Norman Hunter left to fight in the Second World War the same day his son was born. After spending mere hours with his newborn he shipped out, and didn’t see him again until three years later.
They were years that fundamentally changed him as a person, as well as his relationship with his family. Like many soldiers, years of watching his friends die left him shell shocked upon his return.
For a long time he didn’t talk much about the war. But now, the 97-year-old is finally starting to share his experiences with his family, in the hopes that they and others will understand the horrors.
On October 30 he sits in his small apartment with his daughter, Melba McGeachy, sharing some of those memories.
The times Hunter remembers the most are from Italy. Hunter was part of the Italian campaign, where he spent years tromping around the country first as an engineer laying barbed wire on the front lines and searching for landmines with a metal prod, later as an untrained anti-aircraft gunner.
The gun might have been the worst. He was never properly trained, and survived mostly thanks to his quick wit and engineer’s mind.
For a while he even acted as a Non-Commissioned Officer, in charge without officially being in charge. His superiors wanted to make it official, but Hunter said no: he didn’t want to be the one giving men orders.
And why not? As an explanation Hunter tells the story of a soldier he knew, a man named Montgomery with a big black beard.
Montgomery was laying anti-personnel mines on the front lines when a grenade came whistling down on him. He dived into his foxhole, but the grenade landed there to. Montgomery managed to leap out of the hole in time, but the explosion sparked and set off his own grenade, killing him.
Hunter couldn’t bear the thought of being the one who sent Montgomery there.
That kind of weighs on a person. So does seeing the “white of the enemy’s eyes” before blasting them with a column of flame from a flamethrower. Or watching men freak out in the middle of a bombardment and get “mowed down” as they jump up to flee.
Hunter recalls one brutal stretch on the front lines. After months without relief another division finally came to reinforce his. They were headed back for a much needed rest, when the bad news came.
“We never got back very far before the big ones come along and says ‘sorry boys but we’re losing ground and we gotta go back in.’”
He looks down at his hands, clenched in his lap.
“One time I put in six weeks without changing cloths, having a wash,” he chokes out, his voice rising.
During that time, Hunter says, his brigade went through 2,400 men. He recalls lining up for an inspection when he was approached by an officer.
“When the officer inspected us, and he come to me and he said ‘you’re one of the few that’s left’ I said ya. I think there was 12 of us, of the originals,” he says, swallowing hard.
“You haven’t got any idea,” he says, his cracking voice barely a whisper.
And it’s that, right there, why Hunter says Remembrance Day is so important.
He went to Holland once, to celebrate the anniversary of that country’s liberation. There, he noticed that the Dutch had left some buildings scorched by the war untouched and unrepaired “to show to kids what it was like. Because you can’t remember,” he says, referring to generations too young to have memories of the war. “You can’t.”
McGeachy agrees. She will never know what it was really like for her father during the war, but at least his stories give her some sliver of understanding.
“The men need to tell the stories because then it gives us a bit of an idea what they went through. We can never imagine what it’s like, but it gives us an idea of what they sacrificed,” she says.
For a long time Hunter found it too hard to go to the ceremonies, but now he attends every year. He wants people to remember what he and so many of his fellow soldiers sacrificed. He wants to show solidarity with them, but most of all, and most simply:
“Just to remember the guys that didn’t make it back.”
By Trevor Nichols