“You’re going to Canada.”
Those were the medic’s first words to Joe Bill as he crouched over him tending his shattered ankle near Falaise in August 1944.
Five weeks after landing in Europe on D-Day-Plus-30, Bill’s fighting war was over.
A Red Deer boy, Bill enlisted in the army in April 1942. He was in such a hurry to join up, he fudged his age by two years.
As coincidence would have it, the doctor giving the physicals at the recruitment office in Camrose had delivered Bill when he was born in Vancouver. When Bill showed up he took one look at him and asked when he was born.
With a mixture of bravado and malarkey, Bill bluffed his way through.
“I said, ‘You should know. You delivered me in 1923 in Vancouver.’”
The ploy worked, and the lad whose birth certificate read May 23, 1925, was in the army.
After a few months of training in Camrose and Petawawa, Ont., Bill and the other recruits made their way to Nova Scotia and sailed to Scotland in January 1943. A train trip later, he was in England and posted to the Calgary Highlanders.
Many months of training and exercises followed until the Allies were ready to launch their massive invasion of mainland Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
While huge efforts had been made to keep the invasion day and its forces secret, everyone knew something big was brewing then. But it wasn’t until the morning of June 6, that Bill and his fellow soldiers knew what had taken place just a few miles across the English Channel from their base in Folkestone .
“We just woke up in the morning and they said they’ve landed in France.”
All shared the same thought.
“‘We’re next,’ we said.”
His group of Calgary Highlanders would be sent over as reinforcements on July 6, and were immediately in the thick of it.
While the invasion had been a big success, progress ashore had been much slower than anticipated. Key landmarks that were to have been seized within a day or two of landing were still in German hands weeks later.
Being thrown into action was a test for the green soldiers.
“It was sort of confusing,” Bill recalls. Much of the action could be boiled down to “follow the leader.”
On the day he was wounded, Bill was part of a gun crew on a six-pounder anti-tank gun. He had been trained on the gun in Canada, but had later been converted to a rifleman.
It was Aug. 13, near the Falaise Gap, when 19-year-old Bill and his crew spotted a German vehicle towing a multi-barrelled mortar.
This nasty weapon was dubbed the Moaning Minnie by Allied troops because of the shrill howl of the rockets it launched.
“We got close to it and he saw us coming and he left,” recalls Bill. “We took off and went into an orchard and set up our gun because we had seen him pull off.”
The two gun crews exchanged fire twice, diving for cover after each salvo. In the second exchange, a piece of shrapnel tore into Bills’ ankle, exposing the bone and leaving his foot dangling by shreds.
“I said, ‘I’ve been hit.”
He didn’t feel much pain at the time, just numbness, he says.
The medics took him a first aid station, where he was checked over and given a shot and transported to a hospital near the beach to await a hospital ship back to England.
While there, he woke up to find two injured German soldiers in beds on either side of him.
“I was scared,” recalls with a chuckle.
“When I got there the doctors said they were going to operate. They said they didn’t know if they would amputate or wait until I got to England.
“I said, ‘Wait until we get to England.’”
To this day, he’s sure that decision saved his foot. His ankle would mend, but is still missing a large chunk.
After a week waiting his turn, Bill was flown back to England and sent to a Colchester hospital to recover. Little did he know at the time his older brother, Dick, was in a convalescent hospital just down the road.
The brothers were two of five Bill boys and a sister who would don a uniform in the war. All returned home.
Dick had gone ashore on D-Day with the Seaforth Highlanders and was wounded in the arm that day. He didn’t return to action, bringing his fighting career to an end after less than a day.
After being moved around to various hospitals, Joe Bill was put on a hospital ship in January 1945, and after a 10-day trip arrived in Halifax on Jan. 26. A three-day trip on a hospital train got him to Calgary where he had a month’s leave.
He was then sent to a veterans’ hospital in Victoria and wouldn’t come back to Alberta until June, where he underwent yet another operation. On July 26, 1945 he was released from the army.
Following the war, Bill saw the opportunity presented by the province’s fledgling oilpatch. He started Red Deer Power Tongs in 1958 before selling it and then forming Red Deer Oilfield Construction.
He was later a consultant with Murphy Oil, retiring in 1983. He and wife Elaine, whom he married in 1953, travelled extensively in retirement and live in Red Deer.
An out-of-the-blue recognition of his wartime service arrived in the mail only recently. Last month, Bill received a letter saying the French government wanted to honour him with a Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, the country’s highest national honour.
Bill and other veterans received the honour as recognition for their role in liberating France.