I joined the Canadian Army in 1940. I was 20 years old at the time.
I served for a year and a half in the Royal Canadian Artillery. We were stationed in Northern Quebec and then in Newfoundland. It was then I transferred into another unit; the First Canadian Parachute Battalion. My next move was transferring to a new unit. It was the First Special Service Force. It was a brand new unit with a combined force of both Canadian and American soldiers.
Most of our training was done in Montana. The training there was very strenuous. I often wondered why they pushed us so hard. There was not much time for rest or to enjoy life. We had long, long marches with full packs, in all kinds of weather.
We had parachute jumps by some of us who had never seen a plane, let alone jump out of one. We climbed mountains on some of Montana’s highest mountains. We skied and sadly, many of us had never skied.
Why all this training? Why all this punishment? I learned later this gruelling training was to prepare us for combat. And that’s exactly what it did. This torturous training gave us a feeling of pride and confidence to face an enemy in mortal combat. For with this hard training came the pride of accomplishment, confidence and a feeling of invincibility.
In my new unit, I met many new friends. Two that impressed me were Tiny Beacon and Tiny Thon. Why did they impress me, you ask? Well, it was mostly because they were opposites in both size and build. Tiny Thon was a huge person and very tall. Tiny Beacon was smaller and much shorter. They were both Canadians. Tiny Beacon’s home was in British Columbia. I became friends with him and we hung around together a lot.
Tiny Beacon and I were close, even in combat. I remember one night, our outfit was ordered to take a hill which was impeding our unit’s progress. Tiny and I were together. We were walking up the hill when we heard movement over to the right of us. We both rushed over with weapons at the ready. But it wasn’t necessary because there were two Germans with their hands in the air. They were terrified and kept repeating, “Austrians! Austrians!”
Then Tiny burst out, “It doesn’t matter if they’re Austrians. They’re all goddamn Germans to me.”
Of course we didn’t harm them; we wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man. So they were taken back with the rest who had surrendered.
Another incident happened between Tiny Beacon and I when we were on the Anzio Beachhead. We had kind of holed-up in a small village. Every night our unit sent out a raiding patrol. This usually led to a small skirmish. One night, Tiny came to me. He said, “Will you lend me your Tommy Gun for the night patrol I’m going on tonight?”
The reason he asked me is because as section leader I carried a Tommy Gun. The rest of the men, including Tiny, carried rifles. I handed my Tommy Gun over to Tiny and told him to take good care of it.
The next morning, patrol returned. I rushed out to see if they had any casualties. Thank God they didn’t. I rushed over to Tiny. He must have had my Tommy Gun behind his back. I yelled at him, “Where’s my Tommy Gun?”
Then he brought the gun around in front of him and holding it out toward me he said, “You think more of this damn gun than you do of me.”
He was pretty angry but we soon made up again.
I must tell you something about Tiny Beacon. Although he was smaller and shorter than the rest of us, he was a very good soldier. He never shirked any duty. He did everything the rest of us did and sometimes he did it better than the rest of us. He always finished long marches we did. He did his parachute jumps, his skiing and his mountain climbing. Tiny Beacon was a soldier’s soldier.
However, maybe he did have one great disappointment in his army career. Let me explain. There is a secret code in the army we felt should be followed. This code stated, “Any soldier wounded three times in action, qualified for the honour of the right to return home to Canada.”
Tiny Beacon was wounded in action three times but sadly his trip home was never mentioned by the military brass.
I’d like to tell you about an action we were both in, which was both terrifying and humorous. On Christmas Eve in 1943 in the mountains of Italy, our orders were to take Hill 720. I could think of places I’d rather be on Christmas Eve but I had to put those thoughts out of my mind. As we scrambled up the rugged mountain, we started to encounter mortar fire.
It wasn’t until the next day that I learned one of my best friends, George Smith (Smitty) had been killed that night. I was told a mortar shell landed right at his feet and exploded. He was killed instantly. I’ll never forget him.
We eventually reached the top of Hill 720. We suffered many casualties but we secured our objective. However, we were still being shelled by artillery and mortar fire. We dug in. It was dark at the time. It didn’t take me long to scoop out a hole in the gravelly ground. Then I sank, exhausted, into my foxhole. I was wet, cold and I was exhausted but I couldn’t sleep because of the explosions. At last, I punished the evening through.
At first light, I peeked out over my foxhole to look around. Shells were still exploding now and again but not as often as the night before. I could see many foxholes. Just then I heard someone yell, ‘Pep! Pep!’
My buddies used to call me Pep, a shorter name for Peppard. I was very pleased to see Tiny Beacon in the next foxhole beside me. He was about 30 feet away.
“Ya got any food?” he yelled.
I searched through my ‘K rations.’
I yelled back to Tiny, “I got a couple of cans of Spam. What do you have?”
“I got a couple of cans of cheese but I like Spam better,” he yelled back.
“How about a trade?” I yelled. “I like that cheese better than Spam.”
So we tossed cans to each other.
I opened my cheese. It looked very good to me. I took one of my four dry crackers and scooped some of the cheese out with it. I washed it down with some stale water from my water bottle. I was determined to enjoy my meal, even in a wet foxhole on top of a rain swept mountain amid sporadic mortar fire.
“Pep, Pep,” Tiny called again.
“Yeah?” I answered as I peeped over the rim of my foxhole and saw Tiny’s big helmet and his dirty face.
A smiled crinkled his mud-stained face as he shouted back, above all the explosions, “Merry Christmas, Pep!”
That was Christmas 1943.
That was my buddy, Tiny Beacon.