The Canadian Veterna: No Ordinary Hero
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 17 Nov 2005, p. 148-159

Barris, Ted, Speaker
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The story of Charlie Fox and an incident from 1944. The nature of Canadian veterans. Contributions from women during the war. The riots in Halifax. Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadians. Other anecdotes. The importance of these stories.
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17 Nov 2005
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Full Text
Ted Barris
Author, Broadcaster and Professor
The Canadian Veteran: No Ordinary Hero
Chairman: William G. Whittaker
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Sylvia Morawetz, Principal, S.A.M. Solutions, and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Reverend William Montgomery, Anglican Church of Canada; Major William A. Duncan, CD, Member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada in WWII, Retired Chief of Personnel, Canada Post, and Honorary Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Mrs. Rodine Egan, WWII Veteran; The Hon. Colonel Charlie Fox, WWII Veteran; Sonja Bata, OC, Director, Bata Shoe Organization, and Honorary Captain, Canadian Navy; Col. Frederic L. R. Jackman, CStJ, OOnt, LLD, President, Invicta Investments Incorp., Hon. Colonel, The Toronto Scottish Regiment, and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Charles S. Coffey, Executive Vice-President, Government Affairs and Business Development, RBC Financial Group, and Third Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada; Stephen Bell, WWII Veteran; Dr. Heather MacDonald, Medical Director, Aging and Veterans Care Directorate, Sunnybrook and Women's Health Science Centre; and Nicole Nantais, Manager, Corporate Communications, The Dominion of Canada General Insurance Company.

Introduction by William Whittaker

The Canadian government has proclaimed that 2005 be dedicated to paying tribute to Canada's veterans. The Honorable Albina Guarnieri, Canada's Minister of Veterans Affairs, in announcing the "Year of the Veteran" said, "It is our never-ending mission to thank veterans who step out of ordinary times to do the extraordinary and give our nation and other nations an endowment of peace. The Year of the Veteran will enable us to express gratitude to those whom we owe a tremendous debt, one that can only be repaid through active remembrance."

As Canadians, we often take for granted our way of life, our freedom to participate in cultural and political events, and our right to be governed by those we elect. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensures that all Canadians enjoy equal protection under the law. The Canadians who went to fight in the Second World War went in the belief that such rights and freedoms were being threatened. They believed that "without freedom there can be no enduring peace and without peace no enduring freedom"--words spoken by King George VI at the 1939 dedication of our National War Memorial in Ottawa.

During the Second World War, individual acts of heroism occurred frequently, but only a few were recorded and received official recognition. In remembering all who served, we recognize the many who willingly endured the hardships so that we could live in peace. In remembering their service and sacrifice, we recognize the freedom they fought to preserve.

Media comment respecting our Remembrance Day just past noted the increased crowds attending ceremonies. Some 25,000 people attended the ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. I can personally vouch respecting the large crowd at Toronto's Cenotaph ceremony in front of Old City Hall compared to previous years. I was particularly struck by the large number of school children in attendance.

Quite rightfully the focus of these ceremonies was on our Second World War veterans. However, I note Canada's Silver Cross Mother this year was Claire Leger whose son, Sgt. Marc Leger, was killed in Afghanistan in 2002. Mrs. Leger also unveiled a Special Book of Remembrance containing the names of Canadian Forces members who have died in service from 1947 to the present.

This book is a companion to the other Books of Remembrance in the Peace Tower of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa listing the names of all Canadians who have died in active service. These Books of Remembrance contain the name of my uncle, Maurice Howard Gilchrist of Richmond, Quebec, a private with the 78th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (Royal Highlanders of Canada), who was killed near Ypres, Belgium on August 31, 1916, one hour after going into battle. My uncle was killed well before I was born but I am proud to say that my son Charles and I were the first members of our family to visit his grave at La Laiterie Military Cemetery in Belgium in 1982.

Every year is an important year to honour veterans and their service. However, 2005 is especially meaningful because it marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In May 2004, Professor Barris spoke to us compellingly about Canada's citizen soldiers who on June 6, 1944--"D-Day"--were part of the greatest amphibious invasion force in history. He noted that it was the many individual acts of courage and survival which made the big picture happen and he illustrated his point by showing pictures and describing the experiences of RCAF navigator Robert Dale, RCN stoker Ray Mecoy, paratrooper Mark Lockyer, infantryman Fred Barnard and army photographer Bill Grant.

Professor Barris is the author of 14 non-fiction books, five about wartime Canada. His three most recent books, "JUNO: Canadians at D-Day, June 6, 1944," "Days of Victory: Canadians Remember 1939-1945" and just published "Behind the Glory: Canada's Role in the Allied Air War" chronicle Canada's participation in the Second World War. He is the recipient of numerous literary awards and is Professor of Journalism at the Centre for Creative Communications, Centennial College, Toronto.

It is a testament to Professor Barris's erudition that he has been asked to address us again. He will speak to us today about the Canadian veteran--no ordinary hero.

I thank Professor Barris's colleagues and students at Centennial College for attending in such large numbers today and the efforts of his colleague, Professor Carolyn Whittaker, who is also my wife, in motivating Centennial people to attend.

Please join me in welcoming Professor Ted Barris, author and broadcaster, to our podium today.

Ted Barris

It is late on the afternoon of July 17, 1944.

A 24-year-old Canadian fighter pilot with No. 412 RCAF Fighter Squadron takes off in his Spitfire from an Allied airfield in France. In spite of the fact that the Allies' 2nd Tactical Air Force has only been operational in France for six weeks, the pilot is getting used to the routine.

Once airborne over Bernieres-sur-Mer, he and his wing-mate (another Spitfire pilot) head toward Caen. His objective is to search and destroy what are called "targets of opportunity." Not long into his flight and not far into the German-occupied area south of Caen, he spots one. A German staff car is speeding along a road. With his wing-man covering his next move, the Spitfire pilot makes a diving, curving attack on the car forcing it off the road. But the pilot doesn't stop to look. Just as quickly as he began the attack, he has flown on. Back at his home airstrip the pilot notes in his log "one staff car damaged." He also writes a capital "R" in red ink.

By the end of the day's action (and in fact for a generation), strategists, politicians, correspondents, veterans and historians will argue over who deserves credit for this short but decisive action. They will wonder: Who shot up the staff car of the most important German commander in Western Europe? Who has severely injured the Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel?

That very night (and in the nearly six decades that followed), various fighter pilots--some American, some South African, and some from the Royal Air Force--will claim credit for having put Erwin Rommel out of the war.

In fact, the man who made little or no fuss about the incident in 1944, but who made note of the damaged staff car and the red "R" in his flight log, was the man responsible. His name is Charlie Fox. He is one of the veterans (who joins me at the head table today), someone I prefer to describe as "no ordinary hero."

Now "hero" is not a description that Charlie Fox would ever use to describe himself. Never. In the nearly 20 years I have known Charlie Fox, the only times I've ever heard him utter the word "hero" is in praise of others--other airmen, other seamen, other infantrymen, never himself.

Why not? Well, because that's his nature.

Oddly, that's the nature of most of Charlie's comrades-in-arms. Most Canadian veterans I've encountered in my 35 years as a journalist, broadcaster and author, (and I've probably interviewed 2,500 veterans in that time), were just glad to have made it home alive.

Most Canadian veterans (unlike some of their Allied comrades) preferred not to wave a patriotic flag but to simply closet, file away or forget the hell that was their war.

Most Canadian veterans preferred not to tarnish the memory of their fallen comrades by turning any limelight on themselves.

Instead, (like a kind of self-protective mechanism and maybe out of respect for those who didn't come home), they simply preferred to remember the antics, the quirky tales and maybe the odd near miss. Never the death and destruction and never did they dare confuse what they called "duty" with what others called "heroism."

I don't suppose any of those who served on the home front in Canada would ever consider themselves heroes either. After all, unlike the British who endured the blitz or the Dutch who struggled against the occupation, if you lived in Canada you were a long way from the sharp end, thousands of kilometres from the shooting and the dying.

Still, Canadian men, women and children exhibited a quiet determination and dedication at home that deserves credit too and perhaps at times should be called heroic. During the Second World War, Canadians were exhorted to be careful what they said, to sacrifice and scrimp, to dig deep to finance the war effort, to knit socks and send packages to servicemen overseas, to save tinfoil, buy bonds, do volunteer work, use less sugar, gasoline, meat, butter, rubber and to take a job in a war plant.

And here's where that determination and dedication deserves attention particularly among Canadian women. During the war (despite some politicians and religious leaders who campaigned against it), between 500,000 and a million women left their homes in the care of sisters, parents, grandparents or friends, so that they could take positions in the assembly lines of war production.

In the United States, the woman who came to symbolize the migration of women into war munitions work was known as "Rosie the Riveter." In Canada, there was Veronica Foster, who worked at the Inglis plant in Toronto manufacturing Bren guns for the Canadian Army--in the eyes of the home front propagandists, she became known as "Ronnie the Bren-gun Girl."

And there was at least one journalist of the day who recognized Ronnie and all the women who joined the migration to the munitions plants in somewhat heroic terms. Lotta Dempsey was a feature writer for the Toronto Star during the war. And as early as 1943, she noted in one of her columns the extraordinary impact these home-front women were making by their actions. She wrote:

"You can tell your great-granddaughter some day that this was the time and place it really started: the honest-to-goodness equality of Canadian women and men in all the work of this country that is to be done; and the pay, and the kudos and the rights and the problems.

"And you can say that it wasn't done by club women at luncheons; or orators on soap boxes; or legislators in parliaments.

"It began to happen that hour when Canadian girls left desks and kitchens, elevators and switchboards and stepped into overalls and took their places in the lines of workers at lathes and drills, cranes and power machines, tables and benches in the munitions plants of Canada."

Lotta Dempsey was acknowledging the way a Canadian female population stepped up to do its part in a home-front army of sorts. The work was often difficult, dirty and wearying, but it also brought companionship, much needed pay, independence, and, as Lotta pointed out, those first powerful steps toward equality. I'd call that a kind of heroism.

But women on the home front didn't only work on assembly lines in munitions plants. Another 100,000 women served at home--in uniform.

Some worked as nursing sisters.

Thousands joined the Canadian Women's Army Corps.

Just as many became members of the Canadian Women's Auxiliary Air Force (later known as the Women's Division).

And thousands more women responded to the recruitment poster that said: You Too Can Free a Man to Serve at Sea: Join the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service.

Another guest here at the Empire Club's head table today was a wartime WREN. Living in Vancouver at the beginning of the war, a 19-year-old Rodine Doris Buckley-Beevers enlisted at the HMCS Discovery base on the Pacific Coast, then travelled to Guelph, where she trained and was then posted to Halifax, at HMCS Stadacona. Ronnie was one of only four WRENs chosen to work in the Mechanical Training Engineers office, where her work included charting, filing, rating and drill instructing.

She served in Halifax for three years up to and including an infamous, historic moment in Halifax's wartime history. Quite unexpectedly, Ronnie played a rather curious (some might say heroic) role during the riots that overtook the city on VE (Victory in Europe) Day, May 8, 1945.

Relations between the 65,000 citizens of Halifax and the nearly 55,000 transient navy and merchant seaman had not been the best during the war. Many Haligonians detested what nearly six years of war had brought their city--thousands of servicemen pouring through on their way to Europe; beaches fouled by oil from a harbour filled beyond capacity; rationing; blackouts; curfews and general overcrowding. On the other hand, the servicemen and women complained that food in the city was bad, rents were sky-high and services non-existent. Some said navy people were dreadfully exploited.

At any rate, when word leaked out on the morning of May 7, 1945, that German capitulation in Europe was at hand, people in Halifax began abandoning their workplaces, and everything was locked up tight.

Thousands of civilians and navy personnel streamed into the streets, but there was nothing to see, nothing to buy, and nothing to do. Years of pent-up frustration and anger boiled over. And two days of rioting and looting ensued.

At four o'clock in the afternoon (on the second day) May 8, 1945, Ronnie completed her clerical shift. She had been married the year before and lived away from the WRENs' barracks. So, that afternoon she and several WREN friends joined the crowds, not realizing how threatening the streets had become.

At one point in the WRENs' rounds, Ronnie and her pals found a Zellers store open for VE Day shopping. They made their purchases and stepped toward the exit to leave the store.

In the doorway they met half a dozen "liquored up" sailors who told the women to move out of the way. They had decided they were going to burn down the store. Well, in the blink of an eye (and with the reflex of the drill sergeant she had become) Ronnie (and her WREN pals) stood in their way and informed the sailors: "Oh no you aren't!" There was a momentary standoff. But eventually the sailors backed down and left the store unscathed.

(Incidentally, it was only later, during my search through the documents of Mr. Justice R. L. Kellock of the Supreme Court and his inquiry into the riots, that I found photographs of the riots including one of a Canadian sailor blowing his own salute to VE Day in front of that very same Zellers--the one the Ronnie and her pals had saved from being torched.)

I'll bet if I ever found the manager of that Halifax Zellers store, he might describe the actions of Ronnie and her WREN friends as "heroic."

I think it's safe to say that the Canadian military and the government's Department of National Defence did their best to recognize distinguished service during the war. For his service in the air force (first as an instructor in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and then overseas on Spitfires) Charlie Fox was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. Charlie is always quick to point out that there were hundreds of DFCs awarded at the end of the war.

And as one infantry veteran once told me, "Winning medals for heroism depended on whether somebody important noticed."

There were at least two Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadians on August 19, 1942. Stephen Bell was not one of the recipients, but he can attest to having fought through and survived "the bloodiest nine hours in Canadian military history," the so-called hit-and-run raid at Dieppe, on the coast of France.

Born and raised in the town of Govan, Saskatchewan, Steve Bell left the prairies at age 17, landed in Toronto, broke and out of work. He joined the army underage, but by the time they sorted things out he was overseas and had transferred to the Calgary Tank Regiment, which landed in the thick of things in front of the German-fortified seaport of Dieppe.If you'll allow me, I'll read a passage from one of my books:

"We were hit on the turret, just coming down the [tank carrier] ramp," Bell said. "The shell hit the top of the tank and blew the lid right off. All you could see up there was daylight. Three of us in the turret were knocked out cold, but it was just concussion."

To add to the confusion, when the tanks actually landed they could not move forward over the stony beach; they simply bogged down in the fist-sized chert rock. Bell's tank stopped 15 feet up from the water, leaving the crew stranded. "We got hit maybe three or four times in that fifteen feet. The engines would run, but the tank wouldn't move forwards or backwards."

With the tank immobilized, Bell and a tank crewmate, Johnny Booker, set up a machine gun in what seemed like a sheltered spot and kept firing at Germans. "Five minutes later, a shell hit the back of the tank, about three feet above our heads. Both of us were wounded. I got shrapnel in my legs, my back and my ass. He got hit in the leg.... We tore open his pants and blood just spurted out, it must have hit an artery."

Another Calgary Regiment trooper, Bill Willard, was hit first in the ankle, the knee and the shoulder. Then Bell and another man, Earl Snider, saw him "opened up right from his breastbone right down to his crotch." Bell and Snider had "this first-aid kit, so we got a couple of safety pins and stuck everything back in and pinned him up."

At eleven o'clock that morning, some small boats began returning to pick up the faltering raiders, and Stephen Bell was among those carrying wounded back to the boats. "Every boat, except for maybe one or two, got blown up in the water. You could ask anybody who was on that beach and they'll tell you, that water was just like red ink with blood. Bodies? You have no idea... The water that was coming up was foaming red with blood."

Half an hour later, Bell and the rest of his surviving tank crew were taken prisoner and paraded through the streets of occupied Dieppe.

He spent nearly three years in various POW camps in France, Poland and Germany. He escaped five times and was recaptured four times. One time, he was almost free when a guard shot him in the back. The bullet lodged in his vertebra next to his spinal cord. His life was saved because he wore a webbing belt, which slowed down the bullet.

In February 1945, when the Germans began a forced march of prisoners westward away from the Russians, Steve and a fellow prisoner slipped away during an artillery barrage. He nearly froze and starved to death but eventually managed to connect with advancing Allied troops. He was liberated on May 5 and was flown back to the U.K. in time for VE Day celebrations in London.

If Stephen Bell and the Calgary Tanks had been written up in the United States, they would have been a Stephen Ambrose "Band of Brothers" book series.

If Ronnie Egan's heroics in Halifax had been noticed, they'd have put her on the face of a commemorative postage stamp (like Laura Secord).

If Charlie Fox's attack on Erwin Rommel had made it to film, it would have been a John Wayne Hollywood movie.

Instead, too often veterans' stories get tucked away in filing cabinets, shoeboxes, closets and cupboards to be forgotten.

But with all due respect to my veteran friends here, I will not allow that to happen. I will not allow my generation or any of the young men and women I teach at Centennial College to overlook or forget the extraordinary things these ordinary Canadians achieved. Just because they were citizen soldiers--volunteers every one--I do not believe we can allow the gift they gave us to be lost to neglect or apathy.

I want to thank the Empire Club for this unique opportunity to share the stories of three Canadian veterans in this "Canada's Year of the Veteran." I want to thank those of you who've come today to pay tribute to these three and all the other veterans in this room.

Whether you refer to Canadian veterans as "heroes" or not, we do them the greatest disservice, if we do not continue to recount their stories, celebrate their service and remember their sacrifice.

I admit it. I have become their advocate. And it's an advocacy I am proud of. In my books (quite literally) I regard them either specifically or between the lines as genuine Canadian heroes.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Col. Frederic L. R. Jackman, CStJ, OOnt, LLD, President, Invicta Investments Incorp., Hon. Colonel, The Toronto Scottish Regiment, and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada

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The Canadian Veterna: No Ordinary Hero

The story of Charlie Fox and an incident from 1944. The nature of Canadian veterans. Contributions from women during the war. The riots in Halifax. Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadians. Other anecdotes. The importance of these stories.