‘We used to fix ‘em up’

Wartime of­ten meant the front lines for Whit­ney Pier medic Wal­ter Clarke

Cape Breton Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY GREG MCNEIL

Mary Clarke still vividly re­mem­bers the tears of joy that fell when her fu­ture hus­band Wal­ter stepped off the train in 1946, re­turn­ing to her af­ter three years of ser­vice as a medic dur­ing The Sec­ond World War.

They be­came en­gaged just weeks later and, over the 72 years of mar­riage that would fol­low, built a fam­ily that would in­clude four chil­dren, nine grand­chil­dren and five great-grand­chil­dren.

“That train was full of sol­diers. His mother and I went out and his two brothers and we were look­ing for him and he got off the train,” she re­called about his re­turn to Whit­ney Pier, while Wal­ter looked on, smiling ap­prov­ingly.

“He got off the train and, oh my God, how hand­some he looked and we hugged and we kissed. It was nice.”

Wal­ter was a coal hauler when they met. Mary was still in school. They’d wave at each other each morn­ing as he worked and kept see­ing each other even though Mary’s mother didn’t ini­tially ap­prove.

“We were child­hood sweet­hearts, skat­ing too. He had girl­friends but I al­ways got them away from him.”

A dif­fer­ent kind of tears would fall three years be­fore that train brought Wal­ter back to Whit­ney Pier, when he in­formed his friends and fam­ily that he had made up his mind to go off to war.

“It was sad. I didn’t want to see him go but his mother said, ‘he’s got to go, that’s his mind, he’s made up his mind.’ What can you do. We cried and we hugged and I wished him luck and said, ‘God would bring you back.’ And he brought him back.”

At the time, Wal­ter said ev­ery­one was sign­ing up for the army so the slim 17-yearold con­vinced re­cruiters he was old enough to join and off he went to serve in Bri­tain, the cen­tral Mediter­ranean area and north­west Europe.

“The bunch I was around with, they all joined, so I said ‘the hell with it’ and joined too,” he said.

Not ev­ery­one who went off to war was lucky as he was to have a joy­ful re­turn to their home. As a medic, Wal­ter saw many of the less for­tu­nate and treated them, of­ten not far from the front lines.

Sel­dom does he speak about what he saw. When he does, his fam­ily lis­tens in­tently so that they can re­mem­ber the things he and oth­ers sac­ri­ficed.

“We used to fix ‘em up,” Wal­ter said, re­luc­tant to pro­vide de­tails. “They used to come in wounded or some­thing like that. We were the nurs­ing or­der and we’d fix ‘em up. That was our job.”

For the most part it was on Re­mem­brance Day at one of the lo­cal le­gions when the more de­tailed sto­ries of what he had ex­pe­ri­enced would come out.

“You’d see very few veter­ans talk about it. You’ll hear the odd story,” his son Al­lan said.

“I’d hear my dad tell a cou­ple of sto­ries and he’d tear up and they’d all be cry­ing around the ta­ble. It’s one of those things where they would never re­ally talk about it. They kept it in­side.”

Around the ta­ble with friends, though — as the drinks flowed — sto­ries like the one about a young re­cruit from On­tario would be told. Wal­ter and the boy who car­ried mail by mo­tor­cy­cle be­came ac­quainted. Sadly, the boy re­turned to the hospi­tal as a pa­tient and died.

There’s also the painful mem­ory of the Nova Sco­tia sol­der who had stepped on a land mine and lost his legs.

While ad­min­is­ter­ing mor­phine, Wal­ter also ful­filled re­quests to scratch feet that were no longer there.

“That’s why he never talked about all of this be­cause of in the hospi­tal and what he had seen,” said Mary, not­ing sto­ries of wounded legs and eyes and ev­ery­thing else her hus­band had to ban­dage.

“He said ‘I don’t want to talk about it. It’s a lot on my brains.’”

Even to this day Wal­ter chooses to fo­cus on the more pos­i­tive times of his wartime ser­vice, such as when the ca­ma­raderie was heaped out in heavy doses amongst his fel­low sol­diers.

“You don’t tell sto­ries like that,” he said, laugh­ing while try­ing to stop the sto­ries his fam­ily was about to retell.

“Sure you do!” his son Al­lan said and promptly told the tale of the sil­ver-plated Ger­man luger his dad ob­tained while sta­tioned in Ger­many at the end of the war, which Wal­ter thought was the most beau­ti­ful gun he had ever seen.

“He said ‘my thing was to take it home and have it for years and it would be worth money,’ but they got to Italy and he and his bud­dies were there drink­ing and ran out of money so he pawned the sil­ver luger for three bot­tles of wine. He al­ways said ‘that was the best wine I had ev­ery had.’”

It’s true, Wal­ter con­ceded with a smile. “I had good times then.”

Af­ter the war, Wal­ter picked up his du­ties as a medic and a nurse where he would help veter­ans of the war deal with their on­go­ing in­juries.

He’d later go on to work as a steel worker.

Wal­ter ad­mits he doesn’t think about his wartime ser­vice much any­more, with the no­table ex­cep­tion of Re­mem­brance Day.

“He used to be there ev­ery year,” said Mary, about lo­cal ser­vices. “The last cou­ple he couldn’t. We still go. We keep it up. We had a church mass Sun­day but he couldn’t make it. He got up and got dizzy and couldn’t walk. I said ‘go and lay down, I’m go­ing.’ There was only 23 mem­bers. I cried.”

This year, Wal­ter’s Re­mem­brance Day will be spent at home with fam­ily where they will con­tinue to hon­our the ser­vice and sac­ri­fices of he and oth­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to Veter­ans Af­fairs Canada there are about 1,900 Sec­ond World War veter­ans still liv­ing in Nova Sco­tia. The av­er­age age of a Sec­ond World War vet­eran in Canada is 93.

It’s one of those things where they would never re­ally talk about it. They kept it in­side.” Wal­ter’s son Al­lan

GREG MCNEIL/CAPE BRE­TON POST

Wal­ter, 95, and Mary Clarke, 93, were child­hood sweet­hearts be­fore he went off to war in 1943. They were en­gaged and mar­ried not long af­ter he re­turned in 1946.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

This photo of Wal­ter Clarke was snapped af­ter he stepped off the train in 1946 af­ter serv­ing as a medic for the Cana­dian Army in the Sec­ond World War.

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