'We were forgotten' Remembrance Day stirs painful memories

Thursday, November 11, 2004

EDMONTON -- It has been six decades since they were young men serving their country, since they lost so many of their comrades, since they saw horrors they are still trying to forget.

Although their memories are too painful and the nightmares too real, they are also wounded by the scant recognition Canadians afford their sacrifices in Italy and Sicily during the Second World War. "We were forgotten," said Sam Walsh, who was a motorcycle dispatch rider.

"Yes, that really hurts," agreed Bob Hidson, who was in the infantry. "I'd like to see us recognized just as well as the guys in [northwestern] Europe. . . . Why can't we be recognized just as much as they are? We lost a lot of men."

Mr. Walsh, 85, and Mr. Hidson, 80, are among the more than 90,000 Canadians who served in the 1943-45 Italian campaign, which left nearly 6,000 dead and 20,000 wounded. Each Remembrance Day, these veterans' exploits are all but forgotten, eclipsed by the splendour of D-Day.

The pair, along with John Pelensky and Don Kerr, gathered in a drab meeting room at an Edmonton veterans hospital where all but Mr. Walsh now live.

They were brought together by a chaplain who responded to a continuing effort by The Globe and Mail and the Dominion Institute to foster remembrance.

But like many veterans, they were reluctant to talk about their time on the battlefields and changed the subject to jovial stories of good-natured pranks, their first tastes of blood oranges and the mutton stew that left them pulling fur out of their teeth.

"There were bad times and good times. I'd like to think of the good times rather than the bad ones," said Mr. Walsh, who became a salesman after the war.

Of all those bad times, Mr. Hidson said: "You try not to [think about them], that's the main thing. You try not to, especially at night."

Mr. Hidson, who enlisted with the 49th Royal Edmonton Regiment at 16 in 1941, still suffers nightmares that leave him screaming. Before his wife died, she would shake him awake to reassure him he was home safe.

But in telling their yarns, they let slip a few of the merciless particulars of war. In Italy and Sicily, Canadian soldiers met steep and unforgiving mountains, which they scaled at night to avoid detection by Germans who lay in wait. "They'd just pick you off," said Mr. Hidson, who went on to work for the City of Edmonton.

They would also lose their footing, said Mr. Pelensky, 80, who was a gunner and driver in the 5th Armament Division and later farmed. Although he has had two strokes and a seizure that has robbed him of much of his memory, he vividly recalled the night-time excursions. "I remember quite a few times you'd go pretty high up and you slip. But you can't have no light, you do it in the dark."

They also waded through rivers bearing heavy backpacks that grew even heavier once soaked. And when it rained, their uniforms stayed damp for days on end. "We'd get wet and no place to dry. You stayed wet," he said.

They slept on cold, marble floors in abandoned villas and in damp trenches they dug themselves. "You lay there at night and shiver yourself to sleep," Mr. Hidson said.

Their enemies were highly skilled, using, as he said, "every tactic that's in the book. They had the worst, No. 1 German fighting units that were against us in Sicily and Italy." But the Canadians fought back. "The infantry put on a very good show," recalled Mr. Kerr, 85, who later worked in plumbing and heating.

Still, the group -- three of the four were teenagers when they enlisted -- say they saw many comrades die. "I was only a kid when I was there. I'll tell ya, I cried," said Mr. Hidson, who lost the two buddies he signed up with. "I cried quite dearly. I wished the hell I was home."

There were also accidents. Mr. Hidson, who was bedridden during the interview at the Mewburn Veterans Centre, still suffers from the mishap that ended his fighting career. He was run over, his back and hips broken, when a Canadian army truck slid off a mountain.

"Do you want to see something here?" he asked at the end of the interview, as he fingered a worn, brown New Testament. He said he carried it always in the breast pocket of his uniform, and when that truck came barrelling at him, it was all Private Robert Hidson, regimental number M65695, had with him. "That's the only thing I got left."

For Mr. Hidson, who said he is not a religious man, it was a welcome comfort. And a chaplain's inscription inside the cover seems to have helped: "With best luck for a safe return."