Today is Tuesday. Tomorrow I will stand, 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 and in foreign waters and skies, 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.
I’ll think about my late father-in-law’s words about ‘this good country.”
Recently I pulled out the yellowed envelopes that rest in a wooden box on my dressing table. I leaf through letter after letter. They were daily letters home from my father to his mother, father, two sisters and younger brother. Dad was serving on a corvette, the HMCS Cobalt, first in the north Atlantic, then near Bermuda, finally returning to Halifax as Victory over Europe was declared. 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, 1945. 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. Here goes…
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’ve 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, May 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 on 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 my writing buut 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 letup 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. 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 he was nearly gone. If I hadn’t put my thumb over 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 a broken bottle shoved in his back and twisted til it made a hole. There were things that 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 sports at the police station, the sick bays at Stad and Dock Yard and a couple of other places.
The bad ones were taken to RCMH and the others to the first aid stations. The xray staff and operating room staff were doing three times the work they could handle. At 2230 another SBA joined me from RCNH and we just went down to 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. After I saw what two middle-aged civilian men to to that child, I prayed to be forgiven for being a Canadian.
I thought the Germans were beasts, but now I wonder.
At about 2200 the 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 that 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 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 that 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 CBed 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 nighty 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 saw 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. 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 at ease and I’ll look quite the same 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 newspaper as soon as I can but I’m going to try to get drafter out of here as soon as possible. It isn’t safe to walk down the streets as the people are all out for the sailors.
This horror of victory ‘celebration’ in Halifax is a story little known about the end of the second World War. It’s my Dad’s story. And the morning he wrote this, May 9, 1945, he was 19 years old.