Forever Comrades

September 1, 1996 by Legion Magazine

by Dan Black

reu’nion (-nyon) n. 1. reuniting or being reunited; reunited state. 2. social gathering, esp. of intimates or persons with common interest.

Eighty-year-old Jim McDonald is in a pretty good mood when he swings his feet out of bed and plants them on his bedroom floor in Cornwall, Ont. It’s just after 8:30 in the morning: In a few hours Jim’s wartime buddy, Mac Cameron, will arrive in his Chevy station-wagon and the two will head over to pick up Jim’s younger brother, John Angus (Angie).

The objective for all three on this rainy Saturday morning in June is the 49th annual Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders reunion, taking place an hour’s drive west in Brockville, Ont. Two days have been marked on the calendar for this social event but Jim, Angie and Mac won’t be needing hotel rooms. Unlike the early years when they would stay the night, these veterans plan to return home after dinner, and then head back the following morning for the traditional parade and memorial service. And so, over a two-day period, they’ll meet up with at least 100 of their former comrades-in-arms.

Jim and his companions are among thousands of war veterans and peacetime service personnel who periodically put their other lives on hold to attend unit or regimental reunions. Most of these gatherings are held annually; others occur every two or three years, or during major anniversary years. The get-togethers are usually planned months in advance, last two to four days and rely on volunteers to make them work.

For many, reunion attendance is automatic. The locations may change, but in their mind’s eye the participants follow the same migratory path every time. It puts them in touch with their past and brings them face to face with the present-day lives of old friends. This, they swear, is good for the unit’s spirit, good for personal morale and helps perpetuate the importance of remembrance.

For some, like Keith Pelton of Brockville, the journey back is relatively easy and inexpensive. The chairman of this year’s Glens reunion committee drives a few blocks and he’s there for the festivities. Others, like many of those who attended last May’s huge Royal Canadian Naval Association reunion in Ottawa, must find money for airfare plus hotel accommodations. But no matter the cost or the distance travelled, the attraction remains the same. “The lure is camaraderie,” says Jim, who has missed only three or four SD&G Highlanders’ reunions since the 1st Battalion Association held its inaugural get-together in 1948. “A lot of us keep in touch throughout the year, but we still attend the reunions because it’s another chance to see people you haven’t seen for awhile and find out how they’re doing. You could say we’re a pretty close bunch, even after all these years.”

The enthusiasm may still be there, but the physical ease of attending a reunion isn’t what it used to be. Heart attacks, strokes, cancer, arthritis and old age are taking a steady toll and many veterans no longer drive, so they find it difficult to get to reunions. “I had a stroke in April of last year and went to the (one) in Kingston, Ont., in a wheelchair,” recalls Ralph Gault, 80, a Glen who lives near Long Sault, Ont. “My son helped me get there because I can’t drive. I’m without the wheelchair now, but I walk with a cane.”

Gault, who was wounded during the September 1944 attack on Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, is among those who believe a special bond develops during combat. “The association you get from living together–from being in battle together–is incredible,” he said. “I have so much respect for the fellows in the regiment, and I do look forward to our reunions.”

The exact number of military reunions held in Canada is hard to pin down. It varies from year to year, with the bulk occurring between April and September. This year, the January through August issues of Legion Magazine contained 163 advance notices for reunions ranging from the Royal Canadian Air Force radar mechanics meeting in Calgary to the nursing sisters at Ottawa to the North Nova Scotia Regiment gathering in Truro, N.S. In 1995–the 50th anniversary of the end of WW II–the magazine published 213 such notices. The year before that it was 172, and in 1993 some 210 events were publicized.

A week before the SD&G Highlanders reunion, a gathering of a different sort took place in the apple blossom-rich Annapolis Valley at Canadian Forces Base Greenwood, N.S. Rendezvous ‘96 had a slightly different flavor as both young and old maritime patrol aircrew celebrated the 30th anniversary of VP International. It’s a unique worldwide association whose members have each logged over 2,000 hours of flight time.

The term ‘VP’ is a Canadian-American military designation; it applies to long-range, land-based, anti-submarine, maritime reconnaissance aircraft. VPI reunions feature a mix of seminars, exercises, hardware exhibitions and camaraderie, occurring every five years at CFB Greenwood. Active members arrive in everything from American P-3s to British Nimrods. One big bonus this year for participants was target practice held early in the week on a Canadian submarine off the south coast of Nova Scotia.

Hosted by 14 Wing, the rendezvous attracted more than 650 participants–including spouses–from as far away as New Zealand, Norway and Hong Kong. “The big thing is camaraderie,” says Major Bert Campbell, president of VPI. “When you are part of the same aircrew for up to two years, it’s only natural that a lot of trust builds up and long-lasting friendships develop.”

When the association was launched in 1966 as the P-2000 Club, there were 19 Canadians, one American and one Australian. Today, it has 4,500 members in at least 16 countries. The 1991 reunion, which featured a small air show, attracted approximately 2,200 people. This year there was no air show, but visitors could tour various aircraft and talk to crew members. It was held during 14 Wing’s open house.

Other activities included discussions on shore region anti-submarine warfare and maritime patrol aircraft search and rescue. “What makes things a little more interesting for us is that people do come back to our reunions, but we also get new aircrews and that’s what refreshes it,” Bert explains.

American Tom Spink, who has been to two other reunions, was glad to be back. He’s a former commanding officer of a VP reserve squadron based at Moffett airfield, southeast of San Francisco, Calif. His squadron’s interest in VPI began in the mid-1980s; the airbase was granted a wing, or charter membership, in 1986. “We liked the concept of an international association,” he said. “We thought…that if we could just get a dozen people to sign up, we’d be in.” That was not a given, because the base had been reduced by budget cuts. Prior to the early 1990s, Moffett was the main P-3 base on the American west coast with close to 100 aircraft. Today, it’s home to a reserve squadron.

The RCNA reunion in Ottawa attracted close to 2,500 people last spring, many of them WW II navy vets like Jack Buchanan, 74, of Ottawa who served on the RCN corvette Drumheller in the North Atlantic. “I’m here because of a neighbor named Sam MacDonald, who said I should get down here and enjoy myself.”

Sam was chairman of the reunion committee, directing and co-ordinating the efforts of some 40 volunteers. A couple of weeks prior to the reunion, he was holding court in the Ottawa-Hull Naval Association branch. With one hand supporting a pad of foolscap and the other drumming the top of a cashew dispenser next to the bar, he went over the list of things to do. A lot of the work had been done, but there was still some unfinished business.

Billed as a musical naval reunion, the mammoth event at Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park featured a spectacular stage show that included performances by renowned singer-songwriter John McDermott, the Halifax-based Stadacona Band, and the Vancouver Naval Veterans Drum and Bugle Corps. “Reunions are important because they help us remember what we went through,” says drum and bugle corps member Don Bellamy, a Vancouver city councillor who served in HMCS Kootenay during WW II. “Reunions also help us find and renew old acquaintances, and that is so important these days because our ranks are growing old and the numbers are getting quite thin.”

The main difference between a convention and a reunion is atmosphere. Convention-goers usually have a lot of business to contend with, and it’s this work that sets the tone. At reunions, the main order of business is to rub elbows with your pals and savor the glow of quiet mutual respect. Participants are more relaxed: there’s a lot more time for chit-chat and checking out how old friends are doing. However, this is not to say reunions are devoid of committee meetings or formal proceedings.

After downing a small bowl of Shreddies and scanning the morning paper, Jim McDonald shaves and then heads back to the bedroom. He lays out grey slacks, dark blue blazer, Macdonell-of-Glengarry tartan tie, glengarry cap and black leather shoes. He’ll join 85 other Glens on parade from the Brockville Legion branch to a nearby church. Once inside, Jim and his chums will hold a traditional memorial service that will include the reading of names from the regiment’s WW II honor roll. Following that, the vets and their guests will return to the branch for a wreath-placing ceremony. Dr. James Pendergast, a Glen and former intelligence officer, will take the salute.

The regimental crest on Jim’s blazer features a raven on a rock, superimposed on a maple leaf. Flanking it are the Gaelic words Dileas Gu Bas–Faithful unto death. Above the motto are the letters SDG and the words ‘Glengarry Fencibles’, surmounted by the Crown. All of this sits atop the St. Andrew’s Cross.

Jim takes a minute to locate the regimental pin he received 30 years ago, then sticks it into his left lapel. The pin’s metal is tarnished, but its dark color matches the blazer.

Ken Knott, 71, of Burnaby, B.C., can relate to the need for proper dress. Prior to the RCNA reunion stage show, he and drum major Ray Roberge made sure everyone in the Vancouver Naval Veterans Drum and Bugle Corps looked his-her best. Corps members wore their WW II uniforms, and earned a standing ovation when they paraded in. The glare from spotlights bounced off their trumpets, drums, cymbals, glockenspiels and well-polished boots. “We travelled a long way to attend the reunion,” says Ken, who acknowledged the financial support of several Vancouver-area Legion branches. “There was a lot of pride in that arena, and we had to look our best.” He notes there were enough contributions from Legion branches and the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada to cover the 30-member band’s airfare to Ottawa.

Proper dress was not required during International Night at the VPI reunion. The Americans–dressed in flight suits–arrived with a large supply of Jack Daniels, while the New Zealanders poured generous amounts of a sinister-looking brew called Purple Death. The four-day reunion was an opportunity to forget about rank, and the international meet-and-greet in the base hockey arena did its best. The mood was festive and just about everybody–including the Scots with their red wigs and tam-o-shanters–got into the act by bringing something to the smorgasbord. “This is just great,” said Steve Oglesby, 34, an electronics operator who spends a lot time in a Royal Air Force Nimrod Mark II. “I just bumped into two former instructors I hadn’t seen in three years.”

The dress-code was more formal for the next night’s anniversary dinner, when the arena resembled a grand banquet hall with flags, balloons and colorful murals hanging from the rafters. After dining on lobster and roast beef, reunion-goers heard from charter member Dick Headley, the first president of the former P-2000 Club. When he was appointed to that position, the club had two objectives; form an association of airmen who have logged over 2,000 flight hours in Neptune P-2 aircraft, and foster and encourage the formation of additional branches or wings of the club throughout the world. For them and for those who helped along the way, the payoff has been the harmony and good fellowship that extends around the world. Members share a common understanding of what it’s like to be “up there.” They know each other, support each other and remember those who were killed.

Between 1950 and 1977, 71 Canadian airmen died in maritime patrol aircraft accidents, including 15 who were killed when their Argus plunged into the Caribbean Sea on March 23, 1965. The United Kingdom has lost 147 since 1952, including the seven crew members who died when their Nimrod crashed into Lake Ontario during an air show last fall. The American total is even higher. Between 1963 and March 1991, 248 P-3 flight crew members died in accidents.

Headley, one of four charter members at the reunion, thanked those who have contributed time and effort to VP International. In particular, he acknowledged the contributions made by the wives of its organizers, especially Carol Smale, wife of P-2000 Club founder Herb Smale. Headley told the crowd that he’s attended every reunion, and will continue to attend for as long as he can breathe. The comment earned him a standing ovation.

International expansion–and the new name–came in 1970 as aircrews from retiring P-2V Neptunes became scarce. The new association established its own charter, constitution and bylaws, and was recognized by an emblem that features the silhouette of a Neptune and the letters ‘VP’ embossed on a maple leaf. The word ‘International’ encircles a globe which doubles as a gyro. The latter symbolizes the worldwide character of the association, as well as the stability and precision necessary in anti-submarine teamwork.

American Flight Engineer Scott Mensen, 41, of Jacksonville, Fla., can easily identify with the emblem. He was presented with a plaque for logging more than 11,000 flight hours. The Persian Gulf War veteran said the reunion was well-organized and a lot of fun. “It’s always nice to meet people from other countries who have so much in common with you.”

In addition to providing a good time for participants, military reunions are an economic boon for the host community. The Ottawa Tourism and Convention Authority estimates the average person attending a three- to four-day reunion or convention spends approximately $850 on everything from accommodation to transportation to gifts for loved ones.

The one thing travel and tourism experts can’t put a price on is camaraderie.

“Navy people come back because there is a bonding that you can’t define,” explains Bob Henderson of Bridgewater, N.S. The former gunlayer served aboard HMCS Huron during the Korean War, and last May he and four other vets travelled by van to the big RCNA reunion. The high point for him was bumping into his old pal George Guertin, who he hadn’t seen in 42 years. “It’s emotional, I can tell you that,” he said. “George and I served in Huron together. Boy, I still can’t believe he’s here.”

Back in Cornwall, it’s still raining when Jim and Mac arrive at Angie’s house. Jim’s 78-year-old brother is waiting outside, leaning on his cane. On June 6, 1944, Jim, Angie and their youngest brother Francis–all corporals–were in one landing craft that came ashore at Bernières-sur-Mer, France, on D-Day. A fourth brother, Donald, was in the RCAF. Francis was killed by a shell near Caen about a month later; Donald, 82, survived the war and lives in Cornwall, Ont.

Jim was also wounded in the attack on Boulogne-sur-Mer. He was with “D” Company, assaulting a battery that had numerous guns, including six of the dreaded 88-mm. “Fortunately, the guns were so busy shelling the west bank of the river that the enemy failed to notice D Company forming up in the wood below and to the east of their position,” states the revised regimental history, Up The Glens: Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders 1783-1994. “Surprise was gained. Starting at the base of the hill, about 1,000 yards from the guns, D Co. made a dash up the hill to within 200 yards of the crest before our guns ceased their covering barrage.” That’s when a burst from a German Schmeisser caught Jim in the knee. The Glens captured several of the guns and took 185 prisoners in that action.

In Brockville, the three men mingle with their friends. For a while they sit with former sniper Ed Maloney, 79, of Athens, Ont., and former intelligence officer Reg Dixon, 82, of Stittsville, Ont. Each feels the camaraderie and notices how the gatherings are getting smaller. “You look around and you look for the ones who aren’t here,” Ed notes. “I’m only guessing, but I’d say between 20 and 25 have passed away since the last reunion.”

“We are fading away,” Reg agrees. He safeguards the battalion’s last bottle of calvados for the final two Glens surviving. “We are marching off parade, but we’re not all leaving at once….We went through so many trials and tribulations together. Those of us who are able come back just to see each other. It’s a bond that can’t be broken–a most unique fellowship that kind of melts you.”

“I always go away looking forward to the next reunion,” adds Jim. “At our age it’s hard to get started, but once you’re here with your chums it’s all worthwhile.”

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