Would you do it again?
That is a question one of the Grade 5 students from Barrhead Elementary School (BES) asked Herman Barkemeyer during the school’s annual veteran’s tea at the Barrhead Public Library on Nov. 1.
Herman Barkemeyer is a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) veteran who served 10 years in the military, including three years as part of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and the Canadian Air Force. His stint with the PPCLI included an 18-month rotation to Korea during the Korean War.
The event, which is in its seventh year, is part of the Living Book program where students in Grade 5 get an opportunity to ask questions, most of which they have prepared in advance, to a group of veterans over a cup of tea and pastries. The students then write a report based on the veterans’ responses and they are added to one of the library’s living books.
In recent years, because the number of dwindling veterans in the area, the library has invited relatives of deceased veterans or people who were impacted during the war years.
This year’s panel, in addition to Barkemeyer, included CAF veterans Lyle Saumer, who served with the PPCLI, including two peacekeeping tours in Cyprus, and Chuck Mortimer, who spent 15 years in the reserves with the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps as well as his wife Lois.
Elsie Measures and Charles Clow spoke of their relatives’ experience serving in Europe in the Second World War. Measures’ brother Aino John Carlson served with the armoured corps, while Clow’s uncle served in Europe with the PPCLIs.
Although the student wanted to know if Barkemeyer regretted his time serving the Korean War, he redirected it slightly, saying that it is possible to have a good life and career in the military, but it isn’t for everyone.
It was the promise of having a good life, moreover a pension, that caused Barkemeyer to enlist in the army. The other reason he told the students was for the adventure.
“I lied about my age to get in; I was only 17,” he said, adding shortly after enlisting he was deployed to Korea.
“The conditions were harsh,” he said, noting like soldiers in the First World War they spent a lot of time in trenches. “There were two to a bunker and our beds were made out of iron and mesh, and when we went to bed, we put on a balaclava to protect our faces from the rats.”
Another student asked Barkemeyer if he thought the soldiers were properly prepared, specifically wondering if they were provided with proper uniforms to protect them from the weather and the changing seasons.
“That’s another problem for us. They weren’t prepared for the war. In the summer we still had summer clothing,” he said, adding they were also at a serious disadvantage in terms of firepower.
“We used this .303 rifle while our enemies had automatic machine guns, but we did fine.”
However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, noting most of the fighting occurred at night. In the daytime, especially in the summer, they had a chance to enjoy the sunshine but noted the moments often didn’t last long.
“At noon we would be eating under the beautiful sun and then they would start shelling us,” said Barkemeyer.
He was then asked if he made any close friendships while serving in the military.
“Oh yes, they become your family,” he said. “It is hard to explain the bond a friendship a person has with someone they were in the service with. That’s your family.”
Although Measures was only nine, she can still remember when her brother went off to war but said it didn’t happen right away.
“He first went through training and that took him all over Canada,” she said, noting that in the end, her brother ended up being a tank driver.
However, that isn’t what he what he wanted to do. “He wanted to drive trucks, and he took a test to drive vehicles with wheels, but he failed it, but he passed the track vehicle test.”
After Carlson completed his training, he was sent to Britain via the Queen Mary, a large ocean liner, which they often used to transport Canadian troops to Europe because it could outrun the German U-boats, Measures said.
Once in Britain, Carlson was promoted to tank instructor, but eventually, he was deployed to Italy as part of the Canadian force that helped to liberate Rome in 1944.
“He didn’t like to talk about the bad stuff that happened to him, like when a buddy died next to him, but he told us about the funnier times,” she said, recounting a story when her brother and a comrade decided to take a tank for a joyride in the safety of an allied controlled area.
“But they got turned around and started going towards the German line,” Measures said, noting that once they started getting shot at, they realized their error and turned around.
Clow is proud of what his uncle did in service of his county, but for many of the soldiers who survived, they had a difficult time transitioning to civilian life.
“My uncle told me the story how someone threw a grenade into his foxhole, and of his troop of 12, he was the only one to survive. Or another time when he was shot, but the bullet was stopped by his wallet,” he said, adding that to cope with those memories, his uncle would often turn to the bottle.
Saumer said he was proud to serve with the Canadian military, saying the CAF has a well-earned reputation for excellence.
“I believe … no, I know that the Canadian soldier is the best-trained soldier in the world,” Saumer said.
He also told the students how important it is to recognize the contribution Canadian soldiers have made for the nation.
“The best thing you can do for someone who served in the Canadian Armed Forces, especially those who served in the Second World War and Korea, is to go up and thank them for what they have done. I still do it today and it is something I tell my own grandchildren to do.”