Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Monumental Sherman

Mewata Barracks,
 Calgary, Alberta
If you are a Canadian, whether you know it or not, you have likely had a run-in with a Sherman tank.  The Sherman tank was ubiquitous on the battlefields of the Second World War.  With over 50,000 tanks produced during the war, and a bad reputation for losses when going head-to-head with those big German cats (Tigers, and Panthers, and Nazis oh my!) the Sherman has been used as an example proving the Brute Force concept of Second World War historiography, associated with John Ellis' book of the same name.   This line of reasoning claims that while the Sherman was inferior to the later model panzerkampfwagens, the Allies eventually used their sheer numbers to overcome the Wehrmacht. A handful of historians challenge this popular version of the Sherman's failings and claim that in certain terrain, and commanded by skilled operators, the Sherman could best the hallowed panzers.  Like the armoured fighting vehicles that they defend, these revisionists are facing an uphill battle.

A Sherman Firefly at
 Trois-Rivieres, QC

Shermans are also ubiquitous in Canadian memorials across the country and overseas.  The vast majority of these memorials are not, however, the M4A4 model Sherman, which was widely used by British and commonwealth formations during the second world war, but M4A3E8s, used in the closing months of the war by Americans and in the post-war era by Canadians.  The so-called "Easy Eights" had a smoother suspension and larger gun than the early 6 pounder or 75mm variants.  Giveaways for later model identification, include muzzle-breaks on 76mm guns and the Horizontal Volute Spring Suspension (HVSS).

HVSS was used on later model Shermans, while
 Vertical Volute Spring Suspension was used on models
 used by Canadians in the Second World War.  Image
"Athena" Memorial in Ortona, Italy. 75mm gun
There is an interesting story behind one of the more well-known Canadian tank memorials found in Italy.  The "Athena" tank memorial is situated in the town of Ortona, where the Three Rivers Regiment's (TRR) troopers helped the infantry regiments of the 1st Canadian Divisions take the town in house-to-house fighting in December of 1943.  The tank, while being the correct model that the TRR fought with, is not a relic of the street-battle of Ortona.  A few years ago, members of the regiment shopped around looking for a suitable tank, and purchased "Athena", previously dubbed "Cookie" from the Dutch War and Resistance Museum in Overloon, Netherlands.  The tank had served with the 7th American Armoured Division until turning over in a ditch.  In 2006 the tank, freshly painted with Canadian insignia, was presented to the town of Ortona.  As preservedtanks.com reports, 
The installation of the tank in the Piazza was intended to be temporary, pending the creation of a suitable site. This was planned to be on a pedestal north of the Piazza, overlooking the beach. In the meantime the tank has been moved to a grassy area nearby.
Most origins of memorials are likely lost to the public record, squirreled away in Legion Branch filing cabinets or fading with the memory of the "Greatest Generation". An interesting image in the Library and Archives Canada shows men preparing a Sherman as a memorial in "Fort Garry Park, Doetinchem, Netherlands" in late 1945.

Trooper J.L. Dumouchelle and Corporal W.L. Corn cleaning a Sherman tank of The Fort Garry Horse used as a monument in Fort Garry Park, Doetinchem, Netherlands, 22 November 1945. Photo Credit: Capt. Ken Bell / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-131691
The tank still remains in what is now known as "Canada Park" in the town.  The name change is interesting, in that what once was a tribute to a specific action by a specific regiment has now been nationalized using a name that the average Dutch citizen is much more likely to identify with.  It is hard to say how the troopers polishing the tank back in 1945 would react to the removal of the regimental name.  Did they invest great importance in the notion that the tank would stand as a memorial to their specific regimental family?  Who knows, they may have just been tasked with polishing up the tank due to some minor disciplinary infraction and were looking forward to attending a dance with local Dutch women.

M4A3E8 in Kelowna, BC. 76mm gun
That Sherman tanks are popular as memorials speaks both to their widespread availability after the war, and their iconic appeal as one of the quintessential Allied weapons of the Second World War.  It certainly is not hard to find them across Canada.  The use of these machines as memorials, however, seems to draw away from their purpose.  These memorials are to the soldiers who fought and died for their various regiments, yet there is little to remind one about the human experience of war in the display of a vehicle.  True, dedication plaques often mention those that served in the vehicles, but to often form their crews appear in the histories as silent ghosts in the machine.  Like Cartesian body and mind, it is difficult to determine where and how the two interact. 

Charlottetown, PEI. 76mm gun
M4A4 in Normandy. 75mm gun
[A previous version of this post was originally published on 22 August 2010]


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Two Siksika Soldiers and the Second World War

Of the around 3000 First Nations that fought for Canada in the Second World War, a number hailed from the Siksika (Blackfoot) First Nation, east of Calgary.  Their stories reflect the tragedy, loneliness and heartbreak of war.

A list of men enlisted from the district in the Gleichen Call during the war notes the names of Mark Wolfleg, C. Olds (Veterans Guard), Charlie Royal, Gordon Yellowfly, and Ed. Manybears as hailing from the Blackfoot Reserve.  To add to this list, the Aitsiniki Siksika newspaper lists Clarence McHugh, LF McHugh, Joseph Snake-Person, F. Turning-Robe, and A. White Pup as soldiering in the Second World War.

We know of the personal effect of war on one of these men, Mark (Ninnonista) Wolfleg, as he gave an 1983 interview to the University of Regina.  Wolfleg spoke of the happenstance behind his signing up in Calgary. 
At the time I was working at the mines, at the east end of the reserve, and I had gone up to Calgary for shopping and the next day I was still there, and I was walking up 8th Ave. heading west and I looked across the street and I saw a sign that, a recruitment sign.  So out of curiosity, I went across, went upstairs in a three story building on the top floor and I came in and there was sergeant there and he was really glad to see me and really friendly so he asked me if I wanted to sign up so just on impulse I said, "Yeah, I came to sign up." I came just by chance.  It wasn't a conscious decision.

The personal effects of war and army life on Wolfleg were  profoundly negative.  He spoke of how he was changed by the experience: 
When I first joined the army, when I first joined, enlisted, I did not really know what it was all about, the war and everything, but slowly I began to change.  I noticed a charge in my thinking, the life was very different from what I knew and back home in the Indian way of life, my outlook was a lot different then and it changed radically, especially when I went overseas.  My outlook on life became more harsh, a harder outlook.  There was anger in my life that wasn't there before and through all of the experiences I experience over there, when I came back, I had become a much angry person, a person that got angry a lot faster whereas before I never had the experience of experiencing anger...through the years I got over this.  Especially when I got into the spiritual life more and more.  I became more kindly to the elders and the youngsters because these were the ones that I saw suffer the most in the war, the older people and the children.

Mark Wolfleg Sr, visits the grave
 of Gordon Yellow Fly in 1983.
Photo: Handout/Mark Wolfleg Sr.
Reflecting on the experience of war, he claimed that, "Seeing war does not bring out any outstanding experiences.  It is all lonesome and that is what war is, it is lonesome, so I cannot really see what was very outstanding and none of the experiences stand out as being outstanding, it was all lonesome, loneliness."

When Wolfleg returned from the war, his Indian Agent told Ottawa that the First Nations veterans were being taken care of, and so he was denied benefits.  Wolfleg passed away in January 2009 at the age of 89, his obituary notes that the "old cowboy" fought with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment in Italy and that "his most treasured adventure" was a trip to Ortona, Italy, when he visited the grave of "his dear old friend" Gordon Yellow Fly.

Signature from Yellowfly's Will on his Service File
Gordon Yellowfly was known in the 1930s and 1940s as an excellent athlete.  He won third place in the Calgary Herald Road Race the year before he shipped overseas, and was active in hockey and boxing.  He had played hockey with Mark Wolfleg in the 1930s and 40s.

 His transition to army life, and army discipline was not smooth.  His service file, digitized with many others in the Killed in Action database at Library and Archives Canada, shows numerous crimes for drunkenness and being away without leave after he was taken on strength in June of 1942.  By the end of the year he was headed overseas.

Gordon wrote home on the 31st of July from Sicily claiming that it was great that he was "in the big show", but that he had to flee from German bombs.  On the 27th of December 1943, Yellowfly was killed by a sniper's bullet at the age of 27.  He was carrying two new testaments, a prayer book, his Seaforth Highlanders Glengarry, a whistle, and a few other effects.  His father was to write the Department of National Defence in July 1945: "Will you be kind enough to find out for me what became of the personal effects of my son.  Gordon. who was killed in action at Ortona Italy Dec 27 1943.  Heretofore I could not gather enough courage to enquire, but now for sentimental reasons I would certainly be glad to get his personal effects."

Adding to the sad tragedy of Yellowfly's story, he was undergoing divorce proceedings with his wife, which had not yet been finalized when he was killed.  His service file lists Winston, George and Donald Yellow Fly as his children.  Donald's name was scribbled in in March 1943, suggesting that this was a child that he never met.  The bitterness of Gordon's father Teddy is suggested in the following excerpt from a letter to the Canadian Legion in March 1944:

Like many Canadians that fell in the Moro River and Ortona conflicts, Yellowfly is buried in the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery.  His epitaph is particularly interesting, yet obscured in the photograph at wikisicily.com [link].  It reads in part, as the treaty promises of old started, "The Sun Shines, the Waters Flow, the Grass Grows.." There was clearly a feeling, both from Mark Wolfleg and TeddyYellowfly's testimony, that the promises of the Canadian state had not been honored in the Second World War, which echoes contemporary criticisms of treaty promises.

Gordon Yellowfly is memorialized by the Gordon Yellowfly Piiksa-pi Memorial Arbour on the Siksika reserve.  The dedication from Donald and Alphina Yellowfly reads, "We submit that my father gave the ultimate sacrifice not only for his king and country of his time, but more importantly for his people of Siksika, and since the time of his death this Nation has never given him the proper acknowledgement.[...]
My father's Blackfoot name was PIIKSA-PI; and using original Blackfoot translation his name was "Sacred Visionary""

These two Siksika men's service experience, are well worth considering for their personal insight into the lived experience of warfare.  War for these men was not that of heroism or glory.  It was the stuff of tragedy and loneliness.  Wolfleg took years to get over the anger that war brought him.  War shattered Yellowfly's life and left his children without a father.