Veteran Stories:
Gerry O'Pray

Army

  • Gerry O'Pray in Egypt with Miss Canada 1966, Diane Landry from Manitoba. Miss Landry was part of a delegation sent to Egypt to entertain the UN troops stationed there.

    Gerry O'Pray
  • The Blue Beret for United Nations peacekeepers, with Royal Canadian Corps of Signals uniform, worn by Gerry O'Pray in Egypt. 1961.

    Gerry O'Pray
  • While serving in the Congo, Gerry O'Pray fitted this lighter with a metal plate and miniature medal of the 57 Canadian Signals Unit. The lighter is also engraved with the years 1961-1963.

    Gerry O'Pray
  • Gerry O'Pray at the National Wildlife Park, the Congo, 1962.

    Gerry O'Pray
  • Army belt with Royal Canadian Corps of Signals brass buckle. Mr. O'Pray is wearing this belt in the photograph with Miss Canada 1966.

    Gerry O'Pray
  • While Gerry O'Pray was serving in the Congo in the 1960s, the Canadian flag design was debated back home. Mr. O'Pray designed this flag, which was then flown over his unit in the Congo. Photograph from 2005.

    Gerry O'Pray
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"A lot of things happened while I was in the Congo. One of the things I remember was kind of a culture shock for me, as a young man coming from Nova Scotia. There were thirty-four different countries, I think, in that mission in the Congo."

Transcript

My name is Gerry O’Pray. I’m originally from Nova Scotia and now living in Toronto. I joined the military when I was eighteen, and I joined the Royal Canadian Signals. I was sent to Kingston, Ontario where I took my basic training. I was there for a year, taking my basic training and my trades training. After my basic training, which was training as an infantry soldier, I took my trades training, which was as a teletype and safe equipment technician. Which probably nobody recognizes now, because I don’t think anybody knows what a teletype machine is now, but that was our means of communication then – or one of our means of communication then. After graduating from my trades training, I had a brief leave at home in Nova Scotia, and was posted to Fredericton, New Brunswick, where I served until 1961.

When I was finished in Fredericton, I was sent to the Congo, which was an on-going United Nations mission, called "United Nations Mission in the Congo." What happened was, in 1960, when the Congo declared independence, the country quickly degenerated into chaos because, the former colonial masters, the Belgians, had not prepared the people for independence at all, and there was nobody to run anything. There were no engineers, there were no doctors, there were no nurses, there were no teachers. So the whole country just fell into chaos, so, the first democratically elected leader of Africa, [Prime Minister] Patrice Lumumba, called the United Nations.

Mainly, what we were doing there was just stabilizing the country so that the country could actually start to work again. And many, many UN civilians were there, as well as the soldiers. The tour of duty there was six months, and I spent four tours there. I was there from 1961 to 1963.

A lot of things happened while I was in the Congo. One of the things I remember was kind of a culture shock for me, as a young man coming from Nova Scotia. There were thirty-four different countries, I think, in that mission in the Congo. It was everybody from Malaysians to Nigerians, to Scandinavians, to Indians and Pakistanis. So – almost the whole world was there, at one time.

It was a huge mission. At one point I think there was about twenty to forty thousand troops there, so that mission to the Congo almost bankrupt the United Nations. It only lasted for four years and I was there for the middle two years.

One of the personal points, while I was there, was we used to take some ribbing from our Irish friends [UN personnel]. They used to come to our canteen from time to time. They were chiding us that, are we still under British rule? Because at the time we were flying the Red Ensign, because the Union Jack of course was on the Red Ensign. It looks almost exactly like the Ontario flag.

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