PEI

99-year-old P.E.I. veteran still haunted by memories of war

A 99-year-old veteran of the Second World War from Freeland will be home on P.E.I. this Remembrance Day for the first time in years, and says his memories of war are still vivid, all these years later.

WARNING: Some readers may find the content of this story disturbing

Wallace J. Palmer shown now at his home in Summerside, left, and in an undated photo from his time as a soldier during the Second World War. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

A 99-year-old veteran of the Second World War from Freeland will be home on P.E.I. this Remembrance Day for the first time in years. 

Wallace J. Palmer moved to Summerside, P.E.I., earlier this year after decades of living in Ontario. He said, for him, Remembrance Day is generally spent in quiet reflection. 

'Some things I still can't stand'

"I do a lot of thinking on that day, it brings me back," Palmer said. 

"Some things I'll think, but I get away from that right fast. Some things I still can't stand, I don't think I ever will. And I've met a few people the same as I am, very same as I am, with the things that they happened to do and get involved with."

Wallace J. Palmer in an undated photo from his time at war. He says he spent a lot of his time as a medic with trucks like these, carrying those who were wounded or dead. (Submitted by Wallace J. Palmer)

Palmer arrived in Europe in 1943, and worked as a medic on the Western Front. Much of his time was spent gathering the wounded after battle and bringing them somewhere safe for medical help or burial.

He also had special combat training and was often called in to deal with what he described as "rough" enemy soldiers.

For Palmer, every day was a reminder of the cruelty of war. 

Haunting memories, more than 70 years later

He recalls seeing an English police officer directing traffic in a square at one moment, and in an instant, a fallen bomb tore the man's body in half, leaving him still standing from the waist down. The rest of the man's body was found on top of a building several days later. 

After another bombing, this time on a small outdoor amphitheatre full of children — the medics were sent to pick up whatever pieces of the victims they could find. 

I always thought I was cheated out of something.— Wallace J. Palmer

"So we were sent down with big wooden baskets, one fellow on each end of the baskets, to go along and pick out what you could find, and sometimes you'd get a leg, sometimes you'd get a foot, or finger, or a head or something," he said.

"I remember that very well that day, there was an awful lot of poor mothers and fathers, their kids was all gone." 

Wallace J. Palmer, right, and an unidentified soldier in an undated photo from his time at war. Palmer also had special combat training and was often called in to deal with what he described as 'rough' enemy soldiers. (Submitted by Wallace J. Palmer)

Palmer said despite the brutality he witnessed daily, it just wasn't part of the culture to show fear or grief.

'I got used to it'

"I got used to it, the more you get used to it, things go better," said Palmer. 

"The roughness, the people dying, you know, when a person is dying, you don't run from them, you run to them and do the best you can do. And you know when you go there, you can tell within two minutes whether he's going to live or he's going to die." 

He said as a medic, the hardest work was coming upon a wounded or dying soldier and realizing it was someone he knew. He recalls a friend from Scotland who'd just returned to the front after a week home, with a knitted green sweater his mother had made for him. 

Palmer says he does a lot of reflecting on Remembrance Day, and there are still many memories he can't bear to think about. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

"He said, 'If anything happens to me, I want you to take my sweater and put it on," Palmer recalled. 

He said it was just a few days later that he approached a group of medics working with a dying soldier on the ground, and saw that same green sweater had been removed in a final effort to try and save the man. 

"I never forgot that, it was so sad. The sweater was right at my feet," he said. 

"I took it home, and wore it all the time. I wouldn't have went without it anywhere. Those are the things that stick in your mind. He had some warning he wasn't going to make it. I felt so bad."

'They were really good to us'

Palmer said he'll never forget the day he learned that the war was finally over. He was in Holland at the time. 

"They had a nice little parade square, and all the neighbours around the area all come there, dancing and having a little waltz and all this type of thing. I thought it was pretty cute. They were really good to us."

Just to have people that's interested enough to do what they're doing. We thank you.— Wallace J. Palmer

He said memories from those three years of service haunt him to this day, and shaped him in a way nothing else would in his long life.

"I always thought I was cheated out of something," Palmer said. 

"I was happy with trotting around in an old truck and everything, but I just felt like three years of my life was gone," said Palmer, who married, had a family and went on to start several successful companies, on P.E.I. and in Ontario. 

After the war, Palmer married, started a family and started and owned several successful companies, including a paving company on P.E.I. called Palmer and Murphy. (Submitted by Wallace J. Palmer)

According to Veterans Affairs Canada, there are approximately 33,200 Second World War veterans left across the country, with an average age of 94, and that approximately 200 of those reside on P.E.I. 

As one of them, Palmer would like to see the younger generations take a more active role in remembering the wars of the past and the people who served, something he said has been a concern of veterans for decades. 

"Well I guess it's like anything else," said Palmer. 

"It depends a lot on the young that's being brought up. If they were taught something they would want to do something, but if they weren't taught much, they're not going to make much change."

Palmer said for veterans, it means a lot to hear of efforts to educate and involve students in schools, to see young families at the cenotaph on Remembrance Day, and see the work of local and national groups to keep stories like his alive. 

"It means a lot," said Palmer.  

"Just to have people that's interested enough to do what they're doing. We thank you."

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About the Author

Jessica Doria-Brown

Videojournalist

Jessica Doria-Brown is a videojournalist with CBC in P.E.I. Originally from Toronto, Jessica has worked for CBC in Newfoundland & Labrador, New Brunswick, and Ontario.

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