Carrying a Brownie camera in his pocket throughout the Second World War, Father Robert Greene took photos of bombed tanks, the young men he served with and the day-to-day lives of the people in the communities he helped liberate.
In one photograph, a child’s funeral procession rolls through a cobblestoned street in Italy. Another shows the bright-eyed smile of a fellow soldier and later his gravesite.
Greene, now 86, still has the book of small black and white photographs that document his time serving with the Canadian military. The Calgary resident shared his stories and his photographs on Thursday at the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame and Museum with The Memory Project: Stories of the Second World War. The project organizers came to the Red Deer area to collect stories and take photographs of mementoes from the Second World War.
Greene joined the 2nd Armoured Brigade, of the 5th Armoured Division of Lord Strathcona’s Horse, at the age of 19 in 1943.
He initially tried to join the air force at age 17, but the doctor wouldn’t allow it because of his low blood pressure. The classmate he tried to join with was shot down and killed over North Africa just eight months after joining.
“I’ve lived a charmed life,” Greene said. “They say the good die young, then I’ll live to 120.”
His stories of the war are a series of near misses in Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands.
At one point, he was transferred out of a tank that just two weeks later took a direct hit that killed everyone inside. His second winter in Italy, he had to go to hospital for jaundice and the soldier who took his place was killed. At another point, he was told not to dig a trench in a particular spot and so he went elsewhere. Two infantry men chose his initial location and died when a bomb hit.
Greene still has a chunk from the nose of a bomb that dropped nine metres from his tank and left a two-metre deep by six-metre wide crater in the ground.
More than 60 years later, Greene still gets choked up as he talks about the welcome the Canadians received upon arriving in the Netherlands.
Known as the Operation Dutch Cleanser, it entailed the Canadians taking a slice of land that cut off a group of German soldiers. The Canadians cleared the area so quickly that they arrived without the food echelons. The Dutch had been so short of food that they were eating tulip bulbs. But when the Canadians arrived, they found eggs and other items to feed them.
After the war, Greene returned to Canada, studying arts and theology at university and eventually became an Anglican priest. He met his wife of close to 57 years, Marion, at university and they’ve lived in Calgary for more than a decade.
Jill Paterson, deputy project manager of the Memory Project: Stories of the Second World War, said she feels that this generation of veterans came together to serve their country in a way that the country never had before and it’s important for young people to understand that contribution.
“There is a real sense of urgency right now to record these stories while we can,” said Paterson. “We’ll always have the history books, which is important, but it’s really good to get those personal experiences to make it jump out of the page and come to life.”
The Historica-Dominion Institute project is funded by Canadian Heritage.
People can hear the veterans’ stories and see pictures at www.thememoryproject.com. Second World War veterans can do an interview by phone by calling toll free 1-866-701-1867.