André Williams in Kootenay, British Columbia, 1944.André Williams
André Williams with his guitar in Petawawa, Ontario, 1943.André Williams
Group Portrait in Petawawa, Ontario, September 14th, 1944.André Williams
"I contracted anthrax. I hoped the antidote would be effective."
My name is Gunner André Williams, 20th Field Artillery Regiment; 72nd Battery. One of my brothers was fighting in England, and the other in Italy. I decided to enlist in the Royal [Canadian] Air Force. I went down to sign up. They gave me a check-up and told me I wasn’t fit enough; they asked what I possibly thought I could do in the air force. They said they would give the orders. They gave me the check-up and decided that I had flat feet and a heart murmur and therefore I was told I was not eligible for the air force. I told them where they could put their job. They said that since I had signed up, they could place me wherever they wanted. Soldiers who were deemed not good enough to go overseas were usually French-speaking. I don’t want to brag, but I was one of the few who were bilingual.
I was given orders to go to Longueuil. For one reason or another, I didn’t want to speak English anymore. I wanted to know what was going on with my health. They had reasoned that because I had flat feet, I wouldn’t be able to march with the infantry. They thought I would make a good FAT driver, Field Artillery Tractor. That was a vehicle that towed the guns. I went before the review board, for a kind of evaluation. They said to me, “Gunner Williams, take your clothes off.” I said, “What’s he saying?” They asked me if I spoke English. I replied no. I wanted to know why they had downgraded me. Was I good or not good? They started asking me questions. They got me to walk alongside the windows. It was like Sherlock Holmes, they were looking at my footprints with a magnifying glass. After almost an hour, they asked me through an interpreter if I wanted to go overseas. I said, I’ve tried three times already to join my brothers who are in the infantry. They said in the army, you don’t go down; you go up. As far as I’m concerned, whether it’s the infantry or the air force we all have a job to do and you just have to do your best.
The whole time, I was speaking through an interpreter. [The officer] kept saying, “Tell that guy he won’t go overseas.” I asked him, “Why Sir?” He hesitated for a moment. Then his eyes bulged out of his head. He had a pencil in his hands. He started hitting me in the face with his pencil. If it had been something more solid, I wouldn’t be here to talk about it. He said to me, “You son of a bitch.” That’s a word that has never sat well with me. If someone called me a son of a bitch or a bastard, I could have killed them for it. “You will regret this for the rest of your life,” he said, “I am going to send you someplace where you will regret it for the rest of your life.” I said, “Any place, Sir.” He said “sign here” and then he said, “Take that man away from me. Take this man here away or I will kill him.” He told me that there was a schooner that had been shipwrecked off of Grosse Île. Half of the Grosse Île guard had drowned. They needed a lot of soldiers there, so they sent us. When we arrived on the island, we were informed that we were part of a military secret [the Department of National Defence had set up an experimental station to conduct research on bacterial warfare, notably anthrax and rinderpest]. We were not allowed cameras, and we were not allowed to write about activities on the island. There were a lot of restrictions.
One day, two friends and I stole a carton of eggs. We settled in and started poking holes and drinking the eggs. The next day, the colonel spoke to us and informed us that it was very dangerous to eat those eggs. They could contaminate the entire island and maybe even contaminate Montmagny, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. The entire world could become contaminated. I didn’t believe that. He asked me where the carton was. I went to get it. We were lucky they were well-wrapped. The eggs were contaminated. They had encountered the same problem on a small farm in Alberta and all the sheep within a wide area had been contaminated.
Apparently I was sick for three days. I didn’t believe it. When I was cold, they covered me up and when I was hot, they gave me ice baths. I had contracted anthrax. I hoped that the antidote would work. I said to myself, hope for the best, for better or for worse. It turned out that it was for the better. That’s why I am here telling you about it today.