They call it Duty – we call it Bravery

15 January 2004

What are they made of, those veterans amongst us who have ­experienced war up close and personal? In a long career of writing newspaper columns I’ve interviewed hundreds of them and a common thread is their placid acceptance of having survived. They don’t seem to recognize bravery in their actions. In almost 40 years in journalism I've interviewed hundreds of veterans who have put in time at the point of the wartime spear and I marvel at their ability to have survived the experience and still appear normal. The latest was retired LCol Harriet “Hallie” Sloan, Canadian war nurse who rose to the title of Matron in Chief. A Saskatoon native, she retired from the ­military in 1968 in Ottawa where she still lives. She’s 86, an active volunteer, quick-witted and humorous.

During our November interview she recalled being in Antwerp in late 1944 the day a V2 rocket hit a crowded movie theatre. I decided to focus on that event. She described the rockets as “horrors” and said she had no idea of how many hit the vital port city while she was there. There was a trace of avoidance on the subject of rockets and that’s a sure way to make an interviewer focus.

A tour through a V2 website gave an idea of why one would want to avoid numbers. Because of wartime security, ­little was known of Antwerp’s ordeal.

After the Allies retook the important Belgian port Hitler lashed back with a fury. In the last few months of 1944 and early ’45, he unleashed a major rocket attack. In little more than four months the city was hit by 1,742 V2 rockets – each arriving unheard because they were supersonic and each impacting with a force greater than a train wreck. At the same time 2,248 V1s (Doodlebugs) were sent against the city.

Nurse Sloan said it wasn’t their numbers or their noise that bothered her in memory. It was that she was supposed to keep a brave front for the benefit of her patients, and she couldn’t. “When they exploded my right hand jumped to my right shoulder. I couldn’t make it stop.”

Six decades later she’s reluctant to admit she flinched under fire.

I noticed the same reluctance in Cliff Chadderton during a 1995 interview. When asked how he lost a leg, he joked. “I stepped one foot into Holland and left it there.” The interview hung up on that point and eventually the executive director of the War Amps of Canada gave some detail.

He was on a reconnaissance mission and being chased and shot at. He dove into a slit trench and when out of ammunition watched a German soldier stand at the edge of the trench, arm a grenade, and throw it in.

The old soldier says he was lucky. The blast cost him a leg but it also collapsed the trench and the heavy earth slowed the bleeding. He spent a night contemplating his mortality. If the planned attack didn’t go ahead, or if it failed, he would slowly bleed to death. And he jokes about it.

In 1998 in his room at the Perley and Rideau Veterans Centre, Stephen Mew, Vimy Ridge veteran, 103, avoided the question: Were you wounded? At first he said he couldn’t remember, but that didn’t jibe with the clear memories he had leading up to the question. I stopped asking questions and waited. The silence lasted more than a minute and I could see he was playing memory tapes.

“I was gassed at Lens. Mustard. I was blind for four months.” His eyes filled with tears and I felt shame at pushing the issue. Here was a man who had known the limits of extreme pain and he too had been joking about his war. He died the following year, at age 104.

George Blackburn inspired the same awe when we talked about his wildly successful trilogy, The Guns of Normandy, in 1996. How could a man who experienced so many near death encounters be so matter of fact? As a forward observation officer (FOO) he spent most of his battles in front of the spear, calling back aiming coordinates.

In reading his books, one doesn’t get the feeling of how close he was to the edge. His own gunners were running a dead pool on him – making bets about when the odds would catch up with him. There are those who believe he was probably the only FOO to land on D Day and survive the war.

Every time I hear cries about the dangers of violent games I think about people like these. Their violence wasn’t on a screen. They stood in the gore of war and were somehow able to go back to what seemed normal lives.

It’s when one sees the hesitations ­during an interview that one knows they didn’t come back unchanged.

Dave Brown retired in 2003 after a 38-year career as an Ottawa columnist. Many of his 10,000 columns were individual war memories In 1997 He won the Canadian Legion Media Award.
© FrontLine Defence 2004