Mothers and a sweetheart: Veteran Wesley Oake, 95, shares wartime memories of Italy
Oake served as a gunner with the 166th Newfoundland Field Regiment in Second World War
More than 70 years after the end of the Second World War, former gunner Wesley Oake, now 95, can still be moved to tears by what he saw during his service in Italy.
It's the memories of personal connections, with soldiers and civilians, that make the soft-spoken veteran and retired United Church minister from Gander, N.L., fight to keep his composure.
A mother and a baby, wrapped up in her arms, dead, frozen in the snow. That's about the worse thing.- Wesley Oake
Memories like the time a British Army soldier, a Nepalese Gurkha, volunteered to confront a German spotted on the other side of a road while the pair were on guard duty.
"One of us had to go … He said 'You could be killed, don't you go. I'll go.' He never came back."
And the moment at the end of the war in 1945 when thousands of soldiers from all over the world gathered for a party organized by the commander of the Mediterranean forces.
"The padre came out and opened it up and he said we're going to pray the Lord's Prayer now … He said everybody pray in their own language out loud … I'll never forget that."
Oake, who grew up in Beaumont and Robert's Arm in Notre Dame Bay, served with the 166th Newfoundland Field Regiment in the last three years of the war.
He was primarily a gunner and a driver, who positioned tanks and ran ammunition up to the front lines.
"When you're in the military life, you are one family," he said.
While he served in England and in Africa, most of Oake's time was spent in Italy, at times living in a hen house.
He describes Christmas 1944, when his regiment was dug in all winter, and the time he spotted something in the snow.
"A mother and a baby, wrapped up in her arms, dead, frozen in the snow. That's about the worse thing I had to contend with when I was in the war," he said.
"It was desperate what people lived through."
His soft heart nearly cost Oake his life on one moonlit night when he saw a woman leave a cave in the mountains. He shouted "Halt" in English and Italian, but the woman kept coming toward him.
He was supposed to shoot, but he didn't.
"This lady was coming on and all she had on was pieces of rags ... There was a big barrel, an oil drum we used for garbage and she came up to that and she put her hands down to look for something to eat. And I reached for my emergency rations," he said.
"She looked up at me and smiled. I hugged her. She made her way back."
That gift landed Oake in the guardhouse for disobeying orders. "I could have been shot or put in prison," he said.
But his explanation to the military commander made an impression.
"I said, 'But sir, she could be somebody's mother,' and I said I was thinking of my poor mother. I couldn't do it," said Oake.
"He was sitting behind his desk, [and he wiped tears from his eyes]. He said 'I'm thinking of my mother now,' and he said, 'You're free. no charge.'"
A birthday telegram
After the war, Oake married the love of his life, Myrtle. The pair celebrated their 70th anniversary in September.
When Myrtle was 17 and working in Corner Brook, she sent a telegram to Wesley, who was marking his birthday overseas.
"It must have cost her a month's wages to get that telegram to me, and that was unbelievable," he said, once again on the edge of tears. "I never forgot, and I still have the telegram."
Myrtle's health is now declining — and Wesley is determined they stay together in their home for as long as they can.
He may be 95, but he is spunky. In 2014, he raised $35,000 for a park in Gander by skydiving — his first adventure of that kind.
Since the war, Oake has served as a United Church minister and been back to Italy twice.
A much different place now, he says, a far cry from the muddy fields of the 1940s when his unit worked to dismantle a bridge to keep the Germans at bay.
There's another memory he savours from that — the Salvation Army volunteer who handed him a cup of coffee when he was up to his knees in muck, moving tanks.
"I'll meet him in Heaven sometime," he laughs.
With files from Angela Antle