"Big brown eyes like that and big bellies, you’d see they hadn’t ever had enough to eat. Can you stand there or sit there and eat a sandwich with them watching you?"
I would say 90 percent of the people in the army smoked back in them days. So my brother wrote to me before I went overseas and said, bring as many cigarettes as you possibly can. So I had a kit bag stuffed solid full of cigarettes when I got off the boat in Scotland, and took them [to] him. He was, at that time, a staff sergeant and had his own room in the barracks hut. So he said, how would it be if I take the cigarettes and keep them with me; and then I’ll take some up to his wife, Kay, and then we can, as we need them, we can divvy them out.
Well, I was supposed to meet him in London on the weekend because we both had long weekends off, like he’d finished his instructions, and I’d finished my training, so we were going to have a long weekend. We were going to go see his wife. I was in three different units: I was with [Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers] No. 1 Tank Recovery [Company], No. 2 Tank Recovery [Company] and Army Field Workshop on that weekend. And zero communication with anybody. Went down to the south coast of England, one tanker recovery unit I went to, I never even got out of the truck. They said, well, we don’t need him here, back he goes to the base.
Then I went to the other one and I was there a couple of days. I wasn’t even there a couple of days, and back to the workshop; and from the workshop then to Liverpool, and onto a ship. And no communication. So we got on the ship and the convoy went. We were two weeks out on the water... And then the fun started. I had no cigarettes with me. [laughs] And my mail was sent to England. It would be sent to the tank recovery company in Italy. No, he’s not here, he must be in England. So it would go back to England, no, he’s not here. Then they’d finally check and oh, he went to Italy with a field workshop. So I had parcels sent to me that looked like beat up old footballs. [laughs]
I was at least two months before I had any communication at all from my family, or anybody. We landed in Naples in Italy. When we got off the ship, we all were given a lunch to take with us because we had oh, I’d say anywhere, 12, 15 mile one foot in front of the other, where we were going to be billeted. They said, whatever you do, you don’t give any of your lunch away.
Well, by the time we got up to our first break area, we would have probably 100 kids with us, from just big enough to walk to say five, six, seven years old. Big brown eyes like that and big bellies, you’d see they hadn’t ever had enough to eat. Can you stand there or sit there and eat a sandwich with them watching you? So I would say 99 percent of our lunches went to the kids. That was one of the greatest cultural shocks for me because I didn’t see any hard times or anything in England because I was never out of the camp area. But there all of a sudden, you’re exposed to civilian people and the kids; and there wasn’t many men around because a lot of the Italian men had gone to the army. And a lot of them weren’t back, a lot of them never came back. So that was one of the biggest shocks that I would say of the whole thing, was when we got off that ship in Naples.
From then on, you knew you were at war. So strange as it may seem, being at war and being under military conditions, a person isn’t under army or military conditions like front line conditions continuously. He may be in there for a week, maybe less, especially the tank outfits; and then you’re back out to what they called rest areas, or you’re moved. I don’t know how many times I moved back and forth across Italy. Probably wore out a damn truck, I think, hauling me back and forth.
And when you’re at the front lines, it was to be expected. You knew that this was the type of life you’d signed up for. The Italian people, like the ladies and the kids, were really good to us, like washed our clothes and that when we were back behind the lines. They got chocolate bars and cigarettes, and everything else. And soap because some of them, I don’t think, had seen soap for probably two or three years. The eyes just bugged out with toilet soap, they could hardly believe it. Like this came over to us in parcels. Like my sister sent most of it to us. To me, that was as much the wartime experience as battlefield experience. Battlefield experience, you just took for granted. If you had to dig out a land mine because it was too close to the tank you were working on, you dug the sucker out.