Decades after WW II, 99-year-old conscientious objector shares story in new book

Gordon Toombs waited years — 64, to be exact — to tell his war story. Now, the 99-year-old is sharing the experience in his first book.

Gordon Toombs says instead of having his wishes honoured, he was tricked into signing up for duty

Gordon Toombs wanted to declare himself a conscientious objector during the Second World War — instead, he said he was tricked into signing up for duty. Now, he's telling his story for the first time in a new book. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Gordon Toombs waited years — 64, to be exact — to tell his war story.

Now, the 99-year-old is sharing the experience in his first book, which came out earlier this year.

When conscription came in 1941, Toombs and seven of his friends decided to take a stand as conscientious objectors. 

"We were determined that in a war situation, the opposite has to be demonstrated," he told Nadia Kidwai, host of CBC's Weekend Morning Show.

"So that 'love your enemies' has to be balanced with the opposite: 'kill your enemies.' And so the only way that can happen is for some people to stand up and risk that or take that stand."

But Toombs said when he appeared before a board to declare his objection to bearing arms, he was told his wishes would be honoured if he signed a paper they gave him, and he was tricked into signing up to serve four years.

His book — called L74298: Recollections of a Conscientious Objector in World War II, and named after the number the military assigned him — details his experience in the war, and how he still feels conflicted about his service to this day.

Toombs in his military uniform after he tried to declare himself a conscientious objector during the Second World War. (Supplied/Gordon Toombs)

Toombs said he and his fellow objectors had all been taught about the importance of their right to protest.

"The idea was if something's not working right, you protest to the top person to get action," he said. "So two months into the army, I complained about living conditions in Ottawa at that time."

Toombs said mumps, measles and body lice all made their way through the cramped quarters where they were living. But when he complained about the conditions, he faced discipline.

"I got labelled right away as a Communist and this meant I was no longer a [conscientious objector] at all," he said.

"I was being punished for being a very dangerous man in the army, because I was complaining to the top of the army and threatening to go to the Department of National Defence."

'Proud of the fact I did try'

Toombs said that's when he knew he had to get out, so he decided to try to make it into the air force.

"I decided to make my own transfer — illegally, of course — by dressing up in civilian clothes and telling them I lived in Toronto. Nobody asked too many questions," he said. "I had to lie a little bit, I guess, about how long I'd been there. And, lo and behold, the air force accepted me right away."

Toombs said he got three weeks into his air force training when the army discovered he was absent, and sent out a call for him to be apprehended as a deserter.

He told his superior about the situation, and was faced with a choice: either return to be punished by the army, or volunteer for the air crew, which was short staffed.

Toombs said he still feels conflicted about his time in the military during the war. (Supplied/Gordon Toombs)

With the limited choices, Toombs decided to join the air crew. But for someone so opposed to bearing arms, having to drop bombs on people was a harrowing experience.

"It was horrendous, to think that here I was, starting out trying to be a conscientious objector and I end up in one of the most terrible weapons of war that had ever been invented at that time," he said. "But I couldn't do anything about it. I spoke to my pilot, but he couldn't understand it."

Decades later, Toombs said Remembrance Day still brings up mixed feelings for him — it's part of why it took him so long to tell anyone what happened all those years ago.

"I've betrayed myself," he said. "And I lived with that for 64 years."

But in sharing his story in his book, he's been able to come to terms with his experience.

"I could come out, I could own it," he said. "I could be proud of the fact I did try."

With files from Nadia Kidwai


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