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Legion Magazine – January/February 2001 « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

Legion Magazine – January/February 2001

Before turning to review some war books I want to offer a particular insight on the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau. It may exasperate many readers who admire what Trudeau did through four mandates as our prime minister. But this is largely on Trudeau and WW II, and one purpose of this magazine is to remember the parts played by Canadians in it. When Trudeau died I faced the question as a political columnist: To write or not to write an obituary? You might think to do so was obvious. Why wasn’t it? Because my assessment would be widely taken as offensive or worse. Why throw a missive showing small respect for the deceased into swarms of fond remembrance and huge affection from hundreds of thousands?

Trudeau and I had had numerous exchanges, most of them bristling, from the first in 1965 to the last in 1990. As Patrick Gossage, one of his press aides, put it once in an interview: “No one in the media angered the PM more than the columnist Doug Fisher.” Both Trudeau and I were turning 20 when WW II began and passing 25 when it ended. I got through an army medical in 1941 and became an ordinary soldier in a Manitoba regiment, serving in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, England, and Northwest Europe. Through almost all the war Pierre Trudeau was in Montreal. There, as a college student he got military training through the Reserve Officer Training Corps, freeing him from conscription for home service. He earned a second lieutenant’s commission from the Crown in the reserve regiment of the FMRs, the Fusiliers Mont-Royal. Before he went to Boston and Harvard University in 1945 to study he took part in armoury-based activities of his regiment. He did not volunteer for active service with the FMR unit overseas, a much-tested regiment in the 2nd Division’s 5th Brigade, which after Normandy was always short of reinforcements. Such shortages created “the reinforcement crisis” that gripped Canadians through the fall and early winter of 1944-45 and eventually brought the dispatch to Europe and the battle-front of home-service conscripts.

Those of us in the army in Northwest Europe were aware and angered by this shortfall in infantry and the added casualties it caused. By letter I had argued the issue for months with my best friend doing home service who was proud to be “a zombie.” As a socialist he was not going to fight until “wealth” was also conscripted. Fair enough, I thought; at least my pal had scruples stemming from his political beliefs.

And this matter of scruple—or the lack of it—in Pierre Trudeau vis-à-vis Canada at war was at the root of the mutual hostility which bristled at our very first argument—this in a steam bath in Ottawa in late 1965. By then I had learned from the press or admirers of Trudeau of his wartime years, including his commission as an officer, his speechifying at anti-conscription rallies, and his antic daring in motorcycling around wartime Montreal with a German helmet and swastika emblems.

One piece of information had flabbergasted me. He had recently explained to an interviewer that he hadn’t appreciated the significance of WW II before he studied at Harvard.

Here is an athletic, young man of obvious intelligence from a family with high social and economic standing in Montreal. He is in the common age-range of most of those serving in the forces of a nation which put so much of its manpower and resources into the defeat of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperialist Japan. Yet Pierre Trudeau not only chose not to go to war he saved himself from it through a niche in the FMR reserves gained through his schooling and connections.

How to fathom that with his gifts he should shrug off the war and its issues as something he had not comprehended until he went to the U.S.A. as it was closing? The late Charles Lynch, a popular political columnist who was on the D-Day scene for Reuters, was born in 1919 a few weeks after me and before Trudeau. He, too, puzzled on why Trudeau sat out the war at home, at school, and occasionally at an armoury. Charles’ explanation for it was simple: Trudeau as a young man was seized with the general antagonism in Quebec to taking part afar in “British” wars, the animus which had been roused by conscription in the Great War and continued in some strength in Quebec in the 1939-45 period.

This would make Trudeau’s scruples “nationalistic.” Neither Charles nor I could conceive that Pierre Trudeau was either physically or psychologically timid or fearful about going to battle. He was a very combative person, from adolescence to his death. Whatever Trudeau’s reasoning about himself and the war, I was unable to get past what he did during it and take him as a great Canadian.

Let me close this personal reference to Trudeau and WW II with an anecdote. In the early ‘70s when Trudeau as prime minister was visiting Bonn, Germany, he held a press conference. A German reporter asked him if his chats with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had touched on how to handle terrorists, then active in Germany, given the tough moves Trudeau made against terrorists during the October crisis of 1970.

Trudeau replied affirmatively and sketched briefly the gist of his counsel. Then I asked him whether his wartime experience as an officer in Canada’s reserve army had been a prelude helpful in the imposition of the War Measures Act and the arrest of hundreds of suspected terrorists. His answer was a curt phrase, the same one he used once in reply to a question in Parliament.

It appeared in Hansard as: “Fuddle-duddle!”

Few pleasures are more satisfying to me as an inveterate reader than coming upon new autobiographies by soldiers, sailors, and airmen. May I recommend two splendid, new ones, each written by men of high, artistic bent and completed long after their retirement from gainful work.

The first is by a former Regina Rifle, Frank Proctor, late of Mission, B.C., who died last spring at 98 just before his book was printed. The second is by a career Royal Canadian Navy officer, Latham B., Jenson, who was born in Calgary in 1921 and grew up there before joining the navy in 1938. Commander Jenson has been strenuous in his retirement in Nova Scotia, doing much to help save heritage structures and the rich sea lore of Halifax as a major naval centre.

I Was There: An Autobiography is the title of the Proctor book. It was edited by William Tindall and Pamela Proctor, and published by In Touch at Gibsons, B.C. Box 692, V0N 1V0, 604-886-0540. It is a paperback of 287 pages, with photographs. Frank Proctor first came to Canada to try his hand as a grain harvester on the prairies in the 1920s. He had grown up in the coal-mining communities in northeast England, and throughout his life he kept in touch back home even as he made his way, first in Saskatchewan and after the war in B.C. This is a life story, not just a war story, and when I finished it I thought “What a vigorous, able, gifted, and modest guy.” His central chapters on WW II have unique information and insights because of his tasks throughout the long years of training and the months of combat of this 7th Brigade, 3rd Div. infantry battalion.

Frank Proctor enlisted in September 1939, and was put to work at the army depot in Regina, there beginning his rise as a quartermaster non-commissioned officer. Almost from week one in the recruitment of the Regina Rifles he became the regiment’s No. 2 warrant officer and continued as such the rest of the way. In his clear, homey accounts of the demands and crises Proctor gives us the story of a regiment through vital but seldom recalled functions of supply and services—the provision of food, water, clothes, laundry, baths, petrol, ammunition, mail, etc. Like all our infantry regiments the Reginas had a long travail of battle with much to show for it in achievement and unhappily, in killed and wounded. Before the Canadians were across the Seine the regiment had had to have more reinforcements than its establishment at full strength.

Throughout I Was There the Proctor family story goes on, including steady contributions to church and Legion activities and the development of artistic talent into achieving much success as a painter. Not surprisingly Frank Proctor was much cherished by his family, and its members were determined to publish his story and get it distributed, and I compliment them. What a rewarding life, in particular for others.

Tin Hats, Oilskins & Seaboots: A Naval Journey 1938-1945 has been published by Robin Brass Studio, Toronto, 2000. Latham Jenson, known by his naval familiars as Yogi, has enriched his biography with many excellent pen and ink sketches, and a lot of spare but clear side-bars and long notes about naval uniforms and dress, shipboard routines, and scores of fulsome drawings, including layouts of corvettes and destroyers on which he served like RCN ships Niagara, Long Branch, and Algonquin. I’ve never read a clearer exposition of the battle of the Atlantic from a participant’s viewpoint than the superb chapters on The Atlantic Lifeline and Of Canadians and Convoys.

This is the third Robin Brass book I’ve read in the past year, and frankly these have been the best-produced and reader-friendly ones I can remember over years of following books by or about Canadians at war. The format—wider than higher, with two columns a page—and the generous use of white space produced a paperback of 312 pages with quality illustrations and a variety of material from intimate memories of the author, including survival in icy waters and lucid narratives of both wearing routine and fierce sub attacks on convoys to frankness about stupid leadership and wisdom on how to handle the wondrous but difficult diversity of Canadian sailors. Believe me, this is a gem, and well worth its price—$25!

Although I know my judgment on books about Canadian soldiers and units is much better founded than those on the RCN and the Royal Canadian Air Force, my French has never been good enough to take me into the histories and memoirs of French-Canadians and their units. And so I jumped at the chance to read a new, concise history in English of the Van Doos.

The Royal 22e Régiment, 1914-1999, by Serge Bernier, has been translated from French by Charles Phillips and was published in 2000 by Art Global, Montreal in a hefty paperback of 450 pages. It has much on the emergence of the Van Doos in the Great War as the premiere military unit for French-Canadians, its achievements over its 84-year history perhaps personified best in the career of the late General Georges Vanier.

Just like a recent history of the South Alberta Regiment, this book radiates esprit de corps and a continuing comradeship, but in this case not about a militia or reserve regiment but a permanent force, or PF, unit with elements serving abroad and at home today. The history has much less on deeds recalled by individuals than in the South Alberta account but its storyline follows more closely the changing regimental leadership and the fulfilling of assignments through the years. In consequence, there is more text on serving in peace than in wars.

In particular, I found the chapters of the Van Doos in Korea informative and I wish the account in the book of regiment’s intervention and containment of the critical confrontations at the Mohawk Indians’ Oka reserve a decade ago was more widely known.

Lastly, I want to note the publication of a well-written story and compilation titled: Salute To The Air Force Medical Branch On The 75th Anniversary Royal Canadian Air Force by Harold M. Wright, a retired lieutenant-colonel. This paperback of 290 pages has profiles of all the leaders of the air force medical branch followed by sections on: Aviation medicine pioneers; The flight surgeons; Search and rescue medics; The physicians; The nightingales; The innkeepers; and The apothecaries.
What a colossal task to locate, select, and shape such profuse and varied data into an accessible handbook. There must be thousands of former air force members since the 1930s in this “salute”. It may be ordered by e-mail at hwright@webruler.com.

Source: BY DOUGLAS FISHER, LEGION MAGAZINE

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