Clifton Pezim (right) and friend in Picadilly Circus, London, England on April 9, 1944.Clifton Pezim
Clifton Pezim at the RCAF Station, Leeming, England, October 13, 1945.Clifton Pezim
Clifton Pezim (Centre) and friends on leave in Paris, France. They are seen here in a hotel, taken over by The Canadian Forces.Clifton Pezim
Photo taken during Basic Training in Orillia, Ontario.Clifton Pezim
Clifton Pezim in North York, Ontario, May 13, 2010.Historica Canada
"getting off the streetcar and the newspapers had huge headlines: ARMAGEDDON. That was the headline. And I knew that it was only a matter of time until I would be in uniform."
I remember the day the Germans went into Poland; it was September 1st, 1939. I remember going -I was only 17 - I remember going down to the [Canadian National] Exhibition and getting off the streetcar and the newspapers had huge headlines: ARMAGEDDON. That was the headline. And I knew that it was only a matter of time until I would be in uniform.
And when I was older, I tried to enlist in the Air Force but they had long waiting lists. I tried going to different recruiting offices; I went to Hamilton, I went to Ottawa. So I was impatient and because we didn’t have the facilities at the time; there were so many volunteers. So I went down and joined the Army.
I was up in Orillia, Ontario, at a basic training camp - it’s now a subdivision. But anyway, it was a bitterly cold winter and I remember the first Sunday morning we were told to fall out, out on the parade square for church service. And the sergeant-major called out, Protestants to the right, Catholics to the left! And I’m left standing there. And he said, what’s wrong with you? And I said, I’m not Protestant, I’m not Catholic. He said, what are you? I said, I’m Jewish. He says, Jewish? Kitchen patrol. So I ended up scrubbing dishes and so forth.
The next Sunday, the same thing happened again, Protestants to the right, Catholics to the left…, they went off to their respective church service. And again, I’m left standing alone and he said, okay - I can’t remember which sequence - the honey bucket detail, which I’m sure you know what that is [cleaning latrines]. And after this went on for two or three Sunday mornings, so then finally I decided I, I’m going to convert. So the next Sunday morning, I was a Protestant, I marched off with the Protestants. And the following Sunday, I was a Catholic and I went with the Catholics. And then as time went on, there were a few other Jewish guys got sent up to the camp and we were given permission to organize our own religious service and a merchant in Orillia gave us some space above his store and we would march down there on the Sunday morning and we conducted our own Jewish service.
I was told back at camp, that we were, our outfit was pulling out that night and we were being issued with summer equipment and summer uniforms and it was pretty obvious that we were going to go to North Africa. That very day, a soldier in the next bunk to me came down with scarlet fever, I believe. A medical officer came in, put him into quarantine and said, who is in the next bunk to him? And I put up my hand and the fellow on the other side [did also]; he said, put these two men into quarantine. So I was put into quarantine in a hospital and my outfit pulled out that night and I was left behind.
Within a couple of days, I was ordered to go to the commanding officer’s office and they had my transfer papers. And had I left the military district, I could not have been transferred. So it was a sheer fluke - because of this man getting sick - that I ended up, I was actually officially discharged from the Army into the Air Force. I was escorted by two military policemen to the Kingston railway station where two Air Force policemen picked me up and I was taken to Ottawa - and still in Army uniform- and sworn into the Air Force.
I was originally sent to a - along with hundreds of others - to a holding camp down near Gloucester in the south of England. Then I was assigned to an Air Force unit in Bournemouth in the south, at the south coast. I wasn’t there too long and then I was sent up to Durham, outside of Darlington, which is up near, getting closer to the Scottish border. And I was on a bomber station there for some time, part of No. 6 Group, which was the Canadian bomber group, where I performed various duties in ground crew, including the loading of bombs onto Lancaster bombers; helped with that for a while. I also was, at the time of D-Day, we were anticipating, or there was a thought that the Germans would plan a counterattack and drop paratroopers into England. I, and others were assigned to guard our aircraft when they would come back and we were sleeping under the wings and so forth because we didn’t know … The aircraft were dispersed, they weren’t concentrated to avoid obviously if there was an attack.
We kept scanning the skies; I was given a Bren gun and so forth but there were no paratroopers fortunately. We didn’t know that at the time but the Luftwaffe [German Air Force] had been decimated by that point and there were hardly any of them left, so. But we didn’t know, we only found these things out afterwards.
But the war ended and that was a big celebration, May the 8th, 1945. I had been given a leave because we had thousands of men and they didn’t know what to do with them because while we had a lot of casualties, we didn’t have as many as the command had anticipated and therefore, we had surplus men and I was given a leave. I went over to Ireland and I was on a British ship the day the war ended, officially. And we were, and German U-boats were coming in- those that were left that hadn’t been sunk- we took, they came along and we saw their conning towers coming up out of the [water], which was a bit scary, because we didn’t know which fanatical commanders would decide they still had their torpedoes, they could still do some damage. As it happened again, it didn’t happen, but we didn’t know that.
And we took German U-boat crews onto the ship I was on. And I was, I got to Belfast and I was there the day that the war officially ended and I was in a big square when there were thousands and thousands of Irish people, some of them Northern Irish, celebrating the end of the war in Europe. We were still at war with Japan.
I managed to go down, I had a bit of a leave left and I went down to- I had to wear civilian clothes, I had to go to the south of Ireland because they were neutral in the war. They were, I won’t say they were pro-German but they were anti-British and this of course has been going on for, we know what’s happened in recent years in Ireland.
I do remember seeing; one of the first things I remember seeing was the Nazi swastika flag flying from the German Embassy in Dublin and I remember the president of Ireland, [Éamon] De Valera, going to the German Embassy to sign a book of condolences because Adolf Hitler was dead.
I do remember the night that we got word…we didn’t know what an atomic bomb was and we heard about this huge new bomb that had been exploded over Japan. And the Japanese had surrendered and VJ-Day [Victory in Japan], which I think is August 15th  I remember at the air field I was on, the base, the aerodrome I was on, what I do remember is the wild celebrating because that meant the war was officially over. And it was a wild night. Guys took planes and they were flying around and the booze was flowing and it was pretty wild.
Well, I was obviously very happy that we won the war, because there were times when it didn’t look so good. I was very happy when I eventually came back home, having been away for a few years and not having seen my family. And I can remember, I can still remember my mother running through the crowd at the Exhibition when we came, that’s where we were brought by troop train from Montreal. And when I got to my family’s home that night, they had flags, she had all kinds of flags hanging from the front of the house, you’d have thought that General [Dwight] Eisenhower [Supreme Allied Commander] had returned. And so that was a very happy memory.
I have mixed memories about the war, of course. We had some bad times, we had some good times. But basically, we didn’t have much choice. You did what you were told to do. And it’s not like today, where you can, you go over, they come home on leave and so forth. You signed up and you signed up for the duration. You would either come home or you’d end up in a box and that was it. Fortunately, I came home but many of my friends didn’t. And that… I’m always very, I think about them often.