Sunday, September 30, 2007

Detour to 1944

We've been watching the PBS series on World War II. This was my husband's war. Although he grew up in Vancouver, BC, his parents were English--his mother, who came from Wimbledon arrived there after a stint as a nursemaid in India; his father, who was born in 1861 in Stevenage, after working for over 30 years in Burma (Myanmar). Courtenay was 16 when Hitler attacked Poland, and he was navy mad. He was a boy and he thought war was a great adventure that he wanted to join in. His mother told him he couldn't join until he finished an undergraduate degree at university, so he went to school round the clock and completed his BA in 1942, three months shy of his 19th birthday. His mother loved him dearly, but she put no obstacles in the way of his enlistment, and he joined the Canadian Navy. Canada had agreed to supply the Royal Navy with its radar officers, so Courtenay was seconded to the Royal fleet as a lieutenant, jg, a radar signal officer. After two months training in Halifax, he left for England. His mother gave him a wrist watch as a nineteenth birthday present.

His first exposure to the realities of war came as his troop ship sailed into Liverpool. The sight of masts poking out of the water at crazy angles, all from ships sunk by German bombs and U-boats, was sobering indeed as the Queen Elizabeth navigated her way into the harbour.


He was assigned to a fast light mine-layer, Ariadne class, called the HMS Apollo, and served in her off Scapa Flow for 18 months, making quick runs to Gibralter and the western Mediterranean. Some of his friends from Halifax were assigned to the Murmansk run, a high-casualty run to supply the beleaguered Russians through the Arctic Circle. Many never came home.
Courtenay's only experience of shelling in his first months came from "friendly fire." He was on the bridge, when one of the Royal Navy's warships began shelling the Apollo. The captain signalled in vain, so the Apollo took off at top speed--40 knots. The next day, when the warship steamed into Scapa Flow, all the men on the Apollo stood on deck in their dark glasses (worn to protect the eyes from the fire of shells).

The seas around Scapa Flow can easily boast 40-foot waves. One day when they were out in 20-foot waves, Courtenay decided to go on deck--he was there by himself. A wave tore his mother's watch from his wrist, and, young fool that he was, he ran across the heaving deck after it, grabbing it just before it--and he--went into the North Sea.



The Apollo was chosen as the headquarters ship for General Eisenhower on D-Day plus 1. They sailed from Portsmouth in the early morning of June 7. The seas off the Normandy beaches were very heavy that day and the Apollo went aground, damaging one of her screws. Courtenay again was on the bridge as it was his watch; he was about a foot from General Eisenhower, who appeared both angry and nervous--apparently a ship that's gone aground is a very unstable vessel and the general was a landsman. However, a landing craft quickly appeared and took the general and assorted other VIP's to safety, while the Apollo limped back to Newcastle, able to go only about 2 knots with her damaged screw. The air and sea fire around them was ferocious, but they managed to arrive in port unscathed. That was the night that the first V-1's came over to England. It was an eerie experience to watch them, not knowing what they were--unlike today's rockets, moving at supersonic speeds, the V-1's went slowly enough that you could see them. Later, on leave in London, Courtenay heard them right before they dropped: the motor would suddenly cut out and you would flatten yourself, not knowing where the bomb would fall.

With the Apollo out of commission, Courtenay volunteered for the Pacific theater. He was on a battleship going through Suez when a number of the crew died of food poisoning. They were buried at sea, and one of the grimmer wartime sights was watching the giant sharks circling the ship, waiting for the next dead sailor. Before Courtenay was transferred to his new post, the Japanese surrendered.

Courtenay was demobbed in San Francisco on a hot June day in 1946. As he was waiting in his uniform to catch a bus north to Vancouver, he fainted from heat, excitement and exhaustion. When he came to, a stern-looking woman was bending over him, demanding, "Young man, have you taken the pledge?" (to this day, he drinks rum, proving that the Royal Navy's roots go deep in him.)

Now, watching the PBS series, Courtenay feels anguish for all the young men who never came home,or came home severely injured, from this or any other war, including the one we're senselessly waging now in Iraq. He wonders why he was spared, and feels no zest for war. As Erasmus said, "War is sweet to those who never fought one."

41 comments:

Anthony D'Amato said...

We've all seen ut a long time ago. My advice is to view it again. "The Best Years of Our Lives" sneaks up on you like no other movie ever made.

Dick Culver said...

On The War

Sara’s entry was so beautifully written that I had to read it several times. Thanks, Sara.

I think it’s dangerous at this point in our history for PBS to present such a sentimental and nostalgic view of such a serious subject. Burns might have spared us Bing Crosby singing White Christmas over the picture of a handsome young soldier lying in the mud at Guadalcanal. His title should have been “Some War Stories.”

A program called “The War” should give more than passing mention to the Russian sacrifices on the Eastern Front. I’d like PBS to give us a serious analysis of the origins and rise of National Socialism in Germany.

As a member of the generation that admires our contemporaries who moved to Canada rather than be drafted to shoot peasants in Viet Nam, I gag at discussions of “The Greatest Generation.” They are the same folks who turned away boatloads of Jewish refugees, who came home to build tacky all-white suburbia, and who gave us McCarthyism. Their counterparts across the lines created modern Hello Kitty Japanese culture.

Dick Culver

Maryann Mercer said...

I don't believe Ken Burns is slanting his view of World War II anymore than he slanted his presentation of the Civil War. His main focus has, at least to me, been the effect conflict had on the average family, the kids down the block, the families left fatherless, and most of all the daily life of all of the above. To me those who fought had little to do with the politics of the times. Their country was in danger from two sources, and they were determined to beat the aggressors back. Pearl Harbor was NOT a figment of the administration's imagination. The pictures of young men lying dead in ditches, the news footage our parents never saw, and the personal accounts of four participants in no way detract from the horror of war in general, or this one in particular.Nor are they nostalgic.
Burns doesn't judge. He raises questions and reminds us of the events that shape our times.
That said, thank you Sara for sharing such a moving story.

Mark Combes said...

Sara~

Thank Courtenay for me. Thank him for me for his couragous service to liberty. Tell him the next time we meet, it's my shout and I'll buy him a wee dram of Pussers.

Sal said...

Mark--Thanks--Courtenay loves Pussers!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Moving Sara. Thank you.

Steve Z. said...

What a great and harrowing story. Two of my great uncles served in that war. They too came back with interersting and appalling stories. God bless them, Courtenay, and everyone else who fought against the murdering Fascist scum who wanted to rule the earth.

Ken Burns' The War (which I think is quite good) isn't presenting itself as a comprehensive history of the war, but rather a look at the war through ordinary people in four American towns. Yes, more history of Germany, Italy and Japan in the Thirties would be enlightening, but then the series could go on for weeks... I personally don't find The War overly sentimental. There have been many images and accounts of atrocities, including some perpetrated by Allied troops. Those, of course, pale in comparison to those committed by the Axis forces.

Also, I believe the term Greatest Generation was coined by Tom Brokaw. Nobody from that generation (unlike, say, some Baby Boomers) would be vainglorious enough to refer to themselves that way. Anyone looking for a great narrative history of that generation and era should check out the first half of William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream. One thing you'll take from it (among many) is how poor much of the United States was in those days, and what an entirely different country it was.

Was the United States late to resopnd to the Holocaust, and to the Nazi liquidation of Catholics priests, homosexuals, Communists, and other dissidents? Yes. Was the indiscriminate bombing of German and Japanese cities by the Allies horrific? Yes. But let's not delude ourselves: if that generation of Americans had simply fled the country or had done nothing, Western civilization as we know it would have perished. That sounds melodramatic, but it's the truth. War might be hell, but that one had to be fought. For the record, I'm no fan of the war we're in right now.

Matt said...

I just arranged for a WWII veteran to come speak to my class for Remembrance Day, and it's heartbreaking to see the list of available veterans shrink every year.

One thing that is great about these veterans who have spoken to my class, to a man - they abhor war, bear ill will towards no one and do not speak vindictively or harshly about their opponents. I am always reminded from the great book Gates of Fire when, right before the final battle, the Spartan commander asks one of his men if he hates his enemy, the Persians - and the Spartan replies no, under other circumstances they might've been friends.

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