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A race against time to tell war stories

Randy Young interviews James Murphy (right) who returned to Canada in November 1945 and remembers still being in uniform and walking halfway from Red Deer to Sylvan Lake, Alta. before someone offered him a ride. - Phil Melnychuk/The News
Randy Young interviews James Murphy (right) who returned to Canada in November 1945 and remembers still being in uniform and walking halfway from Red Deer to Sylvan Lake, Alta. before someone offered him a ride.
— image credit: Phil Melnychuk/The News

Randy Young already has the camera rolling in the Fireside Lounge of the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch No. 88 in Maple Ridge late on a Friday, and he’s on his second interview. It’s supper time, and he still has two more interviews that evening.

But James Murphy’s story starts slowly as the memories of 70 years ago of Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, gradually rise to the surface.

The two are nursing short glasses of scotch, Young also has a beer, and Murphy recalls signing up with the Canadian army in Calgary in 1941, joining the 1st Survey Regiment, an artillery group, before getting tired of the shells and explosions and switching to transport, where he spent most of the war hauling supplies by army truck.

“I tell you, a lot of the roads (in Italy), some of them a donkey wouldn’t dare go on,” he says.

Murphy was in Italy in 1943, then moved to northern Europe in February 1945, after the D-Day invasion of occupied Europe in June 6, 1944. For that, even though he and others were slogging it out a year before the Allied invasion, he was nicknamed a “D-Day Dodger.”

Young has recorded hundreds of war stories and knew he only needed to jog the mind and the memories will come flooding back.

“Can you tell me about some of the hardships you’ve seen, or the good times or bad times?” he implores.

He’s heard many stories from Canadian veterans who helped liberate the Netherlands from German occupation in 1944.

“When we first went there, people were starving. The Germans took everything from them,” he says, adding the troops often shared their rations or care packages with the starving Dutch population.

The conversation then turns to the 50th anniversary of that event.

Murphy was among the veterans who returned to Holland in 1995 and paraded through the streets to welcoming crowds.

“I felt great about it. Shook a lot of hands,” Murphy said.

Someone gave him a beer, but it disappeared just as quickly, he said.

Young, though, picks up on the emotions that surface from that memory.

“I noticed that’s really touched you. It gets to you,” he says.

Young has been through the routine before. More than 300 times – the number of interviews he’s already got on tape and stored in the Harry Watts Veterans Video Library, part of the Friends of Veterans Canada charity he founded in Ontario in April 2008.

Young’s goal is to interview as many of Canada’s 100,000 or so surviving veterans as he can.

“As long as it takes,” he says.

“When the last one’s gone, is when I’ll stop.”

Young comes from a military family and is motivated by the memory of a scout leader Harold Lapointe, who helped him as a kid growing up in a single-parent home.

It was only by chance 30 years later that he learned Lapointe was a gunner in a Halifax bomber who was shot down in Belgium, crawled under a haystack, where he found a stash of hidden booze and anesthetized himself in order to relocate his broken foot before later capture and interrogation by German troops.

“I found then that these stories needed to be saved because they made an impression in my life.”

He wants to record as many as he can. He points out in one in 12 Canadians volunteered for the Second World War.

“That’s got to say something for our country.

“What do we owe those guys and gals? We owe them the debt of remembrance.”

And those memories have to be recorded or it will show the country lacking, he added.

He’s even thrown a bit of money into the mix. The registered charity will pay $20 per hour of taped interviews under its Video a Veteran for Cash program.

After a few days in Maple Ridge, Young, from London, Ont., is off to Kelowna, but also wants to get to White Rock to hear veterans there.

Murphy tells Young that being in the army was the time of his life – and where he met his wife. She was with a group of his friends in a pub one day when he first saw Joan, from Brighton, in southern England.

Joan considers herself somewhat psychic and said when she saw Murphy it flashed on her, that was her future husband.

They had six children and returned to Alberta after the war before moving to the coast in 1957.

“My wife, she didn’t care much for Alberta, the cold winters, the long winters.

“Being from the coast in England, she loved it out here.”

It wasn’t easy street in peacetime, however.

Young found it tough to find work after he returned in November 1945, but got on with the Canadian Pacific Railway, which he hated, then soon after as a welder in Edmonton. He taught himself that skill and worked as a welder/fabricator for the next five decades.

Young senses the interview is winding down.

So what did you learn from your time in the army? he asks.

He likes to end every interview with that question.

Would he do it again?

Yes, says Murphy, although he’d probably pick his regiment more carefully.

Would you recommend it to kids today? asks Young.

“Definitely, it makes a man out of you, know how to take orders, how to behave yourself.

“I quite enjoyed the army, although we had some tough times.

“I think the boys in the infantry were the ones who had the real hard time.”

The interview is in the can and they both still have their drinks.

Young’s still got two interviews to go, but already he’s asking Murphy about his war bride wife and if she’d like to tell her story about arriving in sub-arctic Alberta.

He keeps peppering Murphy with a few final questions.

What about war in general?

“If the enemy comes into your country, if you think enough of your country, you have to fight,” Murphy says.

“You’re darned right,” Young says loudly.

“Let’s have a cheers to that one. Cheers.”

The two clink their glasses of scotch.

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