Saturday, March 29, 2008

Uncle Willie

My great-uncle Willie was one of 11 children born into a French Canadian family in a tiny village in Cape Breton in the early 1920s. He joined the Merchant Marine as soon as he was old enough and served on ship. In 1942, he and a few shipmates were discussing the heavy losses occurring in the St. Lawrence Seaway and on convoys across the Atlantic. They, like many other young men, wanted to do more to "stop the Hun", as he told me. So they went to the nearest Armed Forces office and signed up for the regular army or "where ever they needed us". He said a guy came around and was looking for volunteers for a new unit. Eager to get into action, and not knowing the first rule of the Army (never volunteer for anything), Uncle Willie said the next thing he knew he was jumping out of airplanes over Montana.

Turns out Uncle Willie became a member of the 1st Special Service Forces, a joint US-Canada commando unit who came to be known by the Germans as the Black Devils. they were trained in a variety of areas, including hand to hand fighting, stealth maneuvers, mountaneering and demolitions.

Willie, like his siblings, was small and wiry, with dark coloring. Oh, and very handsome. He was fluent in French as it was his mother tongue and I can only imagine that was a bonus for being parachuted into occupied France.

I don't know how many jumps he made, but I do know that he was taken prisoner at least twice, but managed to make an escape. I asked him once if he captured any Germans and he said only two. "And one of them was drunk", he said. I don't know if I believe any or all of what he told me. I asked him about injuries, too. He told me about a grenade being lobbed into a group of them and they all hit the dirt as it was exploding. He got up afterwards and had a slightly sore nose, but he thought it was from diving face first into the dirt. About a month later he went to the Army doctor because his nose was really sore. The doc looked at it and felt it. Then he worked out a piece of shrapnel that had been embedded since the grenade explosion. I asked him if he saved it and he said no, but he wished he had.

After the Devil's Brigade, Willie stayed in the Canadian Armed Forces. He was sent to Brandon, Manitoba, where he was a physical education instructor and where at the age of 30 he had a stroke. He was married by that time and had a young daughter and all of a sudden he couldn't walk or talk. He amazingly recovered 100%, I imagine because of his fitness level and sheer stubborness.

Sometime in the 60s or 70s Uncle Willie retired from the Armed Forces and started a new life selling insurance in his home province. Every time I saw him I was struck at how regimented his life seemed to be. I guess he was used to routine and liked it that way. But he was a very gentle soul. And always dressed very nicely. I remember he wore a gold chain bracelet that was such a contrast to his dark colouring and as a child I was amazed at how clean his hands always were. I also thought he was extraordinarily handsome. So did my mother, she tells me. In fact when she was a little girl she used to want to marry him when she grew up. An she told him that, too.

His wife passed away about 10 years ago and he moved into a senior's complex where he lived on his own until he had a car accident 3 years later. He wasn't injured too badly; it was determined he had a TIA, a mini-sroke. And he had probably been having them for some time. He didn't want to, but he eventually moved into a nursing home.

About three years ago, I went to visit family in Cape Breton and called Uncle Willie to see if he wanted to take a drive to the old homestead one afternoon. I went to the nursing home at 9 AM to pick him up and he was rarin' to go. Off we went, and he had brought a pair of binoculars so we stopped from time to time to take in the spectacular views. We went by the old homestead and had lunch at a local diner. Willie asked if we could stop at the Legion Hall. Of course! So in we went and he told me stories about some of the young men from the village whose pictures were on the walls. Of course the pictures were of the men who hadn't returned. It was sad, but a good day.

Uncle Willie died a year ago at the age of 85. He was still very handsome.


mdmhvonpa said...

Hidden lives of some people make me feel as if my life is anemic.

Shauna said...

I almost missed out on a lot of Uncle Willie's history. I would ask him questions, his wife would poo poo him as he began to answer, saying "Willie, they don't want to hear that" and Willie would go quiet. I was too young to assert myself with my aunt so after she passed away I was able to have my questions answered. A lot of us wondered why he was with my aunt as long as he was, and the only thing I can come up with is that Willie saw her good qualities and was very Catholic. On one visit to Willie when his wife was sill alive, I told my then husband that I would keep my aunt busy while he got some stories from Willie. The plan worked! And you know the rest of the story.

I wish I had been able to talk to him about his time as a POW and how he escaped. I suspect he would just tell me the guards were drunk or something like that.

I do make a point, when meeting any veteran, to ask about their service, which branch of the military, and why they joined up. At a Walmart a few years, back my mom struck up a conversation with a veteran manning an information table. Mom asked him about his service and mentioned her daughter was particularly interested in the Signal Corps. He said he had a copy of a photograph of him and others in his unit during their time in Europe and would I like a copy? Mom said yes, and he hobbled out to his car to get it. I will cherish it forever. It's a part of our history and now a part of mine.

I knew another Merchant Mariner who was a POW for 4 years. The guy came back from the war very physically disabled from beatings, poor nutrition, and poor hygeine as a POW. He had health problems for the rest of his life, but was an absolute delight to chat with. He was also an excellent folk artist with fantastic cane carvings, some of which are now in our provincial Art Gallery.

I love talking to these guys.