Recollections of the War Years
Story and photos by Jim Brown
It was a much harsher world during both world wars, with the threat of death a constant companion for men and women serving with Canada’s armed forces overseas. No family was left untouched by sorrow and despair.
Helen MacEwen, president of the Stanley Bridge Memorial Society, holds a microphone next to Second World War veteran Harold Simpson at the Nov 14 history circle, held at the Stanley Bridge Centre. Simpson was one of more than half a dozen participants sharing stories from the war.
Seven area residents joined the Nov 14 history circle at the Stanley Bridge Centre to share their recollections of the war years.
Marie (Cullen) Peters spoke in front of dozens of people about her dear uncle, her dad’s brother, who was a prisoner of war during the last nine months of World War 2 and whose life was scarred forever by what he saw and experienced in prison camps throughout Germany.
William “Bill” Timothy Cullen, born in Hope River, 1907, was the ninth child of 11 born to Mary and John Cullen. He enlisted in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, on June 24, 1940. Bill was deployed to England and on Aug 24, 1944 he became a prisoner of war.
“He was shell-shocked and unconscious when he was taken,” said Marie, who carried a small hand-made case with her, less than the size of pocket book. Inside the case were the hand-written names of all the prison camps he had been transferred to.
Bill was luckier than many Russian prisoners.
“He saw Russian soldiers shot (during winter) who were trying to get carrots from a pile…when food was scarce,” said Marie.
Her uncle returned home after the war but his health suffered terribly from his forced labor in a brickmaking factory. He had been inhaling dust without protection.
After his release he found himself in a British hospital for several weeks, suffering stomach and breathing problems.
Bill, who had two successful marriages, later devoted himself to helping other serviceman get their pensions, particularly those who were hurt, said Marie.
“Since 1999 the committee we belong to has profiled over 225 veterans and gotten their stories from all across PEI. It’s a passion of ours,” said moderator Joyce Phillips.
“Sometimes I get through a presentation without shedding a tear, often times I don’t,” said Phillips.
She went on to say PEI had the highest rate, per capita, of enlistment in both world wars.
By the end of the Second World War 10,000 men left the Island to serve, with 500 dying. PEI also punched way above its weight with 17 Islanders serving on the elite 1,800 member Canadian-American Devil’s Brigade (700 of them from Canada), one of the most decorated units of the war.
While husbands, brothers and sons were fighting overseas women stepped up at home, taking over farming and other traditionally male occupations, she said.
Phillips brought along small, polished stones from Dieppe Beach, where thousands of Canadians perished in an ill-fated raid in 1942.
“This is why tanks and trucks could not get up the beach,” she said.
“These got caught in the tracks.”
When war ended many servicemen could not bear to come home, so broken in body and spirit they were ashamed to rejoin loved ones.
“Some men disappeared when coming back, they did not know how their families would take them. Others went to the states, went off the radar. They just could not come home to their families. That in itself is a pretty tragic story,” she said.
Joyce’s father served with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and fought in the D-Day campaign.
A few years ago she followed in his footsteps at Juno and other famous European theatre battles.
Among the Canadians fighting on Juno Beach were four paratroopers from PEI.
Harold Simpson, who went to school in Charlottetown and Souris during the war years, ended up driving transport trucks in Great Britain and just narrowly missed going to battle. When he left school he was 16 and thrilled to be in the military reserve after deciding not to repeat Grade 8.
His truck driving license set him free.
In the days and weeks following the war he visited Antwerp Harbour, watching mines being blown up. He was also deployed to Germany where he visited a two-man submarine base. One of his most compelling memories was that of a close brush with Waffen SS Major General Kurt Mayer, later convicted of war crimes involving the cold-blooded execution of 48 Canadian POWs after the D-Day invasion.
Mayer was in a jeep, guarded by Allied soldiers when he encountered him, he said.
“I was as close to him as I was to you (within a couple of feet),” said Simpson.
Mayer was facing the death penalty for war crimes, but his sentence was commuted to life. He was brought to Canada to serve his sentence in Dorchester and was released after nine years.
Lois (MacKay) Campbell, one of nine children in the MacKay family, had four brothers in the service, all of whom served overseas and all of whom went to Europe at the same time in the same convoy, in different ships. Her youngest brother, Leigh, died in Sicily, at just 19 years of age.
One of her brothers, Private Wendall MacKay, won the French government’s Croix de Guerre, among the country’s highest military honours for valor on the battlefield. But he did not escape serious injury in the war. He spent time at England’s Aldershot Military Hospital where eight ribs and a lung were removed. That ended his dream of becoming a doctor, she said.
Anita Gallant, from Stanley Bridge, spoke about her father, who had served in the First World War, and her four brothers-in-law, sons of Henry and Beatrice Gallant, of Bayview. Helen MacEwen talked about her father-in-law, Sgt Herbert S. MacEwen, who served in the First World War. She brought his army jacket with her and some photos of him.
Helen also talked about a nurse from Stanley Bridge who served in the First World War – Hannah Fyfe. She became a registered nurse in Boston and served in the American and Canadian armies. She is buried in Cavendish Cemetery. Her nephew John Fyfe, and his wife Anna (MacDonald), served in the Second World War in the Air Force.
Helen talked about her step-mother, Mary MacNutt MacRae, from Ebenezer, who served in the Second World War as a nursing sister in Newfoundland, England, France, Sicily and Italy. After the war she studied to become a public health nurse in the Central Queens area. She also spent a year in Fort Norman, in the Northwest Territories, serving as a mentor to people of all ages.
Other speakers included local resident Stephen Dimond, whose dad just missed service during the war, but who built an impressive career flying giant Hercules aircraft around the world carrying “all kinds of goods”. His dad was just 19 when the war ended and it was an exciting time in his life and in the life of his children.