By Judith Pereira
Eighteen-year-old Owen Rowe was so eager to fight for the Empire that he left his home in Barbados on May 14, 1942, and came north to Canada to train in the armed forces. "We came here because of our patriotism. Many of us worshipped the Crown and wanted to help," Mr. Rowe said.
The West Indian recruits hailed from nine islands in the Caribbean, and while they were prepared to go to the front line, many were not prepared for a Canadian winter.
Mr. Rowe remembers the first time he saw snow was at the Vimy Barracks in Kingston, where he served with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.
"I ran down and ate it. It was such a novelty," he said.
The cold was also used as a training aid: "In the military, they try to toughen you up, so we were sent out in the cold, and sometimes it was below zero. I remember coming back one day and my hands were all swollen and broken and I had chilblains, so I sat beside the stove in the centre of the room and put my hands in it, which was bad. But what it did was really toughen us up."
But if the training was tough, Mr. Rowe says he made many friends with Canadians in the area. "There were people that invited us into their homes, and they didn't care if we were black or white. All that mattered was that we had come here to help and to fight for a common cause."
After finishing his training, Mr. Rowe was scheduled to go to England, but on the day the names were called out, his was missing.
"Five hundred names were called and mine wasn't. I was cleared to go, but there was a mix-up and they couldn't hold people back. I was devastated, because I had trained with these people, blacks and whites, and we were all close."
Two months later, Mr. Rowe had another chance to go overseas but he was confined to barracks because "someone had come down with scarlet fever."
His third chance came six months later when he was in Nanaimo, B.C., working at a military radio station. This time, just as he was getting ready to leave, Mr. Rowe said he was called in to see his superior officer. "He said, 'Sorry Rowe, but we're not letting you go after all because we [the Canadians] are working under the U.S. Army in the Pacific and they have a segregated army and we don't want to expose you to segregation so we're not letting you go.'"
Thinking he was jinxed and worried that he would never be able to fight overseas with the Canadian army, Mr. Rowe switched to the Canadian Air Force, training as a gunner and eventually gaining promotion to the rank of flying officer.
By the time he had finished his air force training, however, the Americans had developed the atomic bomb and the war was over.
Although he never did get a chance to go overseas, Mr. Rowe wants Canadians to remember all the West Indians who did.
"It's important for Canadians to know that what we did is a part of Canadian history. It's important that it be acknowledged that we came up here and we were part of the Canadian forces."
That is why Mr. Rowe will lay a wreath on the cenotaph in Ottawa on Remembrance Day. He started the tradition in 2000 and is now the only West Indian veteran left who can make it to the ceremony.
That is why "no matter how I feel or how ill I am, I say to myself, 'Owen you must go.' "