Source: Six of the seven sections in this memoir are from an unpublished manuscript. The D-Day section was first published in Canadians: A Battalion at War: Canadians in the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, 1940 to 1945. Mississauga, Ontario, Burlington Books, no date)
A WAR MEMOIR
HALT! WHO GOES THERE?
My introduction to war happened when I was about six. I was sitting on the curb of our street with a little boy. We were talking as little boys do and I asked him about his Dad. He said his Dad had been killed by the Germans. He was the first person I knew who didn’t have a father and it shocked me. I couldn’t imagine life without a father. It haunted me. It is with me yet.
When the Queen’s Own mobilized to go overseas in 1940 they turned me down because I was only sixteen. I had been in the Band since 1938. The band was going overseas without me. A friend in the Governor General’s Horse Guards asked me to join the Horse Guards as a trumpeter. I said, “They will never take me. You have to be 5 foot 10 inches for them to even talk to you. I’m only 5 foot 4 ” He said, “Come on down anyway you can practice with us, you play a bugle and a trumpet.”
Down we went the next Monday. The 6 foot 2 inch Trumpet Major just looked at me and said, “You’re too short.”
My friend said “He’s just going to practice with us, he and I practice together.” We were taking turns blowing calls and it was my turn to play. To my surprise the Trumpet Major said. “I believe this boy is getting taller. Yes! Yes! Indeed he is. Get this boy some triple soled boots and an extra long plume for his helmet, we can use him now.”
I was assigned to the ordinance building on Spadina Ave and Queen St. It is productive to tell you that all the soldiering I had done was as a bugler and trumpeter, sounding calls and playing marches. A big sergeant introduced me to a short corporal who looked down at me with wonder in his eyes. There I stood, 5 foot 4 inches tall, 117 pounds of fighting bone and muscle, ready and dressed with my 1914 cavalry uniform, complete with breeks, putties, spurs and an ammunition bandoleer, a bugle and a trumpet. The bugle was to call the troops and the trumpet was to call them when they were on horseback. The corporal, identified by his ribbon bar as from Britain, asked, “Where’s your rifle m’ite?” I answered, “I’ve never had a rifle.” He looked at the sergeant and the sergeant looked at me from his higher elevation, and then left.
The corporal was a good guy. He explained that I was a replacement guard, required to march up and down in front of the building with loaded rifle and fixed bayonet. My heart pounded with excitement. You must learn rifle drill and how to fix bayonets. Wow! Your bandoleer will be full with clips of ammunition. I just couldn’t wait. The corporal was patient and kind, in less than a week he had me marching up and down in front of that building like a palace guard. I was proud.
Then one evening about two a.m. the corporal appeared. I knew it was him and remembered what he taught me. With authority I said, “Halt who goes there?” He said, “It’s me.” I said, “Halt or I will shoot.” He stopped and stared down the barrel of my rifle. It was complete with a 14 inch fixed bayonet. He knew it was loaded with one up the spout, the squeeze of the trigger away. The teacher stood frozen before his prize pupil. I said, “Advance and be recognized,” just as he had taught me, a short time before and then I said, “Pass.”
Indeed he did pass, he almost passed out, but like a good soldier he quietly entered the building and went to bed. The next day he took me aside and commended me and said, “Last night you did everything right”, proving how patient and kind he was. Then he said, “My lad, when you’re on guard in the middle of the night you can relax.” “There is no need to march at attention, just be certain that no unauthorized person gets in the building.” I thought it was kind of silly too, marching up and down in front of the building with the doors unlocked. The next time I was on the deadman’s shift at two a.m. I locked the doors, removed my puttees and boots and put my little mattress on the floor to block the doors. Then I lay down with my loaded rifle and fixed bayonet across my chest. No one could get past me. It wasn’t long before there was a knock on the door. I jumped up and said, “Who goes there.” The voice said, “It’s the Orderly Sergeant.” At that point in my military career no one had explained to me what an Orderly Sergeant was although I knew how to blow a call by that name on my bugle. When I let him in I could tell he was disturbed. He said. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I said, “I am keeping unauthorized people from entering the building, Sergeant.” I explained that the corporal told me I could relax on this shift. With that he flew up the stairs and brought the corporal back in his nightshirt. The corporal, good man that he was, admitted that he said I could relax. The sergeant said some very unpleasant things and something about KRRofCAN (Kings Rules and Regulations of Canada) but decided that I hadn’t disobeyed any orders and the corporal’s intentions were well meant. My first encounter with military authority turned out to be a positive experience.
Just when I was getting to understand and enjoy active service my Dad came to visit me. I told him that I would be going to Camp Borden to join the regiment and they had just become a motorcycle battalion. [His father refused to give permission, and brought Doug home.] Shortly after his visit I was back at the Armoury turning in my uniform. The corporal kept the rifle with fixed bayonet. I was glad it was fixed. That was August 30, 1940. I was undaunted by the events and discovered the 2nd BN QOR of C had been formed. On September 4,1940 I was a bugler again, playing with the band and sounding calls on Monday and Wednesday nights.
I learned how to use and shoot a rifle from some of the best instructors in Canada, just as I had learned how to play the bugle from the best buglers. Camp Niagara was an adventure for a boy who had never been anywhere farther than he could walk. It wasn’t where I wanted to be however. It wasn’t active service. I knew I would have to lie about my age to go active and that wasn’t taught in our family. On June 4, 1941 they called for volunteers. On June 6, 1941 I was sworn into active service, at last. Yes I lied, like thousands of others like myself, who, although young put country and service ahead of self. That’s just the way it was then, more than fifty years ago. We volunteered to give our life and knew when we went overseas that we would not be back until the war was won or we were seriously wounded or injured.
EXCITING TRAIN RIDE
It is strange how some experiences have a compelling impact on your psyche. In politics they are called defining moments. In education they are called significant emotional events or the teachable moment. They happen unexpectedly. They may merge and become a formative determination of your life. Allow me to share some with you.
Riding north on my way to Glasgow in 1942, the train stopped on the south side of Manchester. There was an air raid on the city and they didn’t want the train wrecked. By that time I had been through a few raids and was as stoic as everyone else on board. A few bombs were dropping nearby. A Scotsman in civilian clothes, sitting across from me struck up a conversation. He said, “Aye, Canada, what ar’ye gonna do after the war laddie?” Surprised, I answered, “After the war! Why I’m still trying to get into the war! Besides, in the outfit I’m in and the odds they will face, it doesn’t seem constructive to think about going home.”
I asked, “What kind of work do you do? I know you British are allowed to wear civies on leave. Are you in the service?” He replied, “No, I’m a civilian Engineer.”
“Oh! Then you drive trains like this one” said I, not even knowing at that time what the Army Corp of Engineers did. “No, Laddie, right now I’m a barracks engineer, responsible for building and maintaining all the barracks in this area.” Well that didn’t impress me too much. The only real barracks I ever stayed in were about a hundred years old in Aldershot. He did surprise me when he said, “You know, laddie, you should think about becoming an engineer after this show is over. It’s a good job.” We were looking out the window at the time, a few bombs were still dropping. The Scotsman, in his friendly brogue said, “You know Laddie, there’s going to be a lot of construction after this show is over.” It didn’t take a Rhodes scholar to know he was right.
D-DAY WITH THE QUEEN’S OWN RIFLES
All in B Company had slept well aboard the mothership, preparing for D-Day. Everyone had settled down quietly, huddled together body to body in hammocks, or on a table or on the deck. I believe most of us went off to sleep thinking about home and loved ones, the people who meant most to us. This was it. The speeches were over, the letters home had been written; they would be delivered much later.
Breakfast was great eggs sunny side up, bacon and white toasted bread. It had been almost four years since we had any of those delicacies. The talk was jovial and light. We were eager to board the landing craft and head for the beach. Most of us were hiding or denying our fears.
The briefing they had given us left the feeling that the landing was going to be too easy; we all realized that some of us would be killed. For some, bacon and eggs would be the last meal.
On the run-in Doug Reed and I were standing up eagerly, watching for shore. We began singing The Bells Are Ringing for Me and My Gal and continued until we saw the steeple of the church at our landing site. I said, “Doug, there’s the church, I thought it wasn’t supposed to be there.” It suffered one shell hole in the steeple. We soon saw the big hotel that is a famous painting now. Then we saw the five pillboxes mounted on top of the sea-wall. These were our first objective.
About five hundred yards out, they had us in the sights of their small arms and began shooting. We had never been under real fire and realized it when bullets were hitting our assault craft. I said to Doug, as if we should be surprised, “They’re shooting at us!” and we ducked down below the armour.
When the craft got into shallower water, the Royal Marines lowered the door. Corporal John Gibson said “Let’s go” and jumped in the water at the same time as our sergeant, Fred Harris, the son of a Toronto doctor. He had deferred his chance for a commission in order not to miss the landing. Freddie was killed instantly.
At the same time a machine gun firing from the second floor window of the hotel focused on our down-ramp. The three in front of me including Doug Reed were hit and killed. By luck I jumped out between bursts into their rising blood.
Cold and soaking wet I caught up to Gibby. We knew we were in a war as that same machine gun began to pick him out. The first burst went through his backpack. He turned his head grinning at me and said, “That was close, Dougie”.
“Yes, Gibby, there goes your lunch, we’ll have to share mine,” I told him.
The next burst killed him. He fell face down spread-eagled in front of me. My memory is crystal clear and I can see him now. I stopped to take a silver wristwatch and ID bracelet his wife had sent him a few weeks earlier. His body would be lost in the channel. I wanted to send them to her. They wouldn’t come off. Then the gunner picked me up. I had to leave Gibby. But I’d now become a killer with a single purpose.
I arrived alone beside a pillbox. Looking back, I saw Ted Westerby from our section carrying a ladder. It was the ladder we were to use to scale the wall. Ted took two hits before the third one killed him. I decided to scramble up the pillbox without a ladder and drop a grenade in a slit, determined to get someone.
A hand came out and dropped a German high explosive grenade to the ground. It landed about four inches from my left foot. My first thought was to pick it up and throw it. But I remembered our training so just doubled up and waited. It seemed to be a year. I might lose a foot. Finally the explosion came and I was lucky just to get a nick on my Achilles tendon.
About one hundred yards east of me I could see some other B Company people. I got to them; there were maybe eight or so with Major Charlie Dalton. He was shooting at a pillbox that had a French tank turret mounted on the top. I was standing right behind him, and Alex Greer (a stretcher bearer) was on his left when Dalton was wounded by a bullet in the head.
Everyone still on his feet was determined to get over the wall. Alex took immediate care of Major Dalton. We were under heavy fire. It was do or die.
A pillbox made of logs and open on both ends housed an anti-tank gun that was shooting our landing craft out of the water. I threw a grenade in one end. Three of the German crew came out running toward the hotel. One of them was a corporal. He had a Luger in his hand shooting at me. But I had my Lee Enfield.
Somehow John (Shorty) Humenyk** and I hooked up together and went east to a dory ramp. We had started up the ramp when machine guns firing on fixed lines about eighteen inches above ground opened up. And there was mortar and 88 fire.
Shorty, calm as can be, said, “What do you think Dougie?”
I replied, “Hell, Shorty, there’s no shelter, we might just as well go for the hotel and get as many as we can get.” I had an assignment to throw a grenade in an east window of the hotel on my way to the town. As we started something big exploded and somersaulted me down the ramp. When things cleared my left leg was bleeding (two pieces of shrapnel are still embedded in the bone).
I found out that our cherished commando knife couldn’t slit a uniform. I put a field dressing over top. It stopped the bleeding. A piece of shrapnel had chewed out the breech of Shorty’s treasured Lee Enfield sniper rifle.
Later, when my wound had started to bother me, I sat with my back against the seawall. Next to me was a wounded German boy. Every time I made a move he cringed, cowering.
We’d both been hit. When you’re wounded, that’s it. It’s over. Finally I tried to tell him that. He seemed to get the idea and relaxed a bit. Stumpy Gordon came along collecting Bren gun magazines and spotted me. “Let’s have that Luger,” he said to me.
“No, Stumpy, you’ll have to get one the same way I did.”
Note by Roy J. Whitsed: Hester had taken some items from the dead corporal to send one day to a next-of-kin. Among the soldier’s possessions was a prayer book. Hester still has it. He was stunned to find it. “We were the ones who carried bibles and prayer books,” he said, still troubled. “We were the good guys. Weren’t we? They were the bad guys. What’s he doing then with a prayer book? What goes on here?”]
WRITING TO A DEAD SOLDIER’S FAMILY
It was at the turn of the year, 1949 moving into 1950, when I finally got around to writing to that soldier’s family. They wrote back to me on February 24, 1950, clearly older people and probably not too well off. They had a friend translate the German, maybe not too well, but here it is just the way it came in the mail:
February 24, 1950
Dear Mr. Hester:
We were deeply moved when, yesterday, your letter box, papers and photos of our unforgettable son Ernst arrived here. Take many thousand thanks. How are we able to reward you, that you let us have our boy’s last belongings. By our office of the Werhmacht we formerly learned that our boy was probably killed on June 6, 1944 near Bernières-sur-Mer. They could not exactly inform us. We, my husband and me, are nowadays old people. We lost five children, Ernst was our last, who takes care of our living. We always hoped, that he would saved us and that our Lord let him come home from that terrible war, but we have to leave this hope too. Today we are old and nobody takes care of our living, and the war took all that we possessed in particular my husband was terribly moved losing five children. In this letter you find a photo of my son.
Formerly, when we were informed of his death we made celebrate a mass for him. Take this as a souvenir of a German comrade, whom you saw only dead, but whom was, in the deep of his heart, has never been your foe. I should be heartly grateful to you. When you reply write me in complete details. Was he hard wounded? Had he lost his arms or legs, or how has he been killed? You can write in English or French as I have found someone to translate the letters.
You can hardly imagine what it means to us to know how our poor son died. He was our last consolation, our last hope, shortly all that remained of our five children.
And now, my husband and me thank you heartly once more and beg you to answer us pretty soon and tell us all about our son.
Take in advance many hearty thanks for your kindness.
Frau Johanna (surname withheld)
My answer was brief, friendly, and forgiving. I closed by saying, “You can be certain that your son was brave, killed instantly and suffered no body damage.”
OWNING A PIECE OF JUNO
Many gave their lives on D-Day. Sixty-three in The Queen’s Own paid the price. In our section of ten men, seven fell: David Boynton, Fred Eaman, Edward Westerby, Albert Kennedy, John Kirkland, Douglas Reed, all Riflemen, and Corporal John Gibson.
Three of our ten survived: Rifleman Robert Nicol, Corporal Rolph Jackson, and myself.
Although I spent more than twelve hundred days in active service only three were spent on the beachhead. Less than three hours were spent on my feet. The rest was on a stretcher. That first night was in a small building on what is now called rue de la Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. The second night was in the now very well known orchard where we were taken care of by those wonderful nuns. Then it was a rocky and dangerous ride getting out to an American LST and back to England.
It was August 1944 before my wound healed and I could get back to the invasion beach and take a look at Bernières-sur-Mer. I found the temporary graves of some of our fallen by the railroad tracks. One of the cleanup pioneers told me bodies were still washing ashore from time to time. I stood facing the beach, heart heavy and mind racing.
A British sergeant began to explain things to me describing what took place on D-Day. It was clearly beyond his imagination. It hurt to listen.
“Were you there?” I asked him. “No.” “Well, if you had been there you wouldn’t need to say a word. If you weren’t, then it’s impossible for you to understand.
“You see that beach? My friends and I own a piece of it. And I don’t want to hear another word.”
I was expecting to return to the Q.O.R but a variety of regiments were represented, all sleeping on the ground in a big field. One morning I was awakened at first light and told I was to join the supply line. I said “I’m in the Queen’s Own and I want to rejoin them.” The sergeant said, “You’re qualified to drive trucks and carriers and that’s what you’re going to do.” I had only taken courses and this was the fast time I had been told to drive.
It was exciting as the front line was moving east, closing in on Belgium. All the supplies were on the Normandy beaches and needed to be at the front. The group I was with never took their clothes off. We drove night and day and only slept in the back of trucks on the return trips. For me it lasted three months. I slipped on a cobble stone road and broke my kneecap. That got me a ride home on a hospital ship.
The Canadians and Americans took all kinds of chances to get the supplies up to where they were needed. They removed the blackout covers from their headlights so they could see to drive faster at night. They were less restricting on convoy protocol and allowed more initiative. The British were formal as always but cool under fire.
One day I was exercising my initiative to pass one truck at a time in a convoy of British trucks. They were towing trailers containing Churchill tanks and they were big. I was driving a truck loaded with 6 tons of 5 gallon jerry cans full of petrol and towing a five inch gun, not a small weapon. We were on a road with signs on both sides reading “ACHTUNG VERGES MINEN”. After passing about five or six British trucks the next one cut me off and I went sailing over a minefield. It should have been the end of this story.
Luck was with me. I wanted to get back with the QOR and into real action. Kindness was also with me. The last truck in the convoy stopped and the driver got out and said, “Aye Canada, you’re a lucky lad! Since we got you into this mess, we will pull you out but YOU will have to walk out and get the cable.” Believe me, I tiptoed out carefully to hook up the cable and then tiptoed back. Then we got into his truck and let all the cable on the reel out before the towing began.
The unbelievable part is that we got the truck without incident. We were indeed lucky because when we got to our destination we found out that the road was a narrow corridor with Germans holding both sides.
PEACE AT LAST
After the war was over, still young and inexperienced about civilian life, I was interviewed by a Captain. It was about gratuities for service.
He said, “They may be taken in one of three ways. In monthly cash payments, as a DVA loan to finance a house or for education.”
I said, “Education. I want to be an engineer” He started reading some papers and commented, “You dropped out of school, you were in the infantry, you were a corporal three times.”
“Yes,” I said, “in basic and advanced training and in the holding unit in Aldershot. I gave the stripes up each time to get into the war.”
He stated, in his judgment, “You were a young easy going soldier and I think you would be throwing your money away.” He suggested, “You should be a lumberjack or a mail carrier.”
I was infuriated and said, “Mister! You may be a Captain in the army; I no longer have to respect that fact. You have the gall to tell someone that walked, crawled, bumped around in the back of a truck, halfway across Europe, to be a lumberjack or a mail carrier? Someone who was repatriated to Canada on a hospital ship and discharged with an L5 and E5? Any 5 is an automatic disability discharge. For me it was imbedded shrapnel from a gunshot wound in my left leg and a fractured patella in the right leg. E for eye, was a perforated cornea right eye. Pausing and collecting my thoughts I simply said, “I think, lumberjacks and mailcarriers do noble work, but I want an EDUCATION.
Thereupon, I walked out. I did get the gratuity check once a month for nine months. Of course mature judgment would have dictated that there must have been a way to negotiate getting the education option. At the time, four years in the army did not make me mature, clever or eloquent. In fact I felt quite lost and lonely out of the army. What I needed was a job. Companies were holding jobs open for employees that were still overseas.
My Dad talked to a gentleman on our street who worked for the Ontario Hydro. He in turn arranged an interview for me in a drafting department. It wasn’t easy. During the interview I learned what a mistake it was to drop out of school. They only hired high school graduates and above. I was going to night school, it helped. Then it struck me and I said, “Sir, give me a chance, I can draw. I will work a month for streetcar fare and lunch money. If you don’t like it I will quietly walk away.”
He gave me an assignment to take home and said, “Do this and bring it back.” The next week I was hired for pay. The relationship with the Hydro lasted for eleven years. By that time Ruth was in my life. Thank God she still is. We enjoy five children and fourteen grandchildren. That is a story by itself.
GETTING ON WITH LIFE
In 1956 we moved to Colorado. The largest consulting engineering company in the Rocky Mountain Empire hired me based on work samples and an interview in Buffalo. It was daring, exciting and scary. So was the walk up the beach in France. The three oldest children and Ruth weren’t with me on that excursion. Ruth had guts as well as brains, she said let’s go, just like Eisenhower did on that dreadful day that changed my life.
The move to United States changed my life also. It proved to me that every time a door closes, three new doors opened. Stearns Rogers was the company that sponsored and moved us to Colorado. They believed that employees should rise to the level of their incompetence. It was a frightening challenge. They asked me and had me admitted to a master’s three credit course; Industrial Power Systems at Colorado University. It was very difficult for me. Of course I couldn’t take the credits without a BS degree, even though I passed. The truth is I didn’t know what credits were when I started. The knowledge was what I needed and the company wanted me to have it.
After Stearns Rogers there was Martin Marrieta, Litton Shipbuilding and finally 3M. 3M was kind enough to pay for the rest of my education. Ruth and I are living happily ever after.
WAR CHRONICLE: THE LAST POST
Doug Hester retired to Florida. To his great surprise, he discovered regimental comrades living nearby. One, Herb Goldring, had been a buglar with the QOR in the early ’50’s.
Herb and Doug began holding private services, in a small field in Florida, in remembrance of QOR soldiers who have passed on.
They play The Last Post and Rouse in a solemn observance.
“Our private services are something I must do,” Hester wrote. “War at its least is about initiatives and objectives. For some it involves killing or being killed. I believe the lost should be remembered with reverence as a tribute to them and to their families who suffered their loss; as a catharsis for those who committed the unspeakable; and as an opportunity not only to forgive our enemies, and to forgive ourselves.”
NOTES FROM CANADIANS: A BATTALION AT WAR
Alex Greer “Parts of that day are a blank, and yet even now the occasional flashback will pop up. I know when the ramp dropped about a dozen of our people were hit one after the other so I just hopped out over the side. It was only up to chest level, and swimming was never any problem for me anyway. The bullets hit the water ‘zip, zip, zip’ but I made it. When Major Dalton was hit I bandaged him up. It was a sniper whose shot to the head glanced a bit; another half inch and he’d have been killed.”
John Humenyk was killed August 25, 1944.