‘You’d be­come can­non fod­der’

Ber­wick vet­eran re­calls serv­ing dur­ing Sec­ond World War

Annapolis Valley Register - - FRONT PAGE - SARA ERIC­S­SON BER­WICK, N.S.

Earl Dolsen drums his fin­gers – one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three – as he re­mem­bers his years serv­ing as a mu­si­cian with the Royal Cana­dian Air Force.

Dolsen is 96, and still plays his trum­pet. He calls those 33 years “the best” of his life.

At 11 a.m., he says it’s still a few hours ear­lier than he nor­mally starts play­ing but puts the in­stru­ment to his lips and launches into crisp ren­di­tion of The Last Post.

“Well, that went bet­ter than I thought it would have,” he says.

Dreams dashed, but not for long

Dolsen is a Sec­ond World War vet­eran, hav­ing served in the RCAF from 1942 to 1975. Hail­ing from a small prairie town in Saskatchewan called Stras­bourg, Dolsen says he was first drawn to the air force be­cause he wanted to “buzz” his rel­a­tives.

Buzzing, as de­scribed by Dolsen, is the not- so- le­gal plane ma­neu­ver of mak­ing a nose-dive – which, Dolsen clar­i­fies, comes with a buzzing sound, hence its name – over prop­er­ties like houses and schools in his home­town.

“In those days, you weren’t sup­posed to do that, but peo­ple did it – and peo­ple knew it was you up in that plane,” says Dolsen.

He said buzzing, and hear­ing sto­ries from sol­diers who’d re­turn home on leave and talk about their war sto­ries, made him sure he wanted to join.

“But I promised my folks I’d fin­ish Grade 12,” he says.

Dolsen en­listed when he was 19, but soon found he was un­able to fly be­cause he wore glasses, and didn’t fit the air force’s per­fect vi­sion re­quire­ment. So, it was back to the pro­fes­sional draw­ing board, and Dolsen didn’t know where he’d end up un­til an of­fi­cer no­ticed some­thing in his file – mu­sic.

“He pulled me aside, and he said, ‘so you played band in high school?’ So, I said ‘yes,’ and he handed me a bus ticket to the Uni­ver­sity of Regina to travel there and com­plete an as­sess­ment. I played for a teacher there, and passed,” says Dolsen.

Mem­o­ries of a ‘core unit’ per­sist

He then spent the next 33 years – 1942 to 1975 – in var­i­ous mu­si­cal roles, in­clud­ing band­mas­ter, for var­i­ous Royal Cana­dian Air­force bands across the coun­try.

He was posted to towns across the coun­try with his wife, Kay, and looks back fondly on their ad­ven­tures to­gether.

Dolsen played mu­sic all day, ev­ery day, and when he wasn’t per­form­ing, he was learn­ing more. De­spite hav­ing dreams set on fly­ing, he says he found this post­ing nearly as ex­cit­ing, and thrilling in dif­fer­ent ways.

“Here I am at 19, play­ing in my school band, and next thing I know I’m on my way to Ot­tawa and that’s where the best band in Canada is – the Cen­tral Band Ot­tawa. I thought that was amaz­ing,” he says.

Some of Dolsen’s fond­est mem­o­ries come from his time liv­ing on base in Ot­tawa while train­ing with the Cen­tral Band, where any­one caught break­ing rules or dis­obey­ing or­ders was made to shovel coal all week­end and re­port to nor­mal du­ties bright and early Mon­day morn­ing.

One night, a band mem­ber hung back at the mess hall where ev­ery­one had en­joyed a few beers and stole more al­co­hol from the sergeants’ hall. The mem­ber re­turned, woke up the en­tire bar­racks, and con­tin­ued on his way.

In the morn­ing, the mil­i­tary po­lice ar­rived and in­ter­viewed each band mem­ber. Dolsen smiles, and says, “not a one of them cracked.”

“They in­ter­viewed ev­ery­body, and not one mem­ber of that 30piece band gave any­thing away. To me, that’s re­ally a core unit,” he says. Land­ing in Nova Sco­tia, trav­el­ling the coun­try Dolsen and his wife first ar­rived in Dart­mouth in 1945. He was present as Cana­dian troops re­turned from over­seas, and says it was quite a sight.

“I was there when all of the troop ships were com­ing back in, and also when they were tak­ing all the bombs out to sea on barges to bury,” he says.

Soon af­ter, Dolsen was sent on tour across the coun­try with vet­er­ans who’d served over­seas – all to raise money for Cana­dian Vic­tory Bonds. The tour took them all to cit- ies large and small. He says it was ex­cit­ing to be part of some­thing “as big as that was.”

“That was in­ter­est­ing, be­cause you’d get huge crowds – they all wanted to see a vet­eran, whether army, navy or air force,” he said.

He never served in Europe him­self, and of­ten thinks about other mil­i­tary mem­bers who didn’t serve over­seas. He says while “many would not agree with him,” their con­tri­bu­tions at home mat­tered, and also made a dif­fer­ence and con­trib­uted to the Al­lies’ vic­tory in the war.

“I of­ten think about the guys in the air force that trained the pi­lots, the nav­i­ga­tors, the bom­bardiers – they never got any glory, but ev­ery day they flew they’d take a lit­tle risk with a stu­dent. To me, they were just as im­por­tant as the stu­dent who ended up over­seas,” he says.

“The fel­las that served in Canada never got much credit – you had to be over­seas for that. But the dan­ger of teach­ing raw re­cruits re­ally was tremen­dous. I re­spect that.”

Liv­ing through the war

be­fore en­list­ing

Dolsen vividly re­mem­bers liv­ing in the years lead­ing up to and dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

Be­fore he en­listed, his fam­ily sur­vived on ra­tions in­clud­ing just two pounds of meat per week.

That amount was to feed his en- tire fam­ily, par­ents and sib­lings in­cluded. He now shud­ders think­ing of the amount of meat in quar­ter­pounder burg­ers.

While on tour, Dolsen was in­vited to many din­ners. He al­ways hes­i­tated eat­ing larger por­tions be­cause it made him feel guilty.

“I knew I was eat­ing your ra­tions. Could they af­ford feed­ing an ex­tra mouth on the ra­tions? I didn’t know,” he says.

He also re­mem­bers his Sun­day school teacher, Mr. Bor­den, teach­ing kids how to use Morse keys to read and send mes­sages. One day, at the tele­graph sta­tion, the lo­cal kids heard a key and de­coded it. It read, “If you un­der­stand this, re­port to Mr. Bor­den.”

Many of those who un­der­stood it went on to work at the tele­graph sta­tion and in­ter­pret im­por­tant mes­sages dur­ing the war.

Mr. Bor­den, a sta­tion mas­ter him­self, re­ceived tele­grams re­port­ing wounded and fallen sol­diers. Dolsen says when­ever peo­ple saw Bor­den car­ry­ing a yel­low en­ve­lope, they knew a sol­dier had died.

“We al­ways knew who it was be­cause of the house Mr. Bor­den would carry the en­ve­lope to. It seemed nor­mal, though – we knew full well many peo­ple would not re­turn,” he says.

Dolsen says this is also why stu­dents of age to en­list would never put much ef­fort into earn­ing top grades in school, him­self in­cluded.

They knew they’d re­ceive an in­vi­ta­tion to join the army once they turned 18, they had other pri­or­i­ties.

“If you went to school from 1939 to 1945, marks didn’t mat­ter. You knew you’d be­come can­non fod­der,” says Dolsen.

Fewer vet­er­ans year af­ter year Dolsen re­calls a time when farm­ers, in­dus­try work­ers and oth­ers in Saskatchewan were ap­proached by pur­chasers look­ing to buy their left­over iron.

In the years fol­low­ing the Great De­pres­sion, he says there wasn’t much to de­bate – money was scarce and op­por­tu­ni­ties to earn seemed even more rare – so peo­ple sold their me­tal with­out a sec­ond thought.

He says they later dis­cov­ered most of the me­tal sold went straight to Ger­many.

“We didn’t re­al­ize it was an agent for Ger­many. And they bought a lot of the scrap iron in Canada and shipped it to Europe – it took a while for peo­ple to re­al­ize,” he says.

Dolsen says he’s re­minded of how peo­ple can act with­out think­ing at times, point­ing the fin­ger to the United States and the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump nearly two years ago.

He says the only way an­other war will hap­pen is if peo­ple don’t take the time to think such de­ci­sions through.

“I wish peo­ple in the U.S. would read Mein Kampf. It’s the same thing hap­pen­ing down there, and I don’t like it one bit,” says Dolsen.

The vet­eran now spends much of his time play­ing trum­pet for school and com­mu­nity Re­mem­brance Day-re­lated events, which he’s seen a change in over the years.

“There are huge crowds now. I think peo­ple are more aware of what the guys, re­gard­less of where they served, did when they served, but the crowds grow larger ev­ery year,” he says.

Dolsen also plays the trum­pet at other vet­er­ans’ funeral ser­vices.

He drums his fin­gers again – onetwo-three, one-two-three, one-twothree – as he talks about what it means to re­mem­ber, as the num­ber of re­main­ing vet­er­ans shrinks.

“I’m 96. I’ve lived a long life, and I’ve seen many changes. This change is very no­tice­able – there may be only five or six of us for Sec­ond World War vets re­main­ing here,” he says.

“So, it’s nice that peo­ple come out to re­mem­ber.”


Earl Dolsen, 96, is a Sec­ond World War vet­eran. He served as a mu­si­cian in the Royal Cana­dian Air Force, and says he thinks those who served at home should have re­ceived more recog­ni­tion for their con­tri­bu­tions to the war ef­fort. “You had to be over­seas for that. But the dan­ger of teach­ing raw re­cruits re­ally was tremen­dous. I re­spect that,” he says.


At 11 a.m., Earl Dolsen says it’s still a few hours ear­lier than he nor­mally starts play­ing but puts the in­stru­ment to his lips and launches into a crisp ren­di­tion of The Last Post. “Well – that went bet­ter than I thought it would have,” he says.


Earl Dolsen played mu­sic all day, ev­ery day, and when he wasn’t per­form­ing, he was learn­ing more.

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