Mark Nielsen, PRBN Staff writer
During the year or so Russ Gilbertson was overseas as a soldier in the Seaforth Highlanders, he saw his share of action.
But when it comes to recounting the experiences of himself and his comrades, the 74- year-old Dawson Creek resident limits himself to just two stories, each about a time he was knocked unconscious.
The first occurred on the coast of Rimini in Italy when they were pinned down by German artillery.
“It might have been shell fire or maybe mortar from German tanks, that was possible,” he said. “One or two of the guys were killed there and one of the pieces of shrapnel hit me in the helmet and knocked me out.”
The next came a few months later when the Allies had progressed into northern Italy and were near the Swiss Alps. They were in the vicinity of the Senio River when the Germans played a hunch. Believing that the Allied troops were about to move out, they opened fire.
“They counterattacked us at dark and knocked down all the buildings and we were dug into a river bank about 40 feet high,” he said.
“A shell hit the dike we were holed up in and injured a couple guys and I was knocked out for five minutes or so, I can’t remember.”
Beyond that, Russ keeps his recount of his service to a few dates and names. “You just blank it out of your mind and move on.”
A native of Delisle, Saskatchewan, Russ joined up for many of the same reasons his friends did.
“All my young buddies were joining up in Saskatchewan and it seemed the thing to do, something for your country and to see the world,” he said.
A sense of obligation was not the main reasons they joined.
“I think we were too young to realize an obligation. I think we wanted to join the army so we could go into the bars and drink beer.”
After basic training in Regina, he went to Guelph, Ontario for advance training. From there, he was transferred to Halifax where he was a radio direction finder for the big guns.
But his stay in Halifax was brief. Troops were needed in the Mediterranean.
“You never know what you’re going to do or where they’re going to send you,” he said. “And of course things change. More troops were needed over there because things were getting pretty hot.”
As well as the campaign in Italy, Russ was also in Holland during the final stages of the war. His most vivid memories are of the Dutch people after liberation.
“We were amongst the first troops into Amsterdam where a couple hundred people were dying each day because the Germans had cut all the food off” he said.
“People were so happy to be liberated. They just about tore the covers off the truck and we were handing out candy and cigarettes.”
To this day, the Canadians hold a special place in Dutch hearts, as Russ and his wife, Helen, learned during a vacation a few years ago.
Once the war was over, it was a matter of waiting to be shipped back home. That occurred in October, 1945 when Russ boarded the New Amsterdam and went back to Canada to start life as a civilian.
Issued a new suit of clothes and $100 upon being discharged, Russ took some welding courses and then moved to Dawson Creek to work for his brother in the auto body business.
When his brother sold out, Russ moved on to another shop for a few years, and then one thereafter, before establishing a business of his own. He ran Russ’s Autobody for about 40 years before retiring.
He and Helen were married about a year after he was discharged. They raised four children, Julie, Dale, Gary and Kevin, and they have 11 grandchildren.
When Russ, who rose to platoon corporal in his time overseas, does think back to those days in 1944-45, he readily admits he was scared at times.
“When you’re going into the front line, you had a fear that you were going to lose your life like everybody else did,” he said. “But because we were together as a unit, we thought we could work together and overcome that.”
This article is taken from the Peace River Block Daily News, Dawson Creek, with the permission of the publisher. The Daily News retains all rights relating to this material. The information in this article is intended solely for research or general interest purposes.