‘We used to fix ‘em up’
Wartime often meant the front lines for Whitney Pier medic Walter Clarke
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
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.
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.