It is a late October morning at the Berwick House on Shelbourne Avenue. An elderly man plays It’s a Long Way to Tipperary on his acoustic guitar to an audience of residents sitting around tables sipping on small glasses of sherry.
It was the annual picture of veterans staying at the retirement home. Irene Hall and Bernie Stipkala are among them, and as they are sitting down on a couch, Hall tells Stipkala that the number of people in the picture is getting smaller with each passing year.
“One time, we had about 30 here, ” says Stipkala. “Now, we are down to 15.” Hall nods in agreement. It is a reminder of the toll time takes, as living memories of wars past fade away.
John Babcok, the last known surviving veteran of the First World War, died in 2010. The estimated number of surviving Canadian veterans of the Second World War hovered around 61,000 as of March 2016. The estimated number of veterans who served in the Korean War sat at about 9,100 in March 2014. In precious short time, their memories will be gone too.
But Stipkala and Hall are doing their part to share their experiences with current generations by regularly visiting Hillcrest elementary school.
Both agree that the students as well as their teachers have shown great interest in hearing their stories. “It makes us feel like they are really getting something out of it,” says Stipkala. “I really enjoy looking back,” says Hall.
By definition, each veteran has a unique experience. But both the stories of Stipkala and Hall highlight war experiences that often go under-reported.
The Second World War was coming towards its grisly conclusion and Hall was 18 years old when she left the Greater Victoria region for Camp Borden in southern Ontario, where she worked in the payroll department. While Hall was never in any danger, she still remembers the excitement of doing her part, as women filled jobs left open by men serving on the front lines.
“That was my first job,” she says. So Hall – like countless other women of her generation – helped to sustain the war effort at home, while also paving the path for the mass participation of women in post-war economies around the western world. In fact, her personal biography is inexorably linked with the war effort, as she grew up on James Island off Sidney, where Defence Industries Ltd. operated a dynamite plant.
The close-knit nature of the island’s community also amplified the emotional anguish of war, like the time when 18-year-old Thomas Goldie, a school classmate of Hall, died while serving as a tail-gunner during the war.
“When you live on the island, and there are just 65 houses, you know everybody. Everybody is more or less your family, ” she says. “It was really, really sad. He came from a family of seven.”
Stipkala, meanwhile, is a veteran of Canada’s so-called Forgotten War, the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. Canada participated in the conflict as part of an international force to repel North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, with Stipkala serving in the Royal Canadian Navy.
“I went to Korea three weeks after being married,” he says. “I was 23 years old.”
Free of fear and expectations, Stipkala says he was eager to get on with the job. “When you are young, you are immortal,” he says. “I guess we were lucky, because we got there just as the Korean War was ending.” But if Stipkala never experienced live-fire combat during his time in the Korean War, he still remembers its harshness.
During an armed landing patrol, Stipkala witnessed Korean civilians scrounging for food. “We just checked out the area, and you see normal people existing by eating barnacles.”
Stipkala served in the navy until 1977 on several ships, and on one occasion with his younger and older brother. He says the experience of war made him grow up very quickly, and as affairs on the Korean Peninsula have raised the spectre of nuclear war, both Hall and Stipkala say they are very concerned.
‘This jackass down in the [United] States, so far, has antagonized everybody,” says Stipkala. “He hasn’t left anybody out. He scares the hell out of me. The other idiot in North Korea doesn’t do me any good, either.”