A medic remembers


This article is part of a new occasional series organized by globeandmail.com and the Dominion Institute to commemorate significant events in Canada's military history, and to honour living Canadian veterans for their service and sacrifice.

Looking out the window of the bus, Milton Shefman could see a cluster of German planes screaming across the sky. "I could see the pilots' heads it was that low," he said.

It was May 1943, and Mr. Shefman was on his way from Bournemouth, in the south of England, to a nearby village to have lunch with his aunt, when the German planes invaded the quiet of the seaside town. The bus driver ordered everyone off the bus for their safety.

Mr. Shefman was 21 and a medic in the Royal Canadian Air Force. One year earlier, he had arrived in Europe after travelling six days across the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Elizabeth.

As soon as the bombs stopped dropping and the sky was clear, Mr. Shefman made his way to the station hospital in Bournemouth, where he worked. He found a bombed out building. A temporary hospital was later set up in a hotel. "They dropped loads of bombs," he said. "The pavement was eaten up by machine fire."

With the streets filled with wounded bodies and lifeless corpses, Mr. Shefman had the difficult task of driving around in a truck gathering the wounded to take to hospital and taking the dead to an emergency morgue. "Scores and scores of people were killed that day," he said.

With the hospital bombed out and limited amount of supplies, Mr. Shefman said they were forced to use whatever they could find, including taking down the door of a house to serve as a stretcher.

"You do what you can," he said, recalling the worst bombing he saw during the war. "You make due."

The morning after the bombing, a convoy of about 50 ambulances took the injured to a hospital in Bristol where they were treated.

Born on April 6, 1922 in the small town of Teplik, in southern Ukraine, Mr. Shefman was four years old when his family immigrated to Canada. During his high school years in Toronto, he joined the Cadet Corps and remembers the thrill of having ace pilot and wartime hero Billy Bishop come to inspect them one day. "Boy was that really something," Mr. Shefman said.

Planes fascinated Mr. Shefman as a child. A favourite pastime was going down to the nearby airport with some friends to watch the planes. "It was really trilling to watch the tiny little planes," he said.

Mr. Shefman dreamed of flying and in 1940 he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. When he learned he was colour blind and ineligible to fly, Mr. Shefman became a medic.

After being posted to bases in St. Thomas, Ont., and then Calgary, where he met his future wife Alice, Mr. Shefman was sent overseas in 1942. He served in Bournemouth and was then posted to Yorkshire in 1944, where he remained until the end of the war. On V-E Day, Mr. Shefman said he just happened to be in London on leave. It was a time he has never forgotten.

"It was such a joyous occasion. You can't image it unless you were there," he said, adding that he remembers people dancing in the streets around bonfires.

"It didn't matter if it was a stranger or not a stranger, you hugged and kissed." Then in November, 1945, Mr. Shefman boarded the Queen Elizabeth once again - this time to return home to Toronto.

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