Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
Like St. Luke Road Barracks, our new quarters in the old McLagan Furniture factory had seen better days. Resurrected by the Department of National Defence early in the war, it was refurbished and outfitted into a barracks, serving first the Perth Regiment, and when they moved on to Niagara Falls, it was then occupied in turn by a Dutch Hospital unit, the Veterans' Guard of Canada, and finally it became the temporary home of the hundreds of draftees. Officially, it was No. 6 Basic Training Centre. It went on stream only a few days day before we arrived.
Although it had military occupants over the past year and a half we could see very little effort by the previous occupiers in putting the derelict old building into a condition suitable for living in. The very moment we entered its dark and dingy interior, I remember saying to myself, "My God, what a dump!" And with that, my morale dropped several notches. You could taste the dust as your footsteps stirred it up from the floor, and your nose couldn't mistake the mustiness of antiquity. On awakening next morning, we could see nothing but incredibly dirty windows around us, covered as they were in grime accumulated over decades of use in converting wood into furniture. With all this dirt on the windows it was no wonder so little daylight came through to brighten up the dark and cheerless interior. The feeble light from three 40-watt bulbs hanging from the high, timbered ceiling was almost lost in the 100 foot long by forty-foot wood wide bay. Under these conditions it was only natural that our spirits should dip as low as they did. With nothing about our new surroundings to get excited about, there was little else to do but prepare our beds and retire early. And that's just what we did. We dropped our gear onto the grimy wood floor next to the angle-iron double-decker bunk beds we each selected as our own, sat down for a few quiet moments of introspection, some of us pondering, no doubt on what we'd done wrong to deserve such a fate. At least I did. And since there was nothing we could do about it, at least for the present, within the hour we undressed and crawled under our blankets and soon dropped off to sleep.
Roll Call that first morning was a good indication of what was in store for us. Reveille, as was the rule in the Army, was at 6:00 a.m., and we had to be out on the poor excuse of a parade-square behind the barracks sharp on the dot at 6:30 a.m., hardly enough time to dress, wash up and be fully awake. But that's the way it was and the way it would be from here on in. Our sleep-heavy eyes didn't take long to come awake the moment we stepped outside. A bitter northwest wind with a knife edge blowing across the snow-covered parade-square snapped us awake like not even cold water on our faces could have done. The wind was so miserably cold it cut through our greatcoats, tunics, blouses and long-johns like they weren't even there. I shivered like a dog shitting razor-blades waiting for the damn Captain or 'Looie' or whoever it was conducting the roll-call. He sure didn't do his best to get it over and done with in a hurry! We shuffled and stomped our feet in the six-inch deep snow trying to keep our feet from freezing into blocks of ice. It was a damn sonofabitch to stand out there while he took his sweet time calling out the names. And it wasn't only that morning, it was the same almost every morning in that bloody, cold winter of late '42 and early '43.
Breakfast brought us around to a lot better frame of mind even though we didn't expect anything in the way of gourmet fare. And as it turned, it wasn't, although it was a little better than what had been foisted on us at St. Luke. We also got more of it. The coffee, we agreed, tasted like coffee and not like something wrung out of a mop. In every way, things promised to be not all that bad for us in the days ahead. In fact the meals, as we were happy to find out, got much better, and in fact decidedly appetizing as the days went by. I guessed that the first mediocre meal had to have been because the cooks were not prepared to cook a meal for such a large influx of men. Yet surely they must have been informed this draft was coming in.
Before we got into our training program we spent the first couple of days cleaning up the joint. It was no easy job, not by a longshot. It took one hell of a lot of sweeping, scrubbing with brush and mop to wash away the decades' accumulation of grime, grease and whatnot off the hardwood floors, but we did it that first day in our new home, and when we were through, the place already felt more like home. The next day it was the windows we took care of, washing them inside and out using Bon-Ami cakes to get through the dirt, bird-shit and whatever else it was clinging to the windows. When the job was finished, the glass in that old long-neglected factory building sparkled. And now there was light, where only the day before it was nothing but depressing gloom that greeted us. After the windows came the scrubbing-down of the walls, which we went at with a thoroughness that needed no NCO to goad us on to greater effort. It was amazing how everyone, or almost everyone, because there were a couple of dog-screwers who put very little effort into the work while the rest of us applied ourselves to the task at hand. By the third day, McLagan Barracks was shipshape and clean enough for us live in and learn the basic facts of army life.
Next on the work agenda was the cleaning up of the washroom floors, the sinks, the toilet-bowls, the urinals, the hardware and anything else that would make our washing up and our toilet visits hygienic. The night we arrived, most of us hated to use the facilities. And there was good reason for us not to want to use use the toilets or stand in front of the urinals. More than a few guys had already caught the crabs. Except for standing at the urinal, and that was at least a good foot away, I don't think I went twice to sit on the throne in the first couple of days at McLagan Barracks when the place was such a filthy and deplorable mess. Not long after, some wise guy scrawled a warning message on one of the partitions about the dangers of using the toilets. It said&emdash;NO USE STANDING ON THE SEAT, THE CRABS JUMP TEN FEET. On the next stall over was another choice piece of advice&emdash; ALL TURDS OVER A FOOT LONG PLEASE LET DOWN WITH ROPE. I got a big kick out of reading these gems of scatological literary wit.
By the week's end the barracks were as clean as the proverbial whistle, thanks to our outstanding efforts. We had reason to feel good and proud at what we'd accomplished. What I couldn't understand, however, was how the previous occupants could have lived under the conditions such as we'd found the place in. And what was even harder to believe, the immediately previous occupant was a Dutch hospital unit. You'd think they'd be especially meticulous about cleanliness. And I always thought the Dutch were about the cleanest people in the world. You just never know! Some people, and there's no getting away from it, are the type that could live anywhere under any conditions, and I guess you could say they were the type that would shit in bed and kick it out with their feet.
Along with the vast improvement in our living quarters was a marked improvement in our own appearance. By now we'd learned some of the tricks of the trade on how to make ourselves look almost as smart as the figures on recruiting posters. These little 'tricks of the trade' were necessary, like tucking the trouser bottoms over the gaiter tops, keeping that sharp crease in the trousers by frequent ironing, shining our brass with Silvo or Brasso every day, blancoing our webbing and polishing our boots to a mirror shine. But as for the wedge-cap, as I had described earlier, I could never feel sure of myself about wearing it. Since Stratford was in the snowbelt country and the cold winds blowing off Lake Huron frequently brought below-zero temperatures necessitating the wearing of the ear-covering winter Meltons practically the whole time we were there, I was saved from having to put up with the wearing of the abominable wedge. The Melton was the kind of headwear that suited me just fine. Not only was it warm, I didn't have to worry about it falling off.
The winter of '42/'43 was an especially frigid one&emdash;cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. My God, but it was cold! Ungodly cold! All of that January I don't think the temperature got up to the 20s. In fact. For four days days in a row it plummeted all the way down to 25° F below zero. February was only slightly warmer. There were days even in March where we had to face frigid spells in the twenties.
Besides the two weeks of below or near-below zero temperatures in Feb-ruary, we had an overabundance of snow. It seemed we were forever shovelling the stuff, either out on the parade-ground, the sidewalk in front of the building, and two or three times at the train station. By the end of December the snow was piled so high on the sides of the road we could just manage to see the front porches of the houses along the route when we marched through town. Even so, the deep snow and the deep freeze never interfered with our training schedule. Route marches went on the same as usual and sometimes we ventured well out into the country-side where the snowplows hadn't done the job quite as often enough. It got a heck of a lot tougher marching through the foot-high snow, but we handled it somehow. It was an especially tough introduction to basic training. With this kind of weather, and being outdoors a good part of each day it was no wonder our earlier sickly pallor had disappeared, replaced by a healthy and ruddy complexion that was the talk of the guys in the gang whenever I came home on a weekend pass. We realized also how quickly we became adapted to the cold. Standing out in that parade-ground in the dark of early morning while the north wind came a-howling down the line, no longer seemed quite as punishing as it earlier had been. It was nothing short of amazing how we were able to cope with it in such a short time. Within three weeks we were also taking 20 mile route marches in stride, and still had plenty of vim and vigour left to go out on the town after the evening meal.
After three weeks or so, I had to admit something that I never thought would happen, and that was that I was no longer as fussy and picky an eater as I had been before I got into the army. At home I was the hardest one in the family to please when it came time to eat. I wouldn't eat this, I wouldn't eat that. This piece of meat had too much fat and gristle. Vegetable soup I detested with a passion. Didn't care much for cabbage soup either, though sauerkraut soup was one of my favourites. Of course chicken soup was the best, but we only had that on Sundays. But even then I complained. There was usually so much chicken fat floating, you had to scrape it off the roof of our mouths when we were finished. And I wasn't the only one to complain. Joe did, too. We wouldn't eat it until we skimmed the excess off using toilet-paper as a blotter. Yeah, I sure gave my mother a hard time this way. Now, however, less than a month into army life and I'm hard at it eating everything set before me. The only thing I didn't like about army food, and this kept on right through the war, was the cooks' habit whenever they made porridge was to add sugar to it. I couldn't stand it that way even though I was known to have a special craving for anything sweet. At home I'd always salted my porridge and other cereals. I simply couldn't get myself to switch over to sugar. I thought maybe I was some kind of freak until about seven months later, while in England, I heard that the Scots almost always flavoured their porridge with salt.
Original Story from messages received on 18 February 2002.
Story originally submitted on: 18 February 2002.
The story above, McLagan Barracks, was written and contributed by Mr. Stan Scislowski, who served with the Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division.
Would you care to read more tales of World War II written by Mr. Stan Scislowski? His work is featured on a website devoted to the Perth Regiment of Canada. Check out this very interesting website and while you are there look at Stan's Corner .
We at World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words wish to offer our profound "Thanks" for the excellent material contributed by Mr. Stan Scislowski.
September 5, 2002.
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