Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hard Working Tramps: Second World War Canadian Tank Transients, 1942

The romantic image of the hobo is well entrenched in the North American mind.  The ideal of the good-natured transient, riding the rails with a gunny sack tied to a pole, paints a pastoral scene which fails to capture the hunger, squalor, and desperation of unemployment.  The pages of a Canadian Second World War service magazine, however, link the techniques of survival in the Great Depression to the lived experience of modern warfare.

The Tank was the Canadian Armoured Corps' magazine, operating out of the Armoured Fighting Vehicles School in Borden, Ontario.  A self-styled "transient", wrote in to express the not-so-patriotic motivations behind his enlistment.
     One dollar and thirty cents a day, in which you get three meals, a roof over your head, and clothing on your back.  That's why I'm in the army.  The C.A.C. just happened.
     It's a lot better than being a transient.  I joined up at the first place that would take me.
     I was on the trek for three years.  You ride the rods, hitch-hike or tramp.  You work when you can get it.  You eat when you can get it, sleep where you are, panhandle when you've got to, and duck the bulls.
I was a good transient and good transients are not lazy.  I do my work, keep clean, and I'll show them how a transient can fight if I get the chance.  But, if they'd had those work camps, I'd had to work harder than I do in the army.
     We'll win the war.  Do you think we'll win some common sense?
 * * * * * TRANSIENT"
The Tank - Canada, June 1942

Another letter from the Ontario Regiment overseas noted that the skills of the homeless were particularly useful on the many schemes and exercises.  In August 1942 The Tank reported:
"Living as we did in the open, old time campers and men who had seen "civilized-jungle" life were great teachers.  On one occasion a civilian car killed a duck in the road, one minute later it was in a tank, a few minutes later on reaching a harbour it was over a fire, and shortly after that, inside the tank crew.  It is not that starvation rations had been issued, but who wouldn't prefer roast duck to bully-beef?"

It seems that the techniques of scrounging were as applicable to Second World War army life as they had been to unemployment in the 1930s.

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