Faces of experience ring the room at Carlton House. An impromptu luncheon organized by one of the veterans at the table, a baker’s dozen of residents, break bread and share wartime tales.
Doreen Gage was a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse at an attack station who had one of those rapid romances wartime can hurry long.
She started writing him before the war, they knew each other, but weren’t attached before that.
After he returned home, “we were married in 10 days … we had a brief romance,” she said with a laugh.
In the lobby hangs a 1958 photo of a young man in the 1st Battalion Royal New Brunswick Regiment.
“I was too young for the Second World War, my first experience would be the Korean War,” said David McAlary, the subject of the photo. “I started my career as a private and ended my career as a captain.”
He gets a good laugh for a story he shares, though it starts with six weeks in military hospital. Injured during a training exercise with live ammunition, he loved the tales of those returning from overseas as they bragged about the Japanese girls.
Sheen Guest lived in Glasgow, Scotland, under a direct line for the bombers headed for Clydebank, where the big ships were built. Two days of bombing destroyed the city in the spring of 1941.
“I think I’m here under false pretences, I had my share of the Second World War but I was 10 when the war started,” Guest said. “The bombers did come and we spent a lot of time in air raid shelters. At that age, the memories really are almost more of interest and excitement instead of being scared. I’m sure my parents were scared.”
Clayton Gallienne – “that’s an old Normandy name” – was with his mother and among the last evacuated when Germany took over the Channel Islands in June 1940.
“We were living in the Channel Islands in 1939 when the war started,” he said. “My mother and I were the last of the family living in the Channel Islands, on the island of Guernsey … My mother and I got on the last mail boat coming out.”
He too joined the military, wanting to join the navy, but the government decided otherwise and he wound up in the RAF as a navigator. “My first camp was Royal Air Force Harwell (Berkshire, England) that now is the atomic research station for England,” he said. Various bomber squadrons were stationed at the airfield, responsible for leaflet and later bombing raids.
He recalls a few “belly flops” on occasion due to equipment failures.
“I did have a shrapnel hit on this right hand side,” Gallienne says with a slap to that hip, “which is only playing up now incidentally.”
“We made the best of it, and thank God I’m here to tell the story.”
The stories are part of every day life, they don’t wait to tell them on Remembrance Day. When they share, for Jim Newby anyway, it’s the stories with a light nature.
Some share more than others.
Holocaust survivor George Pal is quiet most of the meal. Born in Czechoslovakia, he is the oldest living Holocaust survivor on the Island.
“I was taken to a concentration camp when I was 17,” he said. “My military service started after liberation in the Czech revolution in the army.”
However, the Carlton resident wrote a book – Prisoners of Hope and also shares stories through I-witness, a Holocaust field school project at the University of Victoria.
University played a large role early on for Jim Newby, who tried to join the navy at 18. “The navy decided I had to continue my education,” Jim said. They sent him back to University of Alberta and upon graduation “they decided I was fit to be a submariner so I was sent to Toronto to a school where I learned machine work and construction materials.
He then went to “torpedo school” in Halifax.
“The war then was just at its tail end … I was afraid I wouldn’t get a ship,” he said. While Canada had no submarines at the time, Newby was assigned to the HMCS Charlottetown, a Royal Canadian Navy corvette torpedoed and sunk Sept. 11, 1942. It’s unique that Charlottetown and its pennant number were later used for a river-class frigate.
The stories become like snapshots handed around the table, prompting memories and experiences. Gallienne talks of the handful of times he wound up in underground bunkers in London during bombing.
“It is a sorrowful state during an air raid, but also a beautiful state,” he says. “You really saw humanity.”
Mothers would hand a stranger her baby and a bottle, trusting them completely to feed her child while nursing another.
“You’re quite right,” says Gage. “They were so together.”
Migs recalled trips to London’s Victoria Station where he followed suit when people climbed under trolleys as the unmanned bombs were heard approaching. “Then everybody just got up and carried on.”
Dr. Michael Cooper wound up doing cleanup after the war, shipping people home again with the Indian Army, in India. He and some pals went down to try and sign up at 16, but the army wouldn’t have it.
“They couldn’t take us in until we were 17 1/2… for me that happened in April of ’45 so my veteran’s service was not very long, as you can imagine,” he said.
“We went down to Kent in the Queens Royal Regiment. We were training jungle warfare in the south Downs of England,” he says, to a titter around the table. “They were teaching us how to react to the Japanese in Burma, because we were all going to join the Indian Army.
“They were doing the jungle warfare when victory was declared and we spent the remainder of our six months in Britain training then went to Bangalor in India.
“We spent the rest of the time in movement control in Bombay,” he said, “putting people on ships and getting the Brits back to England and bringing back the Indian Army from Europe.“The first people to be evacuated from India were placed on the ships and went in February 1946.”
He spent another two years in the military.
“I was told I could be sent anywhere in the world,” said Walter Gibson, “The way things turned out I ended up spending most of the war in Canada….Most of my service was at No. 3 Wireless School (in Winnipeg) where we taught Australian and New Zealand students in the air force.”
Today, Nov. 11, the same room at Carlton House features photos and mementos of these and other residents with tales to share. They’ll hold their own small ceremony at 11 a.m. to honour and remember those who did not come home.