‘I’m never sure I belong here’: As their numbers dwindle, older vets honour fallen friends
In 2017, men like John Preece are becoming increasingly rare.
Of the over one million Canadians who fought in the Second World War, just over 60,000 were still alive as of November 2016. A year later, Preece’s follow servicemen and women are likely even fewer in number.
“I haven’t done this very often. I’m never sure I belong here,” Preece, 91, told Global News as he sat at the foot of the National War Memorial on Saturday morning. “I don’t feel that I did a great thing.”
WATCH: Full coverage of Remembrance Day 2017
Most Canadians would disagree, of course, and the country paused on Saturday at 11 a.m. to remember the service and sacrifice of Canada’s veterans.
But the faces of those veterans are necessarily changing as the years tick by, with older vets like Preece gradually replaced at the national Remembrance Day ceremony by younger ones who have served in more recent conflicts.
“I’m certainty reminded of the sacrifice when I come here and I see all this stuff, it’s much more meaningful than it ever was,” Preece said.
“Especially now that I’m older and reaching the end of the road.”
Preece was wounded on April 2, 1945 in Holland, just months before the end of the Second World War. He said he understands why young people in Canada can’t always grasp what his generation went through. The world — and the nature of war itself — has changed dramatically in the seven decades since.
When he spoke to a group of young people on Friday night, Preece said, many couldn’t fathom having to kill someone they didn’t even know.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be bombed … I don’t blame the young people (who are) more concerned about getting a job and somehow making it,” he said.
“In my generation when we came back from the war, everything was gung-ho. You got your jobs, I went to university and got two degrees.”
A few seats away, veteran Bruce Udle of Newfoundland and Labrador said his military service marked the end of a kind of childhood innocence.
“I think about when we were kids, the things we used to do compared to what we’d done after that,” Udle said. “We used to play cowboys and Indians and then we ended up playing war in Korea, and my older compatriots in the First World War.”
Udle spends a lot of his time now in a woodworking shop at Ste. Anne’s Hospital in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, near Montreal.
“You check in every morning, and when I started there about 15 years ago, there was about 30 sheets of us veterans’ names,” he recalled. “We’re down to about three sheets now … (but) I’m still alive, I’m around to bug people.”
That sense of humour, along with a calm acknowledgment that they do not have much time left, is seemingly common among many of Canada’s oldest veterans.
Rev. Georges Winters, who served during peace time with the Royal 22nd Regiment, said they leave him “in awe.”
“Some of them have spoken to me as a chaplain,” Winters said.
“That they’ve been able to live their lives and carry on having these memories in their heads … You stop for two minutes. You just think of the freedom you’re enjoying, and why you’re enjoying it.”
At the conclusion of the traditional two minutes of silence in Ottawa on Saturday, cannons boomed and two CF18 fighter jets flew over the War Memorial. Most of the veterans in attendance had seen this spectacle many times before, but this year, something unique happened. As the jets roared into the distance, a hawk glided quietly over their heads, leading many to glance up, squinting into the bright midday sun.
The moment was over as quickly as it began, and a few minutes later, at least one decorated former soldier was back to his playful self, calling out to a Korean War veteran as she passed by his seat.
“Hullo, Alice!” he bellowed with a laugh. “Still going?”
— With files from Bryan Mullan
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