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Jack Knox: So many stories, so few Second World War vets left to tell them

Of the dozens of veterans of the Second World War who shared their stories with me over the years, only a few are still with us

As a young Second World War naval officer, Peter Chance fended off Luftwaffe and U-boat attacks but dreaded the heaving seas and bitter cold of the North Atlantic more. His boots were so heavy that he feared being dragged under if swept overboard by a towering green wave.

The Sidney man survived, though. Never seen without a smile on his face, he’ll turn 102 in two weeks.

As befits his first name, Noel Parker-Jervis will reach the same age as Chance on Christmas Day. He still lives in his Saanich home, where he carries on a long-distance ­correspondence with his friend Vivienne Westwood, the English fashion designer.

Noel, better known as Bachee, gained fame during the war for deserting to get into, not out of, the fighting. ­Frustrated to be stuck guarding a remote B.C. island against a non-existent enemy, he hopped a train to Halifax, signed on to a Britain-bound cargo ship, surrendered to the military police in England, and then ended up in the thick of the action in Italy, just like he wanted.

At 96, Gordie Quan is a young pup compared to Chance and Parker-Jervis. Growing up Chinese-Canadian, Quan wasn’t allowed to swim in Victoria’s Crystal Pool or sit in the main floor of movie theatres, but the discrimination didn’t stop the teenager from volunteering for the ­Canadian Army and commando training in 1944.

Quan will be at the Chinese-Canadian museum in Fan Tan Alley from 11:30-1:30 today, just around the corner from a Fisgard Street plaque naming the 61 local Chinese-Canadian boys who signed up to fight in the war. Quan and Victor Wong are the only ones still living.

Nanaimo’s Victor Osborne once told me matter-of-factly how Indian Army gunboats would spirit him up jungle ­rivers in Burma and drop him off behind Japanese positions, where, often working alone, he would blow up bridges before making his escape.

It was left to his daughter to disclose that he had volunteered for special operations out of anger, German bombers having killed his father in his London hospital bed during the Blitz of 1940.

Victor turns 104 today, Remembrance Day.

Nobody is sure how many of the million Canadians who served in the Second World War still survive. Last year, using mathematical modelling, Veterans Affairs estimated 26,000. Census findings now indicate that figure might have been high, though.

My own personal census shows that of the dozens of veterans of that conflict who shared their stories with me over the years, Chance, Parker-Jervis, Quan and Osborne are the only ones I know are still with us.

Sidney’s Chic Goodman was the latest to pass away. His obituary appeared in the Times Colonist last weekend. Goodman should have died in Belgium in 1944 but was spared when his company commander, Harry Williams of Victoria, ordered the 18-year-old infantryman to stay put as Williams rushed forward to save troops from an ambush.

Williams was killed. Goodman survived the day, and the war, though he was later knocked unconscious when his Bren gun carrier hit a landmine, killing the three men with him.

Sixty years later, after retiring to the Island, Goodman tracked down Williams’s son Ross of Oak Bay. The latter had been born in 1942 one day before his father left for the war, never to come back. Tears were shed when Ross Williams and Goodman met. They became good friends.

Also good friends: Henry Demski and Alf Trueman. After all, they had a lot in common. Both lived in Victoria’s Glenshiels retirement home. Both had the same birthday, July 30. Both had fought at the battle of El Alamein in 1942 — Demski in the German army shooting at Trueman, and Trueman in the British army shooting at Demski.

“If Rommel could see us now,” said Trueman in 2013, nudging Demski. “My brother,” said Demski, patting Trueman on the hand.

Those are the stories, the individual human stories, that still get to us — and that disappear when the people who lived them are gone.

So few remain. Saanich’s Mac Colquhoun, whose PoW camp exploits — he got rid of excavated escape-tunnel dirt by sifting it out his pant legs as he strolled around Stalag Luft III — became the stuff of Hollywood movies, died in 2020 at age 103.

Also going that year was Sidney’s Ken Curry, the very last of the 582 men of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry who landed at Dieppe in 1942. A third of them were killed that day, an appalling waste that infuriated Curry for the rest of his life.

Curry himself was wounded and taken prisoner at Dieppe. So was Langford’s Jim Vincent, who endured three escapes, three captures and three Christmases in a German salt mine, and who tattooed his arms — a cowboy on one, an Indian the other — to show his guards that he was a Canadian, not an Englander like the other prisoners. Sidney’s Lynn Henshaw survived Dieppe, but then got chased out of the army after it was discovered he was just 16.

Crofton’s Denis Higgins was only 14 when, motivated by the death of his submariner brother, he joined Britain’s merchant marine. He was still 14 when sunk for the first of three times. He spent 11 days in a lifeboat. Two of the others in the craft drank seawater, went crazy, and jumped in the ocean, never to be seen again.

Doug Laurie swam away from HMCS Athabaskan before it sank in the English Channel one inky black night, taking 128 men with it, but he missed a life ring thrown from its sister ship, HMCS Haida. Coated in oil and exhausted, he drifted for four hours before being picked up by the Germans and was sent to spend the last year of the war in a PoW camp.

Air gunner Earl Taylor also ended up a prisoner, in his case after bailing out of a flaming Lancaster bomber near Berlin one night in March 1943. Two years later, with Russians advancing from the east, the sick and starving PoWs were sent west in a month-long march in sub-zero temperatures. “We used to pick frozen vegetables out of the ground when we had the chance,” Taylor said.

He would later open Taylor’s Pharmacy in Cordova Bay. Didn’t like to talk about the war.

A lot of guys were like that, though sometimes they had no choice but to remember. Seventy years after D-Day, Earl Clark gripped the arms of his wheelchair and trembled while describing how the horror would flood back uninvited.

“Every once in a while you wake up in the middle of the night and, boom, you’re right there,” he said. Behind him in their room at Broadmead’s Veterans Memorial Lodge, his war bride Margaret, the one whose toes he tried not to tread on when they met at a dance in northern Scotland, listened to his tale in silence.

Brothers Ken and Terry Byron were among a big mob of Salt Spring Island boys who signed up with the Canadian Scottish Regiment. Both were platoon sergeants when wounded, and both ended up working their Salt Spring Island farms into their 90s, when they were still tougher than you were in your 20s.

Terry was a laugh-a-minute type, but little brother Ken was more serious, particularly when talking about the hot, dusty, death-strewn road to Falaise in August 1944.

Bulldozers had plowed through the carnage to make a path for the advancing Canadians. “Dead men, horses, livestock in nearby fields, all rotting,” he would recall more than half a century later. “The smell is still with me.”

After being captured in what is now Indonesia, Rudi Hoenson spent 3 ½ years in slave labour in Japan, and was down to 80 pounds when he looked up one day just in time to glimpse a passing plane drop a parachute. Then the Nagasaki nuclear bomb detonated over his head.

Immersed in a hellscape of dead and dying women and children, he suffered burns and radiation poisoning.

I once asked the Saanich philanthropist how he, who had every reason to be bitter, had become such a contented man. He got to come to Canada, he replied. He got to meet his wife. “What else do you want?”

Oh, what a generation. On Remembrance Day, as they fade away, don’t forget them.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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