The days of June 20 and 21, 1945 will forever be etched in my memory.
It was then, after serving five years in the army that I came back from overseas. Two of those years were spent serving in foreign countries and in combat. Combat was a terrifying adventure. It’s true, nobody wants to die, especially when you’re in your 20s.
However, we vowed to go fight for King and country and that’s a vow we were determined to keep. Now, the war was over. We had defeated the enemy. Our ship, the Isle de France, was crowded with Canadian service people and the word echoing through everyone’s mind was HOME!
The prow of the Isle de France headed west to the land we loved – Canada. We wished we could see the captain, for we had important instructions for him. And those instructions were faster, faster, faster!
One thing I remember about our crossing was how they dealt with the meals. As I said, the ship was crowded with thousands of service people. I wondered how the ship’s crew would go about feeding so many. We were all given a number – one, two or three. My number was one. When your number came over the loud speaker you instantly made a dash for the dining room. What a big job it must have been to satisfy such a ravenous crowd.
I met a couple of fellows on the ship and I soon became acquainted with them. One was a man from Truro. His name was Lloyd MacPhee. He served with the North Nova Highlanders. He had been a prisoner of war in Germany for a year. We didn’t know each other before this but when he told me about his family, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
He said he had a sister named Greta. I had actually been writing to Greta for two years! She must have told me about Lloyd but when I was speaking to Greta I wasn’t thinking of anyone else.
The other passenger I was speaking with was Danny Hartigan. He served with the First Canadian Parachute Battalion. He later wrote a book about the war. The name of the book is ‘A Rising of Courage.’ It is very interesting and very well done.
We kept sailing and then we came to the sight we were longing to see – the city of Halifax. The ship erupted with cheers, laughter and tears. Some of us had felt we’d never see this beautiful sight again.
As the Isle de France pulled into Pier 21 the excitement mounted and the place seemed to burst into pandemonium. People were yelling out names hoping to attract friends and relatives. I felt there would be none of my family there because I had no way to communicate with them and tell them I was coming home.
I was wrong. I saw a big husky sailor with an MP (Military Police) sign on his uniform. He was smiling and waving at me. It was Loran Morrison, my brother-in-law who was married to my sister Iola. We talked and gabbed and I got updated on my family and happily found out all was well.
I had to leave Loran because our unit was forming up and getting ready to go to camp. It was there we were instructed to primp-up and look our best because we were going to parade through Halifax. This was very important because we, the First Canadian Parachute Battalion, we the first complete unit to return to Canada from overseas.
The rumour we heard about our return was this: When victory in Europe (V.E. Day) became official, some people in Halifax started a riot. Maybe it was because of the joy of peace; the release of fear; the thrill of victory. However, some people celebrated in a strange manner. They broke store windows, stole articles and broke the law in many ways.
Why not bring home a complete unit of Canadian soldiers and show strength these law breakers could not face? So, we were the lucky force that was chose. Thank God for that.
We marched proudly down Barrington Street. There were thousands of people lining the sidewalks. The joy and cheering made me very proud to be a Canadian.
We marched to the Garrison Grounds which I think was part of Citadel Hill. It was there a huge crowd gathered round. Our commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Fraser Eadie was presented with the key to the city of Halifax. The presenter was the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Dr. H.E. Kendall.
After this welcome home ceremony we marched back to our barracks. It was then I made the phone call I’d been dying to make. I called home – 17 Alice Street, Truro. I called and Mom answered. After she stopped crying and I stopped sniffling, I managed to say, “Hello Mom,” and she replied joyously, “Hello Herbie!”
We talked and talked about family and friends. Then I told her the most important news. “I’ll be home tomorrow, Mom!”
I left by train the next day. The train seemed to be going very slow but I imagine it was its regular speed. I saw something that has stayed with me all these years. It was a striking billboard on a hill. It really stood out, you couldn’t miss it. On the billboard was a huge picture of two men dress in long john underwear. They were facing each other and each grasped the arm of the other.
Proudly displayed over their heads was the name Stanfield’s. Now I knew for certain I was nearly HOME!
At last the train pulled into the train station. There was a wonderful crowd. I was so excited. I searched for my family and I didn’t have to search long. I heard someone yell, ‘there’s Herbie. There’s Herbie.’ It was my little 11-year-old brother Billy. Then I saw something I had been dreaming of for the last two years. I saw my family.
There was my Mom and Dad, Dot, Iola, Louise, Pat, Ray, Albert, Betty and Billy. What a reunion. I can remember it like it was yesterday.
We all started to walk home. Dad didn’t have a car. What a thrill for me to walk along Brunswick Street with my family. Then we turned onto Lyman Street, walked up a little grade and turned left onto Alice Street. Many fond memories flooded through my mind as we walked toward our home.
Finally we came to our house. What a thrill for me. It wasn’t an elaborate house but to me it was like a castle. We had so much fun there. Christmas’, birthdays, bring home blueberries we’d picked in Debert and enjoying Mom’s food.
I walked into the living room. I was all alone. I know I was overcome with joy and emotion. I flung my arms up in the air and yelled, ‘THANK GOD I’M HOME!’