A DAY TO REMEMBER
There are thousands of stories from the First and Second World Wars, and enough veterans still living to tell them. But I have heard only one story where a Canadian lad and a German lad who fought against each other one memorable night in 1944 met again face to face fifty-five years later and became friends.
My father was the Canadian lad. He told me this story on Remembrance Day in 1998 while I was visiting my parents. This was a landmark for two reasons. One, my Dad had never talked much about his war experiences, and two, this was the only Remembrance Day I ever actively shared with him. It was the only time in all my 53 years I saw him march with the other veterans, a poppy on one lapel, his medals on the other.
When I was a schoolgirl we went to the gymnasium for Remembrance Day service, which was quickly forgotten by self-centered children -- children who blindly and happily enjoyed the freedom and prosperity of Canada in the fifties and sixties. In high school I certainly felt sad when the names of the fallen students were read, but I didn't know any of them personally. They were just names read out in monotone.
After the 1998 Remembrance Day service we went back to the house. Dad removed his medals and returned them to the framed board which hangs on a wall in the rec room. We got talking about the war. Dad brought out a file of letters and articles. Until then I had only a vague idea of what war was like. It was this story that opened my eyes.
On February 24, 1944, between midnight and dawn on a new moon night in the North Atlantic, Dad's warship, the Waskesiu, along with a British ship, the Nene, tracked and destroyed a German U-Boat. Dad was manning a weapon called "the hedgehog" on the bow of the ship and had fired 24 bombs. When the U-boat, fatally damaged by a series of depth
charges, finally surfaced, Germans began climbing out into the near freezing sea. Many were killed instantly by gunfire. When the cease fire command finally came, a few more Germans emerged just before the submarine sank. These men began swimming toward the enemy ships, knowing they would become prisoners of war. About a dozen made it. They swam through the black, icy sea toward the Waskesiu and the Nene and scrambled up nets which had been draped alongside for that purpose. One such survivor was named Waldemar Nickel. It took him 45 minutes to reach the British ship. Once aboard, Waldemar found the treatment very fair and nearly comradely. After all, the British crew, like the Canadian crew on the Waskesiu, were mostly teenagers and young men hoping to stay alive through this horrible time. They knew that only by the grace of God were they dry and safe, and these German sailors soaked, frozen, scared and defeated. Once the battle had been won, these poor Germans, floating helplessly in the middle of the Atlantic in the pre-dawn hours became simply sailors in distress. The rescuers gave them warm, dry clothing, hot chocolate and blankets. They even allowed the prisoners to go below deck to listen to the radio and dine with the crew before dropping them off at Londonderry.
This story might be just another war story, except that Dad and Waldemar were reunited in 1999. Both veterans had become interested in WW2 history and by coincidence were put in touch by another WW2 history buff. Dad and Waldemar, who now lives in Lubeck, Germany, began to correspond. They compared notes and memories and soon discovered they had fought against each other at the same battle. When Dad was organizing a reunion of the Waskesiu shipmates to take place in August 1999, he invited Waldemar and his wife to come. They did. They were guests in my parent's home and guests of honour at the reunion. It was an emotional event. Dad and Waldemar became friends.
I've since thought a lot about this story. What exactly makes this story worth telling? Is it the thought that sheer dumb luck allowed my Dad to be on the winning side of that battle, and even the war, and the chilling realization that otherwise I might have never been born? Is it about compassion, that human quality that rose above the madness of war -- a quality that can stop hatred dead in its tracks? Is it the graphic horror of young lives lost, some slowly freezing to death because they failed to reach the ships and could not be seen in the dark? Is it the images of the grief-lined faces of mothers, fathers, wives and children who will never see their young men again? Is it about the suffering of all wars and all the names inscribed on tombstones and monuments and read out on Remembrance Days, past, present and future? The vastness of it stuns me. It's about all this. This story brought the war to life for me. But who am Ito be telling this story? I'm just a post war baby boomer brat who cashed in on the ensuing security and freedom. Freedom that many of us don't appreciate.
I now look at Remembrance Day differently. For me it is an opportunity. I will tell my children and grandchildren this story. I will show them the articles and letters from my Dad's file. I will bring out another thick envelope of clippings and photos of my own grandfather's memoirs from the First World War. I must do this. Others of my generation must also do this. If we fail, then in 20 years when there are no more world war veterans left to march on Remembrance Day, who will remember? Who will care?