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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

“Liberator”: I once believed there was no greater word.

After my father died, I only wanted one possession of his – a faded, pocket-sized booklet that smells like church and has a green maple leaf and the words “Holland” and “Diary 1945″ printed on the front cover.

The diary holds meaning for me only because it held meaning for him. Salvation Army Canadian War Services gave the booklet to my father, along with cigarettes and chocolate, during the Christmas of 1944, in Vught, the Netherlands.

Dad wasn’t the kind of man to keep a journal or put his thoughts down on paper, but over the final months of the Second World War he religiously jotted down a few sentences every day about what was happening in his life as a tank gunner in the South Alberta Regiment of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division.

For nine horrific months, he chased a battered and dangerous foe through fields, forests, farmhouses and villages of northwest France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Nine long months. Today you can drive a car from Juno Beach, Normandy to Oldenburg, Germany, the final stop of the South Albertas, in only seven hours.

Returning home from the war, my father wrapped his diary in a white handkerchief and tucked it in the drawer of his bedside table. There it remained for 64 years, until the day he died in his sleep, 12 years ago. I guess you could say my father slept between the two things he prized most from the war – the diary and an auburn-haired lass he first laid eyes upon in a Glasgow dance hall and later married on his final military leave in the United Kingdom. My mother.

Sometimes before falling asleep at night I hold the diary in my hands and imagine my father holding the same pages more than three-quarters of a century ago.

He’s sitting cross-legged on the cold ground after stealing a moment away from guard duty or cleaning tank guns preparing for the next mobilization. Exhausted and dreading what tomorrow will bring, he writes words he hopes his mother will never read. I read his daily entries to remind myself of the fragility of the world and the sacrifice paid for freedom.

The diary is written in a matter-of-fact voice. No bravado. No exaggeration.

Jan. 24, 1945. Two days before the Battle of Kapelsche Veer, a misguided mission to secure an island on the Maas River, which results in hundreds of Canadian casualties. He writes, “Something big is brewing. Hundreds of big guns move in. Lots of Alligators [landing craft], and small boats. I don’t like it.”

March 5, 1945. On a reconnaissance mission deep behind enemy lines, his tank is hit by a panzerfaust (German bazooka). He and his crewmates escape their burning tank, but it’s a long, bloody journey back to safety. He writes, “Start drive for Veen. Hit by A/T [anti-tank] gun at 5:00. Crawl through water-filled ditch under mortar and machine-gun fire for 1½ miles back to A2 [supply lines]. Takes 8 hours. Slug rum.”

I only recognize my father in the passages sprinkled with humour.

After being granted a rare one-day leave to Brussels, he confesses to “getting stinko” so fast that he ends up going to bed ridiculously early. The next morning, instead of indulging in a decent breakfast, he scrambles about the city to find cheap souvenirs and a bottle of cognac to share with his buddies back at camp.

My father was a tender man, the kind of man who kisses his wife hello and goodbye. He greeted a baby or a dog by gently stroking their head, smiling into their eyes and asking with complete sincerity, “And what might yooooou be thinking about on this fine, fine day?”

I shudder thinking of my father inside his tank. His leather helmeted head pressed into a periscope, eyes calibrating targets to kill and destroy. A Browning 9 mm pistol is holstered to his chest and his right hand grips a joystick controlling the traverse of the turret guns while his left hand spins a vertical wheel, zeroing in the elevation of the guns. His left foot hovers over two buttons. One firing the .30 calibre machine gun, the other firing a round of high explosive, smoke or armour piercing from the big 75 mm gun. Who is this cog in a killing machine?

On Remembrance Day last year, I read the diary from cover to cover. The words spoke to me in a new way. For the first time, I saw my father’s descent into PTSD. I saw his suffering, his escalating sickness. His teeth are failing and his bones ache. He’s increasingly obsessed by the weather, the delays in receiving mail from his mother and five sisters, and the buzzbombs, the planelike V1 rockets droning overhead toward London or Antwerp. He counts 23 rockets in a single day.

I apply to Library and Archives Canada for my father’s military and medical records.

In the mail, I receive a stack of 125 pages of documents. Everything from my father’s initial enlistment interview (”A steady, intelligent chap, enthusiastic and interested in the possibility of Active service”) to his final Statement of War Service Gratuity, revealing he was paid a whopping $701.41 for 1165 days of service, 938 of which were overseas.

But buried in the documents, as I feared, are two medical reports detailing my father’s mental condition at the end of the war, after he was evacuated off the battlefield and flown to a London hospital after fracturing his arm inside his tank, only two weeks before the war ended.

Psychoneurotic-anxiety state. I expected a more sanitized euphemism such as “battle fatigue” or “shell shock.”

I weep reading of my father’s confusion. His “jumpy nerves” and “inability to concentrate.” He’s messing up in marching drills and on parade square because he can’t remember his footwork. Angry and nauseated from chronic stomach pain, he begins lashing out at non-commissioned officers, who report their bewilderment at the behaviour of a “reliable soldier with a history of exceptional service.”

And then comes the saddest line of all. A doctor writes, “He dislikes his present unit immensely. He has no aptitude for its abuse.” My father, a man willing to die to free a people he had never known, a man who sacrificed his body and mind, a man who loved his comrades, was being mocked.

My father was only 21 years old when the things he saw and the things he did in wartime eventually broke him. But in my mind that only makes him a bigger hero. He lived the rest of his life nurturing peace. Peace in his marriage, peace in his family, peace in his world.

“Peacemaker”: the greatest word.

Greg Strathern lives in Vancouver.

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