Contents:


Start of Article

Tales of an old soldier - based on an interview done by the Stonewall This Month magazine, November 1994, volume 10 by Pat Corbin and reprinted with permission.



Every year, there are a few less stories. The flags fly at half mast outside the legion with a sombre regularity.

There is only one World War I veteran left in the area served by the Stonewall legion. And there are only about 100 veterans left who served in World War II. There have been seven funerals that the Legion has taken part in this year, says Stonewall Legion President, Larry Monfortin..  And, for those who remain, the memories are often as faded as old newspaper clippings.

For this Remembrance Day, I set out to learn the story of one particular Stonewall soldier. My curiosity was piqued in the summer, when the Snowbirds did a fly-past of the town to honour Allan McLeod.

A call to the legion put me in touch with Richard Trick "one of the older members of the legion" according to manager Judy Patterson. Perhaps he would know McLeod's story.

"Sure, he would be glad to tell me what he knew of Allan McLeod," his wife told me when I called. Richard couldn't come to the phone because of the oxygen that he must be connected to constantly now.

When I arrived at the Trick's home - a snug and well-built bungalow surrounded by immaculate gardens and a trim lawn - Richard has a copy of Stonewall Turning a Century open on the table in front of him. "I really can't tell you much more about Allan McLeod than what is written here," he said.

McLeod, a pilot who probably should have died in the skies over France, died in Winnipeg General Hospital Nov.6, 1918 at the age of 19 from the flu. He was an only son. He had no descendants. His peers would be 95 today, their memories long since faded.

He died, in fact, before there was a legion where soldiers could gather to swap wartime tales. Whatever I could learn of McLeod would likely be on that single page.

So, to be polite, I asked Richard Trick about his experiences in the war, and I quickly realized that, while Allan McLeod showed amazing courage as he piloted a flaming Armstrong-Whitworth artillery spotter aircraft back to the British lines, and his story should never be forgotten, it is only one of many.

Richard's story starts in 1939, when, straight from the family farm he married, enlisted and was sent to Jamaica. He was sent to the Caribbean island to guard German prisoners of war who were captured when the battleship Graff Spea was sunk off the coast of South America. Seventeen months later, he was shipped to Hong Kong, just in time for the Japanese invasion.

"I left there in September of 1941, and by December I was on the other side of the fence," Richard says, chuckling at the irony.

"Our prisoners (in Jamaica) were well fed," Richard says. "But when I left that Japanese prisoner of war camp in 1945, I weighed 95 pounds."

The Japanese landed at Hong Kong the night of December 18.

"Two of us were sent with a company of men to a place called... I can't remember, it doesn't matter," says Richard, who was with the transport corps. "When the morning broke, we found we had somehow gone through the front line, and we started to get it from both sides." "The Japanese opened up with mortars. Our truck was parked next to a concrete ammo dump, and we dove in there. One mortar shell came inside - it didn't hurt anyone."

"We knew we had to get out of there, but we didn't want to leave the truck for the Japanese, so I took my gas mask sling, struck it in the fuel tank, and lit one end like a fuse. Then we pushed it down a hill, and watched it bounce away in flames. There was a shack near the ammo dump, and we got in there, but the mortars opened up on us again. This time, they were our own mortars. There was a concentration of Japanese around the shack, and our own people didn't know we were there."

"I thought I would be killed there. I was up against a wall - a Hong Kong volunteer was to my left, our sergeant to my right. One mortar went long, another went short, and I knew that soon a shell would find its mark. I had my head under a table , just my arse was sticking out, when a mortar came in. All I got was a nick. That piece of lead is probably still inside my rear end. The Hong Kong volunteer bled to death, and the sergeant, his scalp came off and fell over his ear, but he came out all right."

When the Japanese captured the men in the shack, Richard says they lined them up like they were going to shoot them. He feels they probably would have been killed on the spot, but a Japanese officer came around a corner, "saw what was going on, let out a bellow, and the soldiers put down their weapons."

It was then that the real horror story began. The prisoners were shunted from one shabby prison to another. Barely fed, they were put to work in underground mines.

"That's why I'm like this," Richard says, gesturing to the oxygen lifeline. Every breath he takes is a wheeze clearly audible across a room. "They would do some blasting and then make us go into the mines before the dust had settled."

Richard believes it was his farm background that enabled him to survive. "I couldn't have had a better start, coming from the farm, when we were put in the work camps. There were some kids from the city who had never worked. We were moving gravel to build an airport, using a big pole with a basket on each end and a man in the middle to carry it. The city kids didn't know how to do the hard work. Some didn't even know how to use a shovel properly."

Richard remembers nights in the prison camps, with the prisoners lying on mats on two tiers of bamboo platforms. Just about every night, a body would be carried out to be buried.

"The Japanese would bury POWs in shallow graves wrapped in a blanket, and later that night, the Chinese peasants would come and dig them up and take the blanket.

At another camp, where they had civilian guards, Richard tells of watching through the bamboo bars as old Chinese women would forage in the hills outside the camp for scraps of wood for their cooking fires.

"The guards would sometimes use them for target practice. They would shoot the old women and laugh as they rolled down the hills."

That was how Richard spent his war. About 10 days of combat, and 44 months of captivity.

He enlisted. He fought for his country. He was one of the lucky ones who survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

Would he do it again, if he had his health, and his youth?

"I sometimes regret enlisting," Richard says. "None of us ever came back the same. I was 29 when I came home. And I spent month after month in Deere Lodge afterwards."

His lungs and farm-boy strength have never been the same. He tried to run the family farm between bouts of rehab at the veterans hospital. Finally, in 1966 at age 50, he gave it up and moved into Stonewall, where he worked for the municipality and picked up other odd jobs.

But he fought for his country. The Allies won. That made the sacrifice worthwhile, right?

"Well," he says, pausing to collect his thoughts, "I always go back to my old saying: if countries would keep their noses out of other countries' business, there wouldn't be war."

How about Canada's role as the world's peacekeeper?

"If there is an opportunity to help, then let Canada send troops over. But from what I read, it's a joke. Religion has an awful lot to do with war. And it's all about money, too. It always makes me wonder when I see people going to a million dollar church while a block away, starving kids are picking through garbage."

Richard says his disillusionment started even before the Japanese POW camp. It started in Jamaica, "where they could grow on one acre what we could grow on 10 here. But local people were starving while boatloads of produce sailed away to Britain."

"So, every once and a while there would be an uprising and the British would call us out to put the natives down again."

He mockingly describes the British officers, with their horses and leather boots and monocles and their privileged lifestyles. And he says he saw more of the same in China, before the Japanese came. And he wonders if perhaps, had the British not been there, there might not have been a war that robbed him of his health? Ironically, Richard, now 78, never discouraged his son Jim from joining the army.

"When he was 14, he saw an ad in the Winnipeg Free Press for the Young Soldiers Training Program. He didn't want to work on the farm, so I encouraged him to go to this camp. He never looked back. Jim is now a Major in the Canadian Armed Forces, "about ten ranks above what I was," laughs Richard, who was a Lance Corporal, one step above Private.

But it does make sense that he would be proud of his career soldier son. For it's not the soldier that creates war. It's not the army that draws out Richard's bitterness. It's the conditions that make soldiers necessary that are the real enemy.

And overcoming that enemy would make the sacrifices worthwhile.