Close calls, lost friends and other tales
By TOM McCOAG Amherst Bureau

AMHERST — I never got to hear my great-uncle George’s war stories, since the veteran of battles in Italy and Europe died when I was a young boy.

But I do remember seeing a picture of him with a sour look on his face as he carried a Bren gun on his shoulder past a bombed-out building.

My father, Royden, told me that look was due to his dislike of the gun “because it was so heavy.”

That’s the closest I ever came to hearing a war story about my great-uncle.

Luckily, over the past two decades I have had the chance to talk with many veterans, like the late Horace Boucher, who said he didn’t think his war activities were interesting enough for an interview “because all I did was support the boys.”

A member of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, Mr. Boucher was tasked with keeping up the morale among the fighting members of his regiment.

He did this in many ways, such as showing movies — sometimes in locations very close to the front. “On one occasion, I’d just finished showing a movie in a barn,” he recalled. “Our guys had left and I’d just finished packing away the screen when some Germans entered.

”I managed to stay hidden until they left. That’s the closest I came to the enemy.”

Mr. Boucher continued supporting the boys after the war by serving as the president of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders Memory Club for several decades. His duties only ended upon his passing.

I was also fortunate to interview the late Don Chapman, another North Nova Scotia Highlander, who landed on D-Day. He solemnly recalled several times when he cheated death, including one in which friends on both sides of him were killed.

“I can’t explain why both of them were killed and I wasn’t. I guess I led a charmed life,” he told me while fighting back tears.

Earl Gouchie recalled being caught under heavy fire in a grain field as he and a friend were trying to crawl forward during one battle. They were ordered to pull back, but it wasn’t easy.

“This fella with a machine-gun . . . opened up on us. You could hear the bullets cutting the grain off as they whistled over top of us. We’d get up and run a distance, crawl a distance and run again. In that way, we managed to fool him and get back to the company.”

Mr. Gouchie made the comments in an interview before heading to a D-Day remembrance service in France. On his return, he brought back some sand from Juno Beach — sand he called “sacred” as he tearfully turned it over to the museum at the Amherst Armoury.

Merchant mariner George Evans went to war at age 15, joining the merchant marine because he was too young to join the navy. His first ship was torpedoed and sunk shortly after it left St. John’s. The crew endured nine days of bobbing in a life raft before being rescued.

Allison Chapman survived both the Dieppe and D-Day landings, but it wasn’t a battle story that struck a nerve as the veteran spoke. Instead it was his story about promising a 13-year old Dutch girl a pair of skates.

He had been billeted in the girl’s family home near the end of the war and vowed before he left that he’d send her the skates when he got back to Amherst. But he lost her address and couldn’t get the skates to her after all. It was something he agonized about for years.

Mr. Chapman returned to Holland to participate in the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, hanging onto his hopes of finding her. And so he did. During their joyous reunion he presented her with a skate charm, and they still correspond to this day.

Other stories, like those in Geoffrey Payzant’s memoirs, have also hit a nerve. A Halifax native who served in the Royal Navy, he recalled a humorous incident while standing on guard in front of a Wrennery, the barracks for female members of the navy.

It was late at night when he heard footsteps. Unable to see who it was, he took an aggressive stance. Holding the point of his bayonet in front of the person’s throat, he shouted: “Halt! Who goes there?”

The challenge was met by silence.

His voice cracking slightly, Mr. Payzant demanded: “Advance and be recognized!”

“Oh, don’t be silly!” retorted a Wren, giggling as she put two fingers on the barrel of his gun and pushed it aside before heading to the Wrennery, humming.

In his memoir, Mr. Payzant also recalled the greatest show of courage he witnessed during the war. It involved two boys, 6 and 7, who were living in bombed out Bristol. One was blind; the other was missing his legs. They were waging a battle of their own. Orphaned, they feared being turned over to welfare officials and split up if they were discovered living on their own.

To survive, the blind boy pulled his brother in a wagon as they looked for brass, copper or aluminum to salvage and sell to scrap metal dealers. Moved by their story, Mr. Payzant gave them all his change and some chocolate bars. When they returned to work he “was incapable of speaking, so I saluted them, then turned away so they could not know that the big, brave boy of 18 in a sailor suit was crying.”

I learned far more about war’s trials, tribulations, horrors and humour from these captivating personal stories than I did from any textbook or novel that explained the movements of armies, navies and air forces.

We hope that by publishing as many stories as we can prior to Remembrance Day, we will pay tribute to the men, women and children who sacrificed so much during those turbulent years and at the same time remember that sacrifice.

( tmccoag@herald.ca)