Gus MacGillivray spent four years on Canadian and British ships in the North Atlantic during the Second World War, hunting submarines and fighting off the navy of one of the world’s most powerful militaries. Mat Belear served two tours of duty in the desert of Afghanistan, trying to push back the Taliban’s guerrilla army and give the Afghans a fighting chance at establishing a democratic government.
The experiences of these two men illustrate just how much warfare has changed over the decades and the extent to which the notion of veteranhood is being steadily redefined.
But when they met for the first time, at the Amherstview Legion near Kingston, they had a lot of things in common. Both spoke fondly of the camaraderie in the military and the public outpourings of support back home. Both made observations about the importance of vigilance on the front lines, and of grace under pressure. And both have survived combat most Canadians can scarcely fathom: Mr. MacGillivray in a naval battle off the coast of Norway; Mr. Belear in Operation Medusa, during which he was wounded by shrapnel in a rocket attack.
One spent 32 years in the military, stoking engines on minesweepers and battleships in the Second World War and doing a tour of duty in Korea; one was an infantryman with the Royal Canadian Regiment. Both are veterans.
Gus MacGillivray: My first ship was a minesweeper, the Milltown. Her main armaments were depth charges. And she was commissioned to do convoy duty in what was called the “triangle run.” They would form merchant ships in harbours, like Halifax, 50 to 100 ships, and then those ships would move in a convoy and they’d be escorted by destroyers, corvettes or minesweepers. Our trips usually were about six to eight days, and then we’d would turn over the convoy to the mid-ocean escort. I did that until Milltown went in for refit.
I was selected to go to the British navy … I was assigned to the Duke of York, which was the flagship of the home fleet in Scapa Flow. The fleet would leave Scapa and then escort the convoys to Murmansk, Russia. They were afraid that the Tirpitz [a legendary German battleship]could come out of Norway and devastate the convoy; the Duke of York’s job was to keep her bottled up. We had two battleships, about three or four cruisers and 20 destroyers. I remember my first trip, we encountered a convoy of about 12 merchants coming out of Norway and they were escorted with about four destroyers, I believe, and we engaged them. It only took an hour or an hour and a half, and we sunk all ships. We were near the coast, so the shore batteries were firing out at us.
Returning to Canada
Mat Belear: The first tour was great. I got to come home with everyone I went over there with. I landed in Trenton, which is just down the road from my hometown. My girlfriend, who’s my wife now, and my parents were there, and I got to see them for a bit before we hopped on a bus and went up to Petawawa. The second tour was different. I got injured, so I was repatriated back to Canada. It was a different homecoming; I think it was a bit surreal at the time. It was hectic for a little bit. I had to have a few operations. At that point, Canada was well aware of what was going on in Afghanistan. We’d lost quite a few people. At the same time, it was encouraging, the people attending the repatriation ceremonies and even how far they’d come. I remember the first couple that I went to, there were maybe 20 or 30 people, and now there are hundreds that show up.
The memory that stands out the most for me is when I got home from my second tour, standing in the airplane and seeing my family waiting for me. I think they were still a little horrified at what happened and happy to see me standing there. They wanted to put me on this sky-chair to lower me down to the ground, but I was insistent on walking off the plane even though I had a hole in my leg. I didn’t want my family to see me all bandaged up or in pain, so I walked down. I paid for it later on. Just walking through and seeing them all and my girlfriend and having a big family hug. That’s probably the thing I remember the most.
Having experiences most Canadians don’t
Mat Belear: I look at people like Mr. MacGillivray and my grandfather, and those people are veterans. It still hasn’t sunk in yet, exactly, what we’ve gone through in this generation. It’s been at times difficult; I definitely miss the camaraderie that I had when I was in the military. And also the physical changes that I’ve had to go through. But I’m happy to say that I did what I did and I was a part of that. I think, as the years go by, I’ll probably start to become comfortable with the term “veteran,” more so than I am right now.
Gus MacGillivray: I was quite amazed that after having spent so much time at sea, in so much action, and so many ships having been sunk, I came back fine. And that was a plus. I just can’t envisage that I escaped that. When you have several thousand tonnes of metal floating on a violent sea and then somebody shooting at you, you wonder: Are you going to come back? Mind you, on a ship, you were so busy sometimes, particularly in action, that you didn’t have time to think. When you get rounds dropping, you were a bit nervous, but you had to move.
Mat Belear: Remembrance Day for me was always a special time. I thought about my grandfather and what he did in World War II as part of the Hasty Peas [the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment] And now, for me, when I sit there during the Remembrance Day ceremonies, not only do I think about my grandfather, but I think about friends that were injured alongside me. Or guys from my unit that were killed over there and their families. I’m happy to be able to take a part in it, but at the same time, it’s a little bit more difficult now.
Gus MacGillivray: When I was in school, it had been 20 years since World War I, which was supposed to have been the war to end all wars. And then all of a sudden, 25 years later or so, we are involved in another, where most of the industrial countries of the world are at war again. I think we will never be free of war. I think human nature is such that, situations occur politically that require people to put a stop to what’s happening and then we wind up with a war.
Do you ever miss war?
Mat Belear: Over time, the mind kind of plays tricks on you, and you tend to forget the bad times and think about the good times that we had over there. Just being able to say that I was a part of it. The conversations with people in your platoon and your section, the lifelong friendships that you make from the military. Those are the moments that I’ll cherish forever.
Gus MacGillivray: It was an experience that I would not want to miss. I think if I had to do it over again, I probably would … My experience in war was four and a half years. My experience in Korea, including the buildup, totalled about a year and a half. My whole career, in both the navy and the army, was 32 years. And it was the time after the war, where I was serving with NATO and the Canadian Army, that I really enjoyed being part of it. And I would not have wanted to do anything else. When I graduated as an engineer in 1951, there was big money to be made if you went with a company. In the service, the pay was miserable but the life was good, we behaved like a family, we looked after one another. I would do it all over again.