Fred Bender was typical of the thousand of Canadians who enlisted during the Second World War — he was young and had no military experience. Canada’s armed forces were filled with Freds; men and women whose lives were deeply affected by the ravages of the Great Depression and who were willing to fight to make their nation a better place in which to live.
Fred’s parents, who were originally from Winnipeg, tried their luck at farming, taking over a homestead in 1901 in Saskatchewan. Fred would later say that his years of hard work on the farm toughened him up for the rigours of military life.
At 20, Fred joined four others in a journey to Winnipeg in order to enlist. Following his enlistment, Fred was sent for training and then was placed with an artillery group. But his tenure with the artillery was interrupted when the Canadian army began to suffer appalling casualties as our nation’s troops slugged their way from the beaches of Normandy toward Belgium, Holland, and Germany.
In order to fill in the depleted ranks, Fred was among those from other branches of the military who were given a rifle and made into a foot soldier.
Surprisingly, the farm boy from Saskatchewan was mustered with the Essex Scottish from Windsor, Ontario.
His first action with the Essexes was at Ghent, which he described as “a tough one.”
Combat, according to Fred, was not a time to think. The main objective was to “shoot, shoot, shoot” in order to survive. He said that in the back of every soldier’s mind was the thought that a bullet bore their name. As young soldiers, they may have originally considered themselves invulnerable, but what they saw happening around them aged them quickly and changed their perspective on war. It was no longer a great adventure.
For Fred, there was one instance that reminded him of everyone’s vulnerability on the battlefield. “We had just come up to a pillbox in the Scheldt in Holland. There was a sniper in a church steeple pinning us down. The Germans dropped two eggs (88-millimetre shells) into us.
“A guy who had just come up was hit. We found his tunic hanging in a tree. We picked his pieces up with a shovel and put them in a blanket and then his pieces into a grave.
“It was terrible when you think about it. Our lieutenant was quiet for many days after.”
But it was in a dark forest near the Rhine River where Fred learned that he was not immune to enemy bullets. During the fighting at Hochwald, where “the trees were close together,” his unit was “pinpointed by rockets.”
In the chaos of battle Fred had no idea what direction enemy fire was coming from. All he remembered is that it came from all around his unit. “I don’t know who was shooting at me. I was going up a hill. He (a German) was shooting at the rocks in front of me.” The purpose of this tactic was to send chips off the rocks to act as deadly shrapnel in order to maim or kill.
Fred was at first hit by a bullet in the chin, which thankfully had its impact lessened by striking the earth in front of him. Then he was hit in the thigh of his left leg. “It went right through my leg,” Fred explained. “There was black stuff all over.” The black stuff was a mixture of blood and lead from a pencil he had been carrying in his pants pocket.
Fred’s war was over in March 1945.
For years, Fred refused to talk about his battlefield experiences, a common trait he shared with other veterans. Instead, he kept the memories of the horror of war to himself in an attempt to wipe the slate clean and start a new life. He settled down in Winnipeg, married and raised a family.
‘There was no point in talking about it,” according to Fred. “Why waste the time. It was a bloody war.”
Just before his passing in 2003, Fred was finally willing to relate his war story. This was surprising to his son, Rick, who for the first time heard details of what his father did during the war.
Some of the stories Fred told of his wartime experiences were funny and he laughed as they were told, but his expression quickly changed to sadness when he remembered the many who didn’t come back, such as the young soldier whose remains he had to pick up with a shovel. When he thought about his involvement, he considered himself extremely lucky to have survived.
Ordinary Canadian citizens such as Fred, who were turned into warriors, were intent upon forgetting their role in the war. “We had a job to do, and we did it,” said Fred. Their goal was to get on with the more mundane — and decidedly safer — pleasures of civvy street. For most who served, years of peaceful existence had been lost, so there was a lot of catching up to do. The problem with all the forgetting is that the process distanced the lessons of war from children and grandchildren. The motto Canadians hear every Remembrance Day — Lest We Forget — has a slightly hollow ring to it when veterans who fought — and continue to fight for Canada — choose to ignore their first-hand experiences which are valuable lessons to remind us all about the horrors of war. Yet, they can’t be blamed, as veterans are quick to point out: “There is no glory in war. There is only death and suffering.”
Still, we owe all the Freds of Canada a debt of gratitude for their sacrifices in the name of freedom.
Fred’s story was told to me over the course of many months. It was a slow process, but as he became more comfortable, he filled in more gaps. Perhaps it was because Fred came to realize his time on earth was then limited that he felt the need to finally tell his story. It’s a similar feeling among the surviving Second World War veterans, whose ranks are now quickly being depleted. They won the war against tyranny, but are now in their eighties and beyond, and sadly losing their battle with life.
I originally wrote Fred’s story in 1999, but in the wake of this year’s Remembrance Day, I felt it was appropriate to continue to reinforce the need to set aside more than one day a year to remember the men and women who fought and those who now fight in the name of our freedom. Fred is the personification of their sacrifices — a Canadian who became a citizen soldier on our behalf.