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Legion Magazine – January/February 2002 « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

Legion Magazine – January/February 2002

This is a column of tips on some recent memoirs or stories by or about war veterans. Each has at least two good attributes: believable experiences, clearly told.
Let me begin with the most unusual and harrowing one. It is a younger brother’s recapturing of an older brother’s quixotic, up-and-down career in Vancouver from the late 1940s to the late 1990s as an advocate for veterans and others in difficulty through poverty and ill health.

Brother Bill And The Vets by Peter Hennessy was published this year by Hennessy Books, Elginburg, ON K1H 1M0. It’s a substantial, illustrated paperback of 220 pages. If the book is anything it is a referenced representation of what veterans “down on their luck” faced. It has much on joblessness, alcoholism, and mental disturbance. Bill was born in 1926, died in 1998. He was the second son of a farmhand who had been severely wounded on the Western Front in WW I and returned to eastern Ontario to marry and farm on scrub land not far from Trenton, Ont. As a family the Hennessys were at a subsistence level and among the rural poor as the Great Depression deepened. Bill left a rural school at 16 short of Grade 10, and a year later in 1943 he “went active” after some months in the militia. He was slight, rather small, and army records indicate he was willing, positive, and likable. In mid-1944 he was on a draft to Britain and shortly thereafter he became a reinforcement with the 3rd Division of the Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry Highlanders. In late November near Nijmegen Bill was severely wounded in the lungs and spine by shards from a German bomb or rocket, and eventually came home as a stretcher-case, seemingly to life as a paraplegic.

Colonel Harry Botterell, a superb doctor at Lyndhurst Lodge in Toronto, helped bring Bill back from nearly total disablement to a gimpy normality. He decided to try life in British Columbia. Winter there was less dangerous to one in his condition. After several years working for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Vancouver, he became a service officer for the Legion, counselling veterans with problems. He was very effective but eventually criticism of his hard pressures on behalf of clients and some drinking lapses of his own led to his separation from the Legion. Shortly he found a role as counsellor for the poor with First United Church on Vancouver’s east side.

Bill became an authority on social legislation and the working of bureaucracies—federal, provincial, and municipal. In political outlook he became an enthusiastic New Democrat, inspired by continuing co-operation over the years with Stanley Knowles, the late, much venerated MP and authority on pensions and medicare.

Meantime younger brother Peter had made his way through Queen’s University, become a high school teacher, then a professor of education at Queen’s until his retirement. His contacts with Bill were random for years but he knew that his brother had become a persistent advocate for the many down-and-out folk of east Vancouver. He himself coped with repeated sickness but his determined interventions with mandarins and politicians never ceased.

So it came to pass that Peter, after his brother’s death and some time with files of his cases, chose to research his brother’s career for a book. The following paragraph puts plainly what Peter saw in Bill’s life work for those in need.

“Bill looked into the faces of poor people every day in downtown Vancouver. He saw and heard a lot more than ignorant whining, though there is always some of that. He learned about injustice and about practical ways to make things better. Outstandingly, he learned that human dignity is a right which belongs to everyone but it is accorded in vastly different measures according to one’s place in the pecking order…. His time as a fighting soldier was short and brutal but long enough for him to learn that the grunts on the firing line, the foot soldiers, were unequally exposed to injury and death and under-rewarded for their effort afterwards.”

Canada is lucky there are many—though never enough—largely unknown, and often imperfect contributors to a kinder society like the late Bill Hennessy. His story, told with frankness, warts and all made me reflect again on postwar Canada, its social and welfare system and practices, and how so many coped and some did not.

My next recommendation is a cheerier tale by a gifted musician, bandleader, and soldier: Here Was A Piper, A Scottish Piper: Memoirs Of Pipe Major John T. Mackenzie. This handsome book focused on a powerful, upright, genial man with great gifts as leader and teacher, was published by Heritage Books, Box 95, Station O, Toronto, M4A 2M8. It is a richly illustrated paperback of 176 pages.

To say this is a conventional memoir is right but that suggests a trite or common life. The wonder is how much John Mackenzie has experienced, including months in battle in North Africa with Britain’s Scots Guards. He was enrolled at nine as a boy piper in a military school in Perthshire, and retired 58 years later in Canada after decades as a pipe major. The Royal Canadian Air Force brought him into its fold as a bandleader and instructor in 1952.

Lamone: A Novel About The Canadian Army In The Italian Campaign In World War II by David B. Clark is published by General Store Publishing House, Box 28, 1694 Burnstown Rd., Burnstown, ON K0J 1G0; paperback, maps, 199 pages.

This is the second book in a trilogy by Dr. Clark, a psychiatrist who once served in the Royal Canadian Regiment. It is a fictional interpretation about the bitter, controversial mauling of several infantry regiments, especially the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. and the Royal Canadian Regt., in attacks along the Lamone River in early December 1944. My first awareness of controversy over this disaster came from mention of it by the renowned author Farley Mowat, regimental historian of the Hasty Ps, in his 1992 book, My Father’s Son. In a letter home, Dec. 7, 1944, Mowat wrote: “The regiment has been to hell, and only part of it got back. Was sent to hell. Most of the few, old friends I still had are gone. I’m too flaming mad to dwell upon it now or I might do something we’d all regret. Perhaps I’ll be able to talk about it later on, but keep the name Lamone River in your minds. It’s seared in mine.”

Novelist Clark unfolds the story of the Lamone through the device of a visit to Italy and the battlefields half a century after the battle by Joe Tenuta of Barrie, Ont., a brother of two men who had fallen in the battle.

The action is done convincingly, particularly in portraying bad generalship, much of it hinging on the callousness of General Charles Foulkes. Historian Jack Granatstein described a few years ago as “arguably Canada’s greatest bureaucrat but certainly not the most successful or most admired field soldier Canada produced in WW II.”

Although the denouement of the novel seemed hyperbolic, its improbability does not mar a remarkable exposition of soldiers in desperate fighting on terrible ground against a tough, able enemy. Clark was advised by many still living D-Day Dodgers, including retired colonel Strome Galloway, a distinguished veteran of the RCRs and well-known as a former Legion Magazine columnist and contributor.

Sons Of The Pioneers: Memories Of Veterans Of The Algonquin Regiment, by John Macfie, is published by Hay Press,16 Isabella St., Parry Sound, ON P2A 1L8; paperback; illustrated, 135 pages. This is a simple book with remembrances, one after the other, by 10 veterans of their time with the Algonquin Regt. in WW II. What lifts it into a memorable encounter with the lively community which is the essence of a fine regiment is the quality of the interviewing and editing by John Macfie. He has caught the make-up and values of those he has talked with, most of them from the mining and lumbering reaches of Northern Ontario. Macfie has been recording oral history in and around Parry Sound for over four decades and he is very good at it.

The Nuking Of Happy Valley, And Other Tales Told In The Mess, by James Glassco Henderson, has illustrations by D.A. Wood and was published by Trafford, 6E-2333 Government St., Victoria, BC V8T 4P4. This paperback of 156 pages has 36 essays and pithy anecdotes, some light and witty, others are explanatory about assignments and roles played by our army from Korea to the 1980s. The prose is clear, cogent and rich in common sense. Henderson is not just a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Canadian Artillery. He served in Korea, Cyprus, West Germany, and at bases like Gagetown, Shilo, and Sussex. Post-army he lived in Barrie, Ont., then became a magazine editor and publisher. Some essays make one aware how often our regular forces since 1945 have given aid in Canada to the civil power—for example, in Newfoundland forest fires and Manitoba floods. There’s much on peacekeeping in Cyprus with all its wretched, petty antagonism between Turks and Greeks, and not surprisingly, given the author’s critical faculties, Paul Hellyer, the great unifier, is not kindly portrayed. In sum, I found this book shrewd and succinct in both opinions and fascinating incidents.

Few old, Hollywood movies get more replay than The Devil’s Brigade featuring William Holden. Long ago my repeated viewing of this tale of the First Special Service Force made me curious about what it must have been really like to serve regularly in a unit combining American and Canadian soldiers. So it was a pleasant surprise to get a copy of his WW II memoir from one Peter Cottingham of his service from its beginning in 1942 to its dissolution in 1944. The book, a paperback of 194 pages published by the author in 1996, is called Once Upon A Wartime: A Canadian Who Survived The Devil’s Brigade.

Cottingham was a Manitoban from Swan River who enlisted in mid-1940 in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. After several years training in Britain he volunteered for a “special” force of paratroopers and was sent to join a battalion training at Helena, Mont. There the FSSF began to shape, and in a few months he was made the senior sergeant in charge of non-commissioned officers at battalion headquarters.
There is almost no preoccupation in this account with the split in nationalities. Yanks and Canadians got along. Hard training and much transit time to different theatres and varied assignments knit together a high-spirited formation which kept prideful through heavy casualties. The author is at his best in describing the details of particular missions, as in the bleak Aleutians or the vicious shelling which highlighted the grave dangers of the Anzio beachhead. He’s zealous on weaponry and writes familiarly and with clarity of infantry gun usage.

On the Riviera in December 1944, the FSSF was pulled out of the line and disbanded, the Canadians shipping off to Britain and new assignations—our author to officer training. At the last parade “The Canadians among us were ordered to fall out and form up as one unit. That was the first time since joining the Force we had ever done so. It soon became apparent to many of us that people we thought to be Canadian were in fact Americans and vice versa. It was a memorable occasion, not without some moments of regret.”

Readers interested in the wartime merchant navy and the aftermath of the war against Japan should get pleasure from the novel The Sampan Girl, written by G. Gordon Mumford, now a Canadian but a merchant navy radio officer in WW II. The publisher is again General Store Publishing House.

The novel opens in mid-1945 in Britain as its central figure joins a small tanker before it sails to the Pacific to work with fleet vessels cleaning up in South East Asia. In the crown colony, the hero meets and falls for a very young and beautiful Chinese girl. He soon learns she had recently been sold by her father to a “dragon” madame at a grand bordello.

Source: BY DOUGLAS FISHER, LEGION MAGAZINE

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