I remember we were driving up around the Cabot Trail. What a drive. All Nova Scotians must be proud of the beauty in our province.
Suddenly, we came to a look off. We stopped to take a look and I’m so happy we did. There was a memorial plaque at on top of a beautiful stand. The words I read on this plaque will stay in my mind for all time.
“They will never know the beauty of this place, see the seasons change,
Enjoy nature’s chorus.
All we enjoy we owe to them, the men and women who lie buried in the earth
of foreign lands and in the seven seas.”
Dedicated to the memory of Canadians who died overseas in the service of their country, and so preserved our heritage.
I must tell you how proud I am to have served with these men and many of those I served with never returned home. I pray to God their sacrifice shall not be forgotten.
This reminded me of the mountains of Italy on January 19, 1944. Norm Gray and I were pinned-down in a mucky fox-hole on top of the rugged mountains that ringed the countryside. We were wet. We were cold. We were miserable. We were not very happy.
So, I thought I’d ask Norm a question I’d been wondering about.
“Do you think what we do will ever be remembered in future years?”
“Not a chance,” Norm replied. “In 20 years, all this suffering will be forgotten.”
“I disagree,” I said. “I think people will show their respect for us at least 20 years and maybe even 50 years after this war is over.”
Norm gave a snort of disbelief.
“That will never happen, Herb. I don’t know how you come up with these crazy ideas.”
Which one of us was correct in the argument we had 73 years ago? I’m very happy to say I was. For when you see the tremendous turnout on Remembrance Day at the Truro cenotaph, you know people appreciate the sacrifices our soldiers made.
As I looked out at this grateful crowd, a troubled realization hit me. The years that followed World War II had other conflicts which involved our Canadian soldiers. There was the terrible fighting in Korea – the Korean War – then the battles in Afghanistan. It was here the warfare all changed. Our soldiers didn’t know who the enemy was. It could be a child with explosives attached to them or it could be explosives buried in the earth. This was much different than the war we had to endure. We knew who our enemies were. They were men and they wore different uniforms than we did.
Another thing that was different from Afghanistan veterans was the fact many of them returned home with mental health problems and no wonder. The name given to this mental injury was ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ or PTSD.
This condition was downplayed in the first and second world wars. Any mental issues that arose then were called ‘Shell Shock’ and ‘Battle Fatigue.’ Still, I’m sure many soldiers covered up their mental anguish and revealed them to no one. I know this was true because I was one of those mental sufferers.
Let me tell you about my experience. It was in the mountains of Italy in 1943. It was nighttime and raining. We were wet and cold. We were ordered to proceed up the mountain in the darkness. Suddenly, there was a terrific explosion. What followed was hell on earth. The whole mountain seemed to erupt with relentless mortar and shell fire. We tried to get some shelter but that wasn’t possible on a narrow path on the side of the mountain.
It was terrifying. I could hear cries for help from my comrades who had been blown off the path. I heard one cry from a wounded soldier I’ll never forget. He kept crying over and over again, Mama! Mama! Mama!
Those cries will be stamped in my memory forever.
We treated down the mountain to our staging area. The next morning, they asked for volunteers to go up the mountain again to bring down the dead and wounded. We all volunteered, of course. We were given Red Cross arm bands hoping the enemy would respect our job of bringing back the dead and wounded and not fire on us. Thankfully, they held their fire.
We formed up in groups of five or six and proceeded up the mountain again. We had never had an adventure like this before and we were not prepared for the horrible things we would experience. The first victim we came upon really hit us all very hard. We didn’t expect to find a wounded man in this condition. When we saw the remains of this soldier, we couldn’t believe our eyes. None of us could move. I will never, ever be able to erase what I saw from my memory.
None of us knew this soldier from our own regiment but we’d never recognize him anyway from the state he was in. Both his legs had been blown off. Both of his arms had been blown off. And worst of all, his head had been blown off. All that was left was his torso.
We were shocked. We felt terrible. We imagined that a couple of days ago this soldier was laughing, joking and enjoying life with us. Now, all this was gone – history. We looked at each other and I knew just what my comrades were thinking – war is hell.
We had a stretcher and a backpack to carry the casualties back. We opted for the backpack. We strapped the victim on the backpack and took turns carrying him to our staging area. This picture and the heavy weight of the body strapped to my back board will be stamped on my memory forever.
Did I ever tell anyone about this gruesome episode in my army life? I kept this secret locked in my memory for many years. In fact, I kept quiet about this terrible incident until I was 55 years old.
It was then I realized I couldn’t keep this terrible secret any longer. The pictures cane out of the recesses of my mind when I least expected it. I felt I had to get it out. I couldn’t keep it a secret any longer.
My wife, Greta, was the only one with me in the house at the time. I was shaking a little but I told her the whole story. Then I started shaking a little more. I rushed to the bedroom, threw myself on the bed and stayed there until I calmed down.
I felt better after that. I think I had to get it out in the open and not keep trying to bury it in the dark recesses of my memory forever.
Everyone who joins the military will have their own story to tell. The courage to sacrifice yourself for your country takes bravery and honour. An unknown author put it into his own words.
“Honour, simply put, is a Veteran, whether regular force, reserve, active or retired, someone in some point of their life, who set all aside and wrote a blank cheque made payable to the ‘Dominion of Canada’ for the amount of up to and including my life. That, my friend, is honour and love of country and there are way too many people in this country who no longer understand or realize this.” – Author unknown.