War's horrors still hauntingly alive
Veteran's memories of WWII battles
brings grim details home to generation raised on TV, media
By GLORIA GALLOWAY
Monday, November 11, 2002
Did we miss you?
Believe it or not, there is no official registry for war veterans. We told you about 13 last week. Since then, we have learned of three others. However, we'd like to find more. So, if you also served in the First World War, or know of someone who did, please click here and let us know.
John Kilpatrick remembers the first time he was told to kill.
He was a teenage officer on HMCS Restigouche, a Canadian destroyer charged with escorting ships that dodged deadly attacks from submarines as they ferried supplies between Europe and the United States during the Second World War.
The Restigouche captain spotted an enemy vessel floating in the rough, grey seas of the North Atlantic and said "Go and get those people," Mr. Kilpatrick says.
"It was a tanker filled with aviation gas and it took a direct hit and it blew up instantly. Some 40 sailers were floating around in a sea of fire being burned. They lost their skin . . . And when you remember, as I do 60 years later, the actual smell of their burning flesh . . ."
Mr. Kilpatrick pauses to contain the tears that well in his 79-year-old eyes.
"I sometimes still wake at night," he utters at last, his voice trailing to a hoarse whisper.
The tall, squarely built veteran recounted his tale after a visit last week to a Grade 10 class at an alternative school in Toronto.
With their piercings, multicoloured braids and caps adorned with safety pins, the students -- most of them in their late teens -- would seem alien beings to the boys who went to war with Mr. Kilpatrick. But they listened with quiet concern, and perhaps empathy, as he spoke of the battles fought and the burdens borne by people their age just two generations ago.
Today, Remembrance Day, the Dominion Institute will launch what it calls its Memory Project, a program that will bring 800 veterans like Mr. Kilpatrick into schools in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec. Over the course of the year, more than 100,000 students will hear about war from people who lived through it.
Rudyard Griffiths, the institute's executive director, said the program comes about partly at Mr. Kilpatrick's instigation.
"He approached us with the idea that the Dominion Institute, as part of our mission of making Canadian history relevant and engaging young people, should create a program that would train veterans on how to share their stories with kids, organize them into a formal speakers bureau and then market that speakers bureau to schools."
And so it was that Mr. Kilpatrick found himself in front of a Grade 10 class, talking about the five years of his life that he says aged him by a half century.
"By 1945," Mr. Kilpatrick said, "the army had grown to 700,000 and of those 700,000, all but about 60,000 were under the age of 21. It was an army of kids."
They enlisted in droves, he said, partly because it was the thing to do -- almost every boy in his Grade 12 class had signed up within a month of graduation -- and partly because the Depression had made life miserable at home.
"And there was always adventure. There was a possibility of some adrenaline-pumping experiences that would really make life exciting."
The horrible reality of war was far beyond the imaginings of the naively exhilarated youth of the late 1930s. In fact, said Mr. Kilpatrick, it has proved to be beyond the imaginings even of Hollywood producers.
"There's only one war picture that I have seen in the last 10 years that comes close to the real thing," he told the students, "and it was the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan."
And if the Second World War was a horror beyond cinematic description, the First World War was even worse, Mr. Kilpatrick said. The casualties among those who fought between 1914 and 1918 -- and dreadful conditions in which they died -- far outweighed those that followed two decades later.
In one battle -- Passchendaele in Belgium in 1917 -- nearly 16,000 Canadians lost their lives while trying to wrest a mucky field from the Germans.
"Thousands and thousands of Canadians drowned in dark, murky slimy mud. Beside them were horses that had died in the same condition. World War II was almost clean by comparison," Mr. Kilpatrick said.
But the Second World War had enormous consequences for huge numbers of people, he told the class, including the 26 million Europeans -- mostly Poles, Czechs and Russians -- who died through direct warfare or starvation.
And of course it took a harsh toll on the young Canadian military men.
Once he set foot on the Restigouche, Mr. Kilpatrick didn't get a land assignment for four years. The wolf packs of enemy submarines presented the most obvious danger to those aboard the ship. But the real enemy in the Atlantic was weather, he said.
He urged the students to consider what it was like to live in a cabin that was a little longer and narrower than a classroom with 70 other men. "They were always wet. The deck would be covered in slimy vomit, the sleeping accommodation consisted of hammocks." And the motion of the sea was constant.
His description of life aboard the Restigouche provoked groans of disgust from the students, who agreed afterward that listening to the tale firsthand is a far cry from reading it in a textbook.
"We've heard all of the statistics before," said 18-year-old Jessie-Leigh Sim, "but his stories were quite interesting because they are his personal experiences."
And it stirred her own fear of war. "I think it's something that you have to be a little scared of, especially with the things going on today," she said. "With the war with Iraq -- and with the States being so close to us -- it's sort of inevitable that we'd be involved in it."
Jason Goldberg, 20, said he too believes there will be future battles and Mr. Kilpatrick's tales helped bring the reality home.
"TV and the media can kind of glorify war. It's never really accurate."
Although the weight of war still burdens Mr. Kilpatrick, it clearly lifts somewhat when he shares his experiences with young people -- and when he asks them to consider the choices his generation had to make.
He recounted the tale of a young captain of a corvette warship that was floating in the middle of a group of sailors left stranded in the ocean after their own ship was lost. The corvette's radar discovered an enemy submarine deep in the waters below.
"His duty," said Mr. Kilpatrick solemnly, "was to drop a pattern of depth charges right in the middle of 70 survivors."