Today is Sunday. Next Thursday I will be standing with hundreds of others at the Cenotaph in downtown Barrie. I’ll be thinking about the young men especially who, without warning and with little choice, went off to foreign countries and died on foreign soil to maintain a democracy that they’d always known.
I’ll also think about peace. About how important it is for each of us to “fight” the wars that can break us down… intolerance, poverty, resentment, hate.
And my father-in-law’s words about “this good country”.
I had another topic selected for this week, but last night I pulled out the yellowed envelopes that rest in a basket on my dressing table. I leafed through letter after letter. They were daily letters home from my father to his mother, father, two sisters and younger brother. He was serving on a corvette, the HMCS Cobalt, first in the north Atlantic, then near Bermuda, and finally returning to Halifax as Victory Over Europe was celebrated. His analytical skills lead him naturally to serve with the ship’s medical crew; Dad was a medic.
What I’ve decided to share with you today is Dad’s letter home on May 9. It’s his story of what happened in Halifax, Nova Scotia as victory ships poured into the harbour from the icy waters of the Atlantic. Early May.
Wednesday, May 9, 1945
Yesterday was V-E Day, a day that has been fought and waited for for nearly 6 years and I hope a day that some people can look back on as a great day.
To me, and hundreds of others, it’s a day we’ll never forget, if we live to be 100 and we’ll shudder at the thought of it. Never before, and I hope never again, that I’ll ever see anything as sinful and horrible as what I, and a great many others, have been through in the past 24 hours.
You have likely heard it over the radio and will have seen it in the papers by the time you get this, but no one can ever tell you by radio or in writing what the City of Halifax was like last night, April 8, Victory over Europe Day.
Little did I know when I was talking to you Tuesday morning that the day would end up like it did. I worked from 7:30 on Tuesday morning til 4 Wednesday morning and I would have gone on longer if I had had the strength. I think that the only people in Halifax who have been sober for the past 24 or 48 hours are the medical branches–naval, army and airforce, civilians.
When you have about 100,000 people all so drunk that they are worse than wild beasts, you have what we have had down here. (I hope you’ll forgive the writing but my hand and whole body are still tired and trembling.)
At 3:30 in the afternoon we were notified at RCNH that the crowd was out of control and to prepare for emergencies and we set up an emergency ward. The first case came in at 4 pm and there was no let up all night. The three liquor commissions were broken into and the entire contents released to the use of the people. I want you to know that I have a clear conscience as far as any part of this goings-on is concerned. We were short-staffed to begin with and we all worked like pack horses.
They had all the ambulances they could get and that was far too few. At 7 (or 1900) I got notice of an army ambulance that the driver had been beaten over the head and we went down to do what we could. I had two seamen assistants who were nearly sober.
I wish I could bring you to see or picture what I saw when we got downtown. Every store on Barrington Street, the main street, was almost demolished. There wasn’t a window left and the contents were either looted or thrown out on the street. There was a good foot of glass over the whole of the street and it nearly cut the tires of the big army ambulance we had. There were shoes, boots, chesterfields, clothes, cash registers, pots, pans, and nearly everything you could imagine on the street and our truck laboured to get through.
That alone would have been enough, but on top of that there was a slush of beer, etc., and a smell enough to nearly make you drunk and lying all over the place were civilians, soldiers, sailors and airmen. The first fellow I got to was out cold and someone had taken the jagged end of a broken bottle and just slashed his face to pieces. We got him in the ambulance and went for the next one. Just then a soldier who was sober came over and said, “can I help you fellows?” I asked him if he could drive the ambulance and he could, so we took him on. We took three that trip and the next two patients were just about as bad. One had his arm cut at an artery and was nearly gone and if I hadn’t stopped the bleeding he couldn’t have lasted much longer. The third was a cut hand, but wasn’t too bad and only needed a few stitches which were done at RCNH. We wasted no time at all and from 1900 to 0200 that was what I was doing.
Trip after trip picking up sailors and merchant marines and those who needed attention most. I got one fellow who had had a broken bottle shoved in his back and twisted till it made a hole. There were things what I could hardly look at but had to. The seamen and soldiers who weren’t as used to that sort of thing had a hard job taking it but did well. There were first aid stations set up at various spots at the police station, the sick bays at Stad and Dock Yard and a couple of other places.
The bad ones were taken to RCNH and the others to the first aid station. The x-ray staff and operating room staff were doing three times the work they could handle. At about 2230 another SBA joined me from RCNH and we just went down the street and piled them in our car and when we got to RCNH we had to wait in line to get them taken out.
You just can’t imagine it; the city was mad and it wasn’t safe for man or beast. I saw 10 year old kids drunk and things like that. Several women were killed and one six year old child that I saw. After I saw two middle aged civilian men do to that child what they did I prayed to be forgiven for being a Canadian. I thought the Germans were beasts but now I wonder. At about 2200 fires started and they had the whole fire department out trying to control it and the smoke was so heavy that our driver could hardly see and there were still injured lying around. We must have picked up 100 people and there were about 15 ambulances out. We took a lot of them to the police station to be fixed up and some to sick bays but the larger part needed hospital and surgical attention. The ones that were out cold weren’t so bad to handle but so many of them objected to being looked after it was an awful fight. When I finally had time to feel my own pain and look at my own face from the wallops I got, I wondered why I was doing anything for them at all.
It’s the most thankless job I’ve ever done.
The Shore Patrol had big trucks out picking up the ones that were drunk and not hurt. Admiral Murray was there and he read the Riot Act and Martial Law was enforced.
The civilians were far more to blame than were the service men and the civilians were the ones who were doing the looting. Take it from me… I spent nearly 8 hours down there and I know.
At 0200 we made a general sweep of the city and picked up all we saw. There was a navy padre out there doing his best to talk the boys and the civies into going home but it did no good. It nearly made me cry to see what he was going through. By 0230 the streets were nearly cleared and we saw no more wounded. I handled broken bones, cuts, gashes, concussions and nearly everything imaginable. Admiral Murray called me over to his car after I had put a chap in the ambulance and spoke to me for a minute or so. However, I consider no honour in it. I’m ashamed that I’m in the services and that I’m a Canadian and I don’t mind telling you. A book could be written on what we saw last night and it all started because they let them break into the liquor store. It was as many civilians as service personnel who are to blame. They have CBd all barracks and it started again downtown this morning, all civies who were looting, running off with four and five suits of clothes and all sorts of jewellery. There is an estimated $200,000 in destruction done and the place looks like all hell broke loose. I doubt if it could be worse.
Jack Akers and I finished up last night about 0400 and we came down to the block here to go to bed but we would only have had 2 hours of sleep so we went back to RCNH and slept on the floor on mattresses in one of the cabins.
I just read the papers and the Navy is taking the brunt of it, because this is a navy town. I will admit they are a good deal to blame and I’m too ashamed of the service to stick up for them. However, it doesn’t matter much what I saw. Please believe me when I say that very few SBAs had a hand in it.
I think I’ve said enough now but I’ll tell you the whole story from start to finish the next time I’m home cause I’ll never forget it. Not as long as I live and I just pray that nothing like that went on in Belleville as it will take months to build the town up again.
Riots are started by a few and grow and this time grew to over 100,000 strong. I sent a wire last night to put your mind as ease and I’ll look quite the same the next time you see me. I can’t help but wonder what the men overseas will think of this display of the work of masses of maniacs.
Love to all
PS I’ll send you a paper as soon as I can but I’m going to try to get drafted out of here as soon as possible. It won’t be safe to walk down the streets as the people are all out for the sailors.
When he wrote this, my father had just celebrated his 19th birthday.
It was another eight months before his ship was de-commissioned. As this was happening, he asked his commanding officer if he could have the ship’s ensign. His wish was granted. It might interest you to know that after his death (in 1993, at age 67) my mother presented the ensign to the town of Cobalt, whose war efforts had built and equipped the ship.
Why would I share this letter of horror at the end of the war which was fought for freedom and democracy? Certainly not to cast a sour note on our day of gratitude.
I share this because it is the story of a young man who was forever changed by his years in the Armed Forces. And because I think it reminds us that we must always pay attention to our home turf, whether it’s the function of our own self, our families, our work places, our community. Happiness and health and tolerance and love begins on the inside and grows outwards.
That’s what I’ll be thinking about next Thursday.