Abel was 20 years old when he heard about the war in Europe and decided that it would be a great opportunity to see the world. So he travelled by horseback from his home into town, and then by train to Vancouver, where he joined the armed forces. Eventually, he became a member of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, nicknamed "The Little Black Devils" by the enemy because of their tenacity and toughness, and was shipped off to England, and then to France, where he was part of the invasion of Normandy at Juno Beach in June, 1944.
He told me that when they were in the ships, they were packed in like sardines. Although the crossing was only about two hours long, they stood side by side, unable to move and barely able to breathe. When they arrived, they found that in anticipation of an invasion, the enemy had put barriers in the water to keep the landing craft from getting too close, and the men had to disembark in neck-deep water, holding their heavy equipment above their heads.
Only he and two others from his platoon survived the invasion.
From there, they fought their way towards Caen. Just outside of Caen, he was wounded by a sniper. He told me that he was fighting at the front of the Canadian lines, near the British, and when he was wounded, he remembers noticing the uniform of the nurse that was cutting the arm off his uniform, blood dripping into his eyes and down his shirt. She was British. He was then sent back to Britain to be treated for a head wound and shrapnel in his arm, and then when he was healed well enough to travel, he was sent back to Canada.
He did not arrive home to a warm welcome. Instead, he travelled by train across the country in freight cars, because he was native. Then, when he arrived back in Burns Lake, the hotel wouldn't take him in. While he was sitting on the sidewalk, wondering where to stay the night until he could make the long trek back out to his family, a policeman came by, realized that he was returning from the war, and offered a room in a jail cell for the night. It was the best he could do.
The next day, he made his way back home. When he arrived, his family, who had no idea about world affairs and had no idea what was happening abroad, casually welcomed him home as though he had simply been away on the trapline.
I can't imagine how he must have felt, after experiencing what he had experienced, to realize that nobody around him recognized what he had accomplished and almost gave his life for.
Lisa and I did a bit of research today. We found that although all men of military age, including natives, were not exempt from conscription during WWII, natives weren't given the benefits other vets were entitled, such as opportunities for education and vocational training. It wasn't until almost 50 years later that aboriginal veterans were given a degree of compensation for their service.
I've really grown to admire and respect this gentle, soft-spoken, deliberate man over the last few days. It was such an honor to hear his story. Today I brought in my computer, and we looked at old photographs of the Normandy landings. I don't know that he had ever been in front of a computer before, and he kept shaking his head whenever a photo came up, not able to take his eyes off the screen.
Abel was also a contemporary of my grandfather that I never knew. My mom's father died when she was a young teenager, and it's always a special thing when we meet people that knew him. Abel is about the same age, and his father worked for my great grandfather. He liked to talk about my grandfather, "Dick Skribber (Schreiber)" and his father, Norm, who was the mailman.
Who would have thought that while sitting in a hospital room with my dad, I'd have the opportunity to meet this remarkable man?
On a side note, Sis had sick kids today, but I brought dad out for lunch anyway. We phoned the Rambler, a wheelchair accessible bus that goes around town picking up and dropping off disabled folks wherever they need to go. The Kinsmen Club helped get funding for dad to lease an electric wheelchair, and for the first time in two months, he was able to get into real clothes and go outside. I had to run to keep up! Chinese food it was, and I still am amazed at how much food he put away. An aunt and uncle joined us, and we had a wonderful time.