Douglas MacArthur, of “I shall return” fame during the Second World War, was sacked as the Commander of the United Nations Forces in Korea by American President Harry S. Truman on April 11,1951, when the U.S. general advocated spreading the Korean War into China. When MacArthur returned stateside, he announced his retirement and then made his famous speech before the U.S. Congress on April 19, which epitomizes what happens to soldiers when their country no longer finds them useful as
instruments of war.
“The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain of West Point,” he told Congress, “and the hopes and dreams have since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barracks ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that old soldiers never die; they just fade away.
“And like the old soldier of the ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good-by.”
In Deer Lodge, the truth of MacArthur’s words are on full display for anyone to see first-hand. In one of its room sits an 84-year-old man, confined for the rest of his remaining days to a wheelchair. His only company for much of the day is a flat-screen television, tuned into a classic movie channel which serves as a remind er of his youther days.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, the then school-age youth saw his older brother, Gord, join the Canadian forces, and then waited anxiously for his turn to fight for “King and Country.” Immediately after reaching the age of 17 1/2-years-old in 1944, the teenager enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy. As the Winnipeg-born veteran said of this novel choice for a prairie lad, “It was the only branch of the forces that would accept me at my age.” So, the 17-year-old went off to war.
It wasn’t quite the adventure he imagined, as he served all his time in the coastal patrols of the RCN aboard a provision ship which primarily sailed out of Halifax. Not the most glamourous of sea duty, he later related.
But that didn’t mean coastal duty was not without it’s dangers. In fact, the Atlantic Coast of North America was a war zone with German U-Boats a constant threat. From the start of the war in 1939, Canada’s Atlantic ports were important for re-supplying Great Britain, especially those of Halifax and Sydney, which became major assembling points for convoys crossing the Atlantic to deliver greatly needed arms, fuel and food. Without the convoys, Hitler’s armies could have easily overrun the island nation after the fall of France in 1940.
Because of the ports’ vital re-supply role, U-Boats frequently patrolled along the coastlines of Canada and Newfoundland (then not yet part of Canada), sinking many ships. The St. Lawrence River with its ports of Montréal and Québec City were also points of interest for the U-Boat wolf packs. The Battle of the St. Lawrence, in which U-Boats attacked domestic coastal shipping, lasted from early 1942 to the end of the shipping season in late 1944.
The 17-year-old youth who joined the RCN in 1944 is my father, Stan. His situation is not unique among the present residents of the seventh floor at Deer Lodge, many of them veterans of the Second World War.
Old veterans navigate the hallways in wheelchairs and using walkers. Their continuous circuits seem at first to lack purpose, but in the absence of anyone to provide company, their meanderings give their lives some meaning. Occasionally, an unintelligible plaintiff cry is heard from those suffering from dementia. These outbursts are rather startling to the uninitiated.
Sometimes, the sadness of the scene is accentuated by observing an old soldier spending his day parked in a wheelchair in the hallway, gazing about wistfully for some sign of acknowledgement. Too often, visitors for these men are few and far between. When you pass on the way to visit another, their eyes plead for a greeting or a smile from you. You comply, because to deny them would be the most extreme punishment imaginable.
The attention given to the elderly men by the staff is obviously caring, They do try to bring some joy to their day by providing that important greeting, and they do try to spend a few moments of their busy daily routine in comforting the men, but it’s the absence of family during their remaining days on this earth which is the most heartwrenching. Through talking to staff, it is evident a number of the old soldiers rarely, if ever, receive visitors. They are the ones who are expected to “fade away.”
My father, a widower, is in Deer Lodge not by choice, but by necessity, as he requires 24-hour, seven-days-a-week care. Our family knows he would rather be somewhere else, and we try to make his days more pleasant through our constant visits. Rarely a day passes without one of us visiting him.
The importance of these seventh-floor residents to Canadians cannot be overstated. In fact, a July 14 front-page article in the Globe and Mail emphasized that the men on the seventh floor of Deer Lodge are among the steadily diminishing ranks of Second World War and Korean War veterans — the men and women who fought to make the world safe for democracy and preserve the freedoms we hold so dear today.
According to the article by John Ibbitson and Kate Allen, there are just 155,700 of these veterans still alive out of the 1.1-million who originally fought in the two wars. Each month, their ranks dwindle in number when another 1,700 pass away. The average age of the remaining veterans is now 88.
A report commissioned by Veteran Affairs details how a smaller caseload will eventually led to a smaller department. There may be more veterans enrolled in the department as Canadian men and women still are fighting in Afghanistan, but the bulk of the veterans served by the department are the old soldiers who survived the conflict that ravaged the world six decades ago.
Don Stewart, a vice-president of the residents council for Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, which houses the largest long-term care facility for veterans in the nation, told the Globe and Mail journalists, that he could foresee the day when Veterans Affairs is merged into another federal department “as the number of veterans decreases — you know, as us old buggers die off.”
Using the words of MacArthur, the remaining veterans now needing our undivided attention in Deer Lodge and Sunnybrook will likely become a footnote in history, as these “old soldiers ... just fade away” now that their usefulness to fight in Canada’s wars has ended.