Veterans’ stories mix tragedy, comedy and history
Going around the table in the Royal Canadian Legion on Dawes Road, five veterans of the Second World War and UN missions to the Middle East agree – children are the best talkers.
“They can come up with some of the damndest questions you ever heard,” says Myer Goobie, 92, noting that five- to seven-year-olds are the absolute nosiest, and his favourite.
Now 92, Goobie began his military career as a 16-year-old cadet in Stone Church, Ontario.
By the time he retired, he had enlisted in two infantry regiments, the air force and, from 1942 to 1944, fought in Italy and France with the 1st Special Service Force, a joint US-Canadian commando unit best known as “The Devil’s Brigade.”
But during one Legion Week, when students got to speak to the ex-commando, the burning question they wanted answered was, “Did you meet any girls?”
Organizer Helen Pearce says teachers at Secord Elementary, George Webster Elementary and other nearby schools brought more than 200 students to Branch 11 during Legion Week.
It’s good to see youth talking with veterans, said Doug Smith, who served as engine technician on Canadian Forces planes during the 1956 to 1967 United Nations peace mission to the Gaza Strip and Sinai peninsula.
For many years, said Smith and others, anti-war feelings stirred by the US campaign in Vietnam bled into the way Second World War and other veterans were received in Canada.
Children should hear first-hand what generations before did at their age, said Goobie.
“When you’re talking about things that happened during the war – you have to let them know how it was, and how it would affect them,” he said.
One of the first things students often ask is, how old were you when you joined the army?
For Joe Gagne, the answer is not too far off the age of the students asking the question. He was 19 the day he got the letter calling him up to the recruiting office in Sudbury: July 7, 1943.
“All my buddies from my hometown were joining ‘active,’” said Cartier. “If you’re going to go somewhere, you’re going to go first class, so I joined active.”
‘First class’ meant a train to Union Station, medical exams, a buzz cut, vaccines and a steel bunk in the horse palace at the Canadian National Exhibition.
After basic infantry training in Brantford, Gagne was told his years as a machinist’s apprentice at CP Rail made him a better fit with the engineers. He was transferred that night.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said, then nodded to Goobie. “The chances of surviving in infantry – you ask this guy.”
By 1943, Gagne said he was also lucky to have joined active duty, instead of reserves.
“Don’t forget, at the end of the war, when MacKenzie King passed conscription they went around and took cooks, clerks, all kinds of people like this and sent them over.”
“Some of them had never fired a rifle, you know what I mean?
Doug Smith was just six years old in 1939, and he served in a very different campaign than Gagne or Goobie, maintaining the Otters and Dakotas flying UN missions out of el-Arish, an Egyptian city near the Israeli border.
He had logged 600 hours crewing on planes in Cold Lake, Alberta, where fighter pilots shot a pair of target banners flying 300 feet below a pair of B-25 Mitchell bombers.
It was a far cry from el-Arish, where the planes Smith worked on carried UN troops from as far away as Yugoslavia and Colombia.
For Pieter Zuber, a courier during the same UN mission, driving roads between places like Tel Aviv, Sharm El Sheikh, Cairo and Haifa was, at 19, his first time outside Canada.
“We wrecked a Jeep once,” he said. “It was like a snow bank, only it was a sand bank.
“It didn’t give much,” he said, laughing.
For Gagne, too, military service meant traveling far outside the experiences he’d known growing up in Cartier, Ontario.
By the spring of 1944, he was on a troop ship bound for Scotland on a northern route that took them past Greenland icebergs.
The ship changed course every seven minutes, he said, so that German submarines couldn’t pick it up on radar.
Students sometimes ask Gagne how he slept during the war. On the ship, it was in a bunk too close to the engines – it left him with damaged hearing.
Later, when his unit was working on its biggest project, rebuilding roads into the bombed-out French city of Caen, Gagne often slept in a ditch by his truck.
One night, he says he remembers throwing the ramps down to get off and seeing a cement block with a horse and rider. It was a gilded sculpture of Joan of Arc, untouched by bombs and artillery.
“There was just enough light,” he said. “It was that close that you could hear the small arms fire – bap, bap, bap – and you got out of there.”
“From where our unit was to Caen, the artillery on both sides damn near lit up the road.”
Like the other veterans of the Second World War, Jean Eade served in foreign countries.
But as a British Army nurse based in Liverpool, the war also came to her home.
“Liverpool was flattened,” she said.
For nine straight nights in 1940, waves of German planes flew over the city at 7:30 p.m., dropping incendiary bombs and then high-explosive bombs into the fires.
When they left at 6:30 the next morning, Eade went to work.
“You could time them,” she said. “You did your work by the planes.”
For the nurses in Liverpool, work meant getting a bus and driver, then going house to house in destroyed neighbourhoods to pick up the wounded and the dead.
Survivors went onto a gurney with a toe tag, and were wheeled into a hospital hallway.
“‘Triage?’ You never heard of ‘triage,’” she said. “You did what you could for them to live. And if you couldn’t do anything, you shoved them over on their side and let them die.
“Not nice, but true. If they were shot up badly, they were going to die anyway. We just shoved them over out of the way so you could get the next one in.”
Hanging above the table at Branch 11 is a stuffed toy bull.
The ‘B.S.’ table is a tradition in legions – some have real bull horns hanging overhead.
Even in the war stories of veterans like Eade and Gagne, there are moments of humour – the price of Canadian Club in Cairo, soldiers going to Paris on leave to sell stolen tires, playing pick-up hockey on the deck of troop ship with Turk Broda, goalie of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But there are also hard lessons. Preparing the bull dozers, cranes and other equipment that would roll out for D-Day Gagne said neither he nor the soldiers around him knew what was coming.
“You really didn’t think of that,” he said. “You had no choice.”
“You were in the army and you went where they sent you.”
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