Untold Canadian stories of WWII preserved in new book, website
By: Michael Oliveira, The Canadian Press
TORONTO - Maurice White still questions whether he really had to shoot that German soldier on Christmas Day 1943. Betty Dimock recalls the horrifying conditions in hospitals, where nurses had to scoop maggots out of patients' wounds with a soup ladle. And Bernard Finestone struggles through tears as he talks about holding his friend's hand in the battlefield as he passed away.
Every week, an average of 400 to 500 Second World War veterans die in Canada, and with them go stories — often untold — of how their lives were shaped by the "Good War" and the terrible fight that consumed so many.
But more of those stories are now being preserved through a two-year project launched by the Historica-Dominion Institute called "The Memory Project: Stories of the Second World War," a comprehensive oral history of Canada's role in the war.
So far, about 2,000 veterans have had their stories recorded and artifacts scanned digitally for the website and more will be archived through March 2011. And last week, the book "We Were Freedom: Canadian Stories of the Second World War," was released, featuring 65 Canadian vignettes.
The project was launched last summer after concerns were raised that too many Canadian stories of the Second World War were being lost, said Andrew Cohen, president of the Historica-Dominion Institute.
"It's interesting to approach veterans today because (when) they returned from the war ... they didn't spend a lot of time thinking or talking about the war and the horrors they had seen," Cohen said.
"They weren't of the generation that shared, they weren't tweeting their memories, they weren't posting them on walls on Facebook, they weren't texting them. Even if all that technology had been available, they wouldn't avail themselves of it because it wasn't them, they didn't talk about it.
"They have told us that if they don't speak now their stories will never be told, because in many cases they never talked about this."
While there is a big focus on Juno Beach and D-Day when discussing Canada's contributions to the Allied forces' war effort, there are many different stories to be told, Cohen said. There are tales about romances that blossomed in times of unbearable tragedy, and reflections on the role of women in the war, including the work of tens of thousands of nurses.
"Our attempt was to show that not everyone had the same war," Cohen said.
Dimock, born in Saint John, N.B., achieved her "great ambition" by working as a nurse in the war. But she was shocked by the harrowing conditions she faced at a hospital in South Africa. There were no antibiotics and bandages to dress wounds were scarce.
"We had to wash out the dirty, old, soiled, infected dressings and hang them on the line in the sun and use them again that night," she recalls in the book and on the website.
Years later, she was stationed in England and was finally able to treat soldiers with penicillin. But the needles weren't nearly sharp enough for the injections.
"They just screamed, it was terrible," she recalled. "We didn't like doing it, we had to do it. And they'd hide. That was a hard, hard treatment really for them, getting these shots of penicillin. And it was hard for us to do."
White, of Edmonton, talked candidly about how he still feels guilty for killing an enemy on Christmas. He was on lookout duty and was enjoying a hot meal — pork, mashed potatoes and gravy, and a beer — when he spotted a German soldier. He shot him.
"At the time it didn't bother me but ever since I've thought, 'Why did I do that? It was Christmas Day,'" White recalled in the book and on the website.
"I shouldn't have but maybe then it would have been him shooting at me. You don't have a choice, you either shoot somebody or they shoot you."
Finestone, a captain who fought the elite of the Germany army through tough Italian battles, said he's glad stories of the war are being recounted, even though they're difficult to share.
The Montreal native makes no apologizes for breaking the rules during war and giving as good as he got from the Nazis. After watching the Germans shoot at medics and kill prisoners, Canadians decided to respond in kind, Finestone said.
"I shot down more than 30 Germans who were trying to surrender, that was the war we fought and we fought the war that way," he said.
"Canadians were tough. If the Germans did something to us, we did it to them — I bet you'll never find that comment in any history book."
On the Memory Project website you can hear Finestone choke up as he talks about some of his more painful memories of the war. He describes how he consoled one of his dying friends and held his hand — with his "guts spilling out" — in the final moments before he died.
"You don't recover from that. You never recover from that," Finestone said.
"But it goes. It burns off, it disappears. Is it a pleasant thing? No. Winning is great, losing is terrible, but the stress is murder.
"We've got a great number of things to be extremely proud of but the dirty part of war is a part of war. And not to tell the truth, not to carry the stories out, is a terrible mistake. Do I enjoy telling these stories? No. It brings tears to my eyes every time. But it has to be done."
"The Memory Project: Stories of the Second World War" —www.thememoryproject.com
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