Facts and impacts of wars involving Canadians during the 20th century are so well documented, most people have an overview of what happened.
But the impact on the people who were on the battle lines, how it changed their worlds and the stories they have to tell are at risk of being lost, says a freelance journalist who has spent the last five years capturing those stories on video.
Raw images from Allan Cameron’s videos of nearly 500 Canadian veterans tell of bravery and boredom, passion, panic, pranks and perseverance.
Career artillery soldier Don Balkwill, whose last posting was as a trainer for the 78th Field Battery in Red Deer, talks of the day he and his fellow soldiers decided to have some fun with one of their officers — the man who conducted their daily inspections.
Balkwill was stationed near the demilitarized zone between South Korea and North Korea shortly after the armistice was signed in 1954. Regardless of power outages and other pitfalls, the men were expected to parade out in perfect order every morning.
Like his fellow gunners, Balkwill was chastised many times for such minor infractions as a wrinkle or a missing button.
In his interview for Cameron’s ongoing Veterans Voices of Canada project, Balkwill describes the day he and some of his buddies conspired to get in a few licks of their own.
One of the men left a thread hanging from his shirt for morning inspection. As expected, the officer pulled on the thread — and kept pulling while the entire shirt came apart.
Balkwill still chuckles about the incident, knowing that the officer was later ordered to pay for the shirt, never discovering that it had been rigged in advance.
Walter Robinson needed his parent’s permission to volunteer for naval duty during the Second World War because he was only 17.
He ended up on a warship in the Atlantic, hunting down German U-boats.
Only 3,000 of Germany’s 33,000 submariners survived the Second World War, says Robinson as he describes laying depth charges to destroy a U-boat his ship had encountered.
“To think of the men down there, and I was responsible, maybe, for dropping bombs on them. . . .”
He puts his face in his hands and can speak no more.
The average age of Canada’s war veterans is now 88, says Cameron. Too many of those men and women have already taken their stories to the grave.
Since 2006, when he moved to Sylvan Lake from his former home in Nova Scotia, Cameron has dedicated his time and talents to collecting stories from as many veterans as he can find who are willing to share their stories.
Many of the Second War veterans who take part in the project open up for the first time once they start their interviews, telling stories they have hidden away for 65 years or more.
Among them is Victor Shea, who took part in the Normandy Invasion.
“He said he didn’t speak about it for 35, 40 years and he talked very little about it then.”
A friend of Shea’s, who had been a regimental boxer with Cameron’s uncle, Perley Cameron, had recommended the project.
“After the interview, he’s driving home and he said to his friend: ‘Now I can forget about it. It’s documented.’ That night, he went home and he slept the best he had slept in years,” says Cameron.
“I get goosebumps when I tell that story. It hits home, so hard.”
Perley Cameron provided the impetus for a project that keeps his nephew hard at work for an average of 70 hours a week, travelling throughout the province and across Canada to conduct interviews.
Cameron made arrangements to record an interview with his uncle about the Second World War. But Perley died before they could get together.
With his 500th interview to take place by the end of this year, Cameron has created 200 copies of a Remembrance Day video, We Must Never Forget, for free distribution to schools, libraries and museums.
However, funding shortfalls threaten to scuttle Veterans Voice of Canada, which is covered entirely through donations, says Cameron.
While Legions and other groups have been supportive, Cameron says he is putting in far too much time trying to raise money to keep the project going when he should be taping and editing interviews.
A number of vets who hope to take part are still waiting until Cameron can rake together the money he needs for fuel, accommodations and technical costs involved.
Veterans’ Voices of Canada is operated by a registered charity and is therefore authorized to provide tax receipts for those who ask, says Cameron.
He trusts that corporate and individual donors will step forward to help out and hopes at some point in the future to interview Canadians who have served in more recent theatres of conflict, including the war in Afghanistan.
“I would like to partner with more museums for individuals to have full-time access to these video interviews. Currently, there is discussion to try and make this happen with several Alberta museums and organizations. But there are also international organizations who ask for use of the veteran interviews.”
Cameron has been conducting interviews at the Lacombe branch of the Royal Canadian Legion in recent weeks.
He is scheduled to present his project at the Red Deer Museum and Archives at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 23.