NEW! Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

A Look Back

by Stan Scislowski

No civilian can expect to know the deep feelings that can well up in a war veteran when he visits the site of his greatest trial and efforts in the war. Those who have never heard the unholy din of battle, smelled the dead or inhaled the stifling smoke and fumes of a shell that fell much too close for comfort cannot come close to understanding the feeling that touches those of us who have known these things and more. It is almost as though we veterans still cannot believe we had come through it all.

How can anyone expect his wife, children, grandchildren or friends to understand or even fathom a guess as to what it was like in the soul-searing heat of combat–in places where sudden violent death could strike from around the next bend in the road, from behind a nearby bush or from afar, in the boom of an 88-mm gun?

How can those of us who survived those years expect people who were not there or people who were born after World War II to understand what it was really like to live in shallow holes in the ground for days; times when we were hungry and tense and either baking under the noonday sun or shivering in the misery of a long January night, or other times spent sloshing through mud and pelting rain for mile after endless mile?

We would sometimes go two or three days without so much as a dry and crumbly biscuit or drink of water. How can the soldiers of World War II expect people today to understand what it was like to have to answer calls of nature under the rudest of living conditions, day after day? How could they know what it was like not to have a bath for weeks on end or to wear the same clothes for so long that you would forget when you last took them off? Yet all these daily miseries make up only one side of our wartime experience.

Terrifying as it was, we cannot forget the humorous side, the hilarious moments we shared and, of course, the wonderful comradeship we felt. So, when old soldiers get together at regimental or unit reunions or during pilgrimages of remembrance to European battlefields, they have ample opportunity to recount and relive those days all over again.

And as they talk amongst themselves, I know that in their minds they never stop thanking God that they came through it all. To these men, the war years were the most interesting, the most exciting, and at times the most demanding and most fearful period of their lives.

I remember when disillusionment overcame me in Italy during the first hour of our first battle in which I had to face up to the unpleasant fact that I was not only afraid–I was scared shitless. And how–in that instant–I lost the strong desire to be a hero. All the hopes and dreams that had filled my young and overly imaginative mind for so long, dreams in which I had emerged from the war a national hero, dreams in which one day at Buckingham Palace the King would pin the much coveted Victoria Cross on my tunic, were burned away in the smoke and noise of that first day of battle.

I also look back with pleasant memories on the carefree summer spent in the cherry orchards at Caiazzo, Italy, and the endless games of volleyball, softball and swim parades to the Volturno River and the salty Mediterranean. Those were very good times, indeed.

Many men have managed to block out their war memories or just keep them to themselves. Others believe they have already shared some of their stories and that it is time to put them to bed and move on to other subjects. Whatever route they take, we–as a society–should never deny them the right to look back on those war years, not only in remembrance of their buddies who did not make it back to Canada, but also in remembrance of the good times and bad times, and lastly, in recognition of their own contribution towards victory over tyranny of the most evil kind–however small their part in the war might have been.

If everything about our war experiences had been bitter, it is most likely that we would have long ago done our utmost to forget everything, shunt it into the farthest recesses of our minds. But war, strange as it might seem to the uninitiated, often holds memories of a different sort, stirring recollections of events or incidents that lifted our spirits with a laugh when there was no reason to laugh.

It has always been my contention that for any man, if he expected to survive the war mentally unscarred, the worst thing you could do was to wallow in the swamp of self-pity.

The minute a man began to look at everything going on around him in the negative, those around him could pretty well tell that one way or another that man was not going to be with us much longer. Outside of death, I think we all worried about ending up as basket cases or losing our genitals more than we did about any other kind of wound except perhaps that of spending the rest of our life in a psycho ward. Those were the worst case scenarios for most of us. But we tried not to think about them.

There were all kinds of ways a man could hold on to his sanity and self-control even under the worst of circumstances during battle.

But the ever-present dangers of the frontline and battle action are only a part of the picture. There was also the lack of physical comforts, the broiling heat of summer, the rain, the snow and cold of winter, the lack of sleep, hunger, endless hours of tension, especially at night, patrols, and standing guard in a slit trench for hours at a time. All of these things made up the other part of the picture.

Just to find a house intact, with even part of a roof overhead–enough to enable you to get out of the rain and the cold–was a morale lifter in itself. Another “pick me up” was when the rations–skimpy as they were–got through, especially after you had resigned yourself to another day without a bite to eat, or when you went on a patrol wondering if you would make it back safe and sound. For many it was a cause for celebration when all went well and no contact was made with the enemy. And what a wonderful feeling it was when you finally got back to your platoon position and found a nice warm spot on the floor in front of the fireplace where you might be able to stretch out and pull your two blankets up over your head and then doze for a few hours. You learned to really appreciate little things like that.

Of course when the sergeant came ’round and told you you had an eight-day pass coming, you darn near jumped right out of your skin with joy, mainly because you knew you were going to be out of the line for at least eight glorious days, with nothing to worry about except getting run over by some army vehicle. There was even the hope–very slim as it was–that the war might be over by the time you got back to your unit and there would be no more dodging bullets and shells. You knew it was a fat chance, but you still hoped that would be the case. You had to hope that there were better days ahead.

The main thing that kept my nerves from cracking wide open was a positive outlook and that little four-letter word spelled H. O. P. E.

To abandon hope was to give up–period. Otherwise you hoped for anything at all that was good, that would make your life just a little more bearable and a whole lot safer. You hoped you would get a letter or two or three from home, and maybe a parcel or two. Or you hoped for simpler little luxuries like a chocolate bar ration, or a chance to shower or get a change of underwear. And when you were at the front you were always hoping that the coming ‘do’ would be an easy one, or that your regiment was going to be relieved for a few days.

Your mental well-being hinged on HOPE; you needed a good dose of it to keep your sanity. You knew that at certain times you might bend a little, but the trick, of course, was not to break.

* * *

Editor’s note: Born in Windsor, Ont., in 1923, Stan Scislowski was a private with the Perth Regiment. He served in World War II during the Italian campaign from November 1943 until April 1945.

Sign up today for a FREE download of Canada’s War Stories

Free e-book

An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.