mother) and she said, ‘I just called to tell you your friend Andrew is dead,’ ” Kidder tells me. “I went over to the house and I saw a padre there, other military members, Wendy and Ray (Andrew’s father), and they were all crying. That’s when it hit me.”
Const. Kidder, 25, celebrates four years with Greater Sudbury Police in December. The Brampton native credits Miller with encouraging him to look north.
Dec. 3, 2008 is seared into his mind.
“There were two attacks. In the first one, one of my buddies got hit with shrapnel from his legs up to his neck from a road-side bomb. Another guy lost both his legs,” he says. “We were in one of the camps and we heard the radio chatter. We could see the Blackhawk helicopters (hovering) overhead. It happened five or 10 kilometres away. A couple of hours later, we heard a Canadian vehicle had hit a road-side bomb and three guys were dead.”
The bomb had left a crater large enough to swallow an ambulance.
“I remember seeing the vehicle; there were parts everywhere,” he says. “That’s when it hit home what was happening and how real it was.”
War took a toll on Kidder’s frame of mind.
“If you’re there long enough, you don’t care if you die; you just accept it as a finality. You actually stop caring and you stop being scared,“ he explains.
Despite losing so many colleagues, Kidder still believes in the validity of Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan. He survived his tour and laughs easily now, but admits it took about a year to feel like himself again.
“It was Canada Day and the fireworks were going off — fireworks aren’t the same anymore,” he says. “It used to be ‘ooohs and aaahs,’ but now I think they sound like mortar and machine gun fire and rockets. I don’t really like fireworks anymore. They’ve lost the allure.”
I can see on Kidder’s face when he recalls a painful memory; he gets stoic, almost like a statue; his back stiffens and he looks down.
His friends pointed out he had changed and eventually, he sought counselling from a social worker on base.
Kidder says it made a difference.
“I know buddies who came home and hit the bottle, or hit their girlfriend, because you can’t really express (what you’re feeling),” he explains. “The experiences over there are like calcium build-up in a pipe, so you gotta knock it clear and get back to yourself. They’ll harden you and change you a little bit, and if you don’t have that outlet to vent, you just build up and back up until you explode.”
A medic remembers the genocide in Rwanda
There is a renowned photograph by James Nachtwey, of a Hutu survivor of the Rwandan genocide. He has machete scars running across his head in concentric lines. The image is ghastly, stunning and unforgettable.
William Pickett, who served as a medic nearly 20 years ago in northern Rwanda, knows the photo. He recalls seeing something similar.
“I saw two children that had identical wounds,” he says. “One had machete wounds from the back of his head to the front; his sister’s was from the mid-point and across her eye. They lived.”
The rest of their family did not.
“They were found on top of their parents and older brother, in a well,” Pickett, who now lives in North Bay, recalls.
The siblings were just two of the 27,000 patients his field hospital treated in the months following the 1994 genocide.
He does not usually discuss his service in Rwanda, as a member of Operation Lance, which was part of the peacekeeping force known as UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda). But I have lived there and he knows I have an inkling of understanding.
The genocide that unhinged Rwanda in 1994 lasted only 100 days, but remains “the bloodiest episode recorded in modern African history,” argues Scott Peterson, the Africa correspondent for the UK-based Daily Telegraph during the 1990s. He was one of the first journalists to enter Rwanda following the onset of the genocide, by sneaking into the country aboard an airplane commissioned by the World Food Program.
As many as one million people were slaughtered, “murdered eyeball to eyeball by friends and neighbours,” most by rudimentary farming tools and machetes.
“No system of genocide ever devised has been more efficient: The daily kill rate was five times that of the Nazi death camps,” Peterson writes in his 2000 memoir, Me Against My Brother: At war in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda.
Pickett recalls one particularly horrific incident, during which he was working in the hospital and treating an elderly man.
“I was checking him out and I moved the blanket, and I saw that he had a cut on his face — a very deep, straight, precise laceration. It went from his ear to his chin,” he recalls. “I started putting gauze on it and put his hand to hold it in place, but when I lifted his arm, his hand fell off.”
He had raised his hand in self-defence.
Pickett’s memories haunt him in certain sights and smells, most notably the decay of the mass graves. He describes them as putrid, but sweet and metallic. He says the stench was overpowering and 19 years later, it still haunts him.
“Say you’re walking through the bush and you (come across) a dead animal, you go right back to it,” Pickett explains. “You go to the dump, and you’re not at the dump anymore. It’s a very solid trigger for flashbacks.”
Mass graves were everywhere. He says there were bodies in “every ditch you’d walk by, in every pit.”
“It was surreal; to do the job, you’ve got to stop feeling,” he says. “When you walk up (to a grave), you need to turn off your mind.”
Pickett, a father, husband and proud solider who also served in Bosnia in 1998-99, says his experiences in Rwanda made him question life. He is not proud of his work and remains ambivalent about his tour; in some ways, Pickett believes it was ineffectual, as atrocities continued after the Op Lance guys pulled out of the country.
“There were no real winners,” he says. “It was pure evil.”
Originally published in The Sudbury Star on Nov. 9, 2013, as part of its Remembrance Day coverage