Joseph Gautreau, November 23, 2009.Historica Canada
Joe Campbell, Joe Gautreau, and Ed Johnson, 1944-45.Joseph Gautreau
Dagger with its scabbard belonging to Mr. Gautreau.Joseph Gautreau
Photo of Joseph Gautreau, 21, taken during his overseas service in Newfoundland.Joseph Gautreau
Picture of Madeleine Coppée, 11, whom Mr. Gautreau met in Belgium. Mr. Gautreau gave her bread and jam for her family and met her again in 1995.Joseph Gautreau
"But the knot where I tied it up at the top, I couldn’t undo it. And I’m trying to do this and I heard somebody walking around. I’m thinking, holy geez, I just got here and the Germans are after me already."
My name is Joseph Gautreau, I was born in Moncton [New Brunswick] here on the 7th of January, 1922. From early 1942 until the end of 1943, I was in Newfoundland. I come home in Moncton because they had got me some leave over the holidays, but then I got a telegram to report to Winnipeg for the airborne. I had applied to go airborne and they sent me a wire, and so I didn’t go back to Newfoundland, I went right from Moncton, right to Winnipeg. And they accepted me and I started our airborne training.
And one of the chaps that came with me from Newfoundland was a guy who was with me on Partridge Island [in Saint John, New Brunswick] as well. So we were kind of chumming around, he was from Petitcodiac [New Brunswick] here. And one day on the obstacle course, he broke his ankles. So he was in the hospital because him and I made a plan, we’re not going to be jumping out of aircraft, that’s crazy. So, because you could jump three jumps and you could quit, but if you made four jumps or five jumps, then you hoped to be a court martial who tried to get out. So we said we’ll make our three jumps and then we’ll join the submarine outfit or something like that. So, but he broke his ankles and he was in the hospital and the first thing I knew, I was doing my jump training and got on the plane and did our first jumps and then the fourth and the fifth jump, they never come back to the camp, they went right back to the airport and made our fourth jump and our fifth jump and it was all over. Then he was mad because I had finished the jumps already so he couldn’t. But they sent me overseas right away and I joined the battalion. I was in there for D-Day, but he never recuperated until later on, he only got over there later.
But he got into the battle of going into Germany and he jumped into Germany and he won the Military Medal. He was a real brave son of a gun, he was. We were in the British division. That’s why nobody knows about our battalion in Canada. It’s unbelievable. You meet people who never heard of our outfit, they've heard the Van Doos [Royal 22e Régiment], the RCRs [Royal Canadian Regiment], all the big regiments in Canada, but the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, they don’t hear much about them. Except the people that were in it that talk about it.
A couple of months before D-Day, an officer came from the battalion and he was looking for somebody to go in his platoon because somebody went AWOL [Absent Without Leave] and they wouldn’t be going over to France. So they ended up, i.e., pick me, I went. And I didn’t know anybody in the battalion, nobody, except they said, “You’re going to be in that hut.” I went in that and there’s a guy from Moncton here that I knew, he used to be on Partridge Island. So I was really happy to see him. Then it was physical because they were getting ready for D-Day, and the night before, we enplaned and took off at midnight. As a battalion, we were part of a brigade, that’s three battalions in a brigade.
And everybody had a different task. Like our task was to blow up some bridges so that the German tanks couldn’t cross over these little rivers. So we had five bridges to blow up. But we were heavy machine guns. This machine gun is a First World War machine gun. It’s the one you see in movies where they’re sitting down and both hands to fire it. And it’s called a Vickers machine gun. And it’s got a tripod, which weighs 45 pounds. And the gun barrel weighs 45 pounds. And it’s a water cool thing to get a gallon can for water because the water has to, it’s like a radiator for a car. And then there’s the ammunition, it runs in the big belt, there’s 250 rounds in a belt. So when we jumped, we had a big kit bag on our leg. With me I was an ammunition guy, so I had four of them belts and they weigh 15 pounds apiece, there’s 60 pounds in this big kit bag. So this big pack was on our one leg, on the right leg, and there was a pin there and a pin down there, it was all in one thing. So when you jump, I had 20 feet of rope hooked onto my webbing and tied to the bag and you’re supposed to kick this bag off and let it down on the rope, so that when you landed, they were so heavy, it took the weight off you, and you didn’t land so heavy. That was the principle of it.
So it didn’t work out because the pin at the bottom broke and the bag slid down and I couldn’t lift my leg up to unhook it. And in training, we trained with a bag of straw and they say, “Don’t land with a bag on your leg because you’re going to break your leg.” So that’s what I kept thinking. Of course, we didn’t jump very high, we were only about four or five hundred feet, come down on the ground real fast. So I thought I was going to break my leg, but nothing happened, I had a real easy jump really, landed there and sat down and laid back. But the knot where I tied it up at the top, I couldn’t undo it. And I’m trying to do this and I heard somebody walking around. I’m thinking, holy geez, I just got here and the Germans are after me already.
So I hurried up. I got a knife, everybody’s got a knife on their leg, so I just cut the bag all up, took my rifle out. Because this, he moved to another bush, just a little ways away, you know, I could hear him though. I said, holy geez. So I got my rifle. Well, I said, this is what they trained us for, this, so I put a round in the rifle and I went over to where he was before and I stayed there. And I waited. And then he moved again, so I went over to where he’d been. And I waited. And he’s not moving. So I took off. I ran right up to where he was and it was a cow. I was just like a wet rag, sweat was running.
For us, it was a real disaster in a way, they couldn’t find the other guy. Because one person jumped, the other guy’s about 100 yards away, you see. And if you’re on target, we had a lot of planes land 100 miles away, they all got captured, you know, prisoners of war. And we had a lot of casualties in that sense that a guy had the barrel of the machine gun, but he had no ammunition. Or the other fellow had the tripod, but he didn’t have the gun. And I had the ammunition and I wasn’t near where they were.
They showed us maps and the models of what the terrain was like where we were supposed to jump, but nothing works out that way. But everything was taking pictures and we seen all kinds of photographs, but they were taken during the time that everything was dry. But when we went, everything was flooded. There’s people that landed in ditches that drowned because their parachute dragged them right in the water. And other people, where it would look like hedges on the picture, it was great big trees. Some of them got caught in the trees and we stopped at a guy who was caught in a tree, but he was unconscious. So we all had a little bit of painkiller, a little needle we give him, and we left him there and we took off, we couldn’t bother, we couldn’t wait for anybody else.
So Christmas Day, we went to Belgium by ship because the Germans had made a big push, and so we all went by trucks and once we got over there, and we slept in houses along the way until we got to the front. Near the front, we stayed in a little village in a school, and we pushed the desk back because it was Christmas, there was no school so we put straw down and we slept there. The next morning, this little girl showed up and she says, “What are you doing in my school?” Now, she was talking French and I was the only guy who could speak French in that platoon, so I went over and I said, “Come on with me.” So I went down to the kitchen and gave her a big slice of homemade bread there and put some jam on it. So she went home and the next morning we were packing, ready to go because… she showed up again. So I said, “Come on.” I went down because the kitchen is closing up so give me a whole loaf of bread and a can of jam and she was on her way home. She said her dad wants to see me. So I said, “We’re packing.” She said, “It’s just right over there.” So I went over, he gave me a glass of wine, we talked. After the war, my mother had a big envelope with her letter and her picture on a card. I’ve still got that, the picture. And in 1995, my two sons and I went over there and we found her. We found her and we had taken a hotel near the village where we were. So we took a hotel there for two nights. She said, “You’ve got to come here.” I said, “No, we’ve got a hotel for two nights.” “The third night, you’ve got to come here.” So we went there, she had a big spaghetti dinner and her children and her grandchildren. She was the most beautiful little girl you ever seen.