Harold Robertson is in his nineties and lives alone in his small home northeast of Kelvington, more than a dozen miles from town. In his yard is a cord of wood that he cut this summer; he cut the same amount for a hunting buddy. He grows his own tobacco and knits socks and mitts for himself and others. He hunts to fill his deep freeze.
Harold Robertson was conscripted into the Canadian Army as a lad of 23.
“I went to war in 1942,” Robertson says. “I was conscripted,” he adds. “I was on the trapline and I had my own interests and my own life, but then thousands of us were conscripted. A lot joined up because they needed something to eat; they talked about king and country but they needed something to eat. But I was all right.”
Under William Lyon McKenzie King, in 1941 the National Resources Mobilization Act was introduced, calling for a national registration of eligible men and authorized conscription for home defence; Robertson would not be going overseas.
“Everybody in our group was conscripted and we went to Regina. And basic training was there. I think we were shipped to Prince Albert and we joined the Prince Albert volunteers and then I was (sent to) many different places.” Robertson spent his war years as a cook and cook’s helper.
While King had promised Canadians that there would be no overseas conscription, with Japan’s 1941 entry into the war, pressure was mounting against this decision and a 1942 plebiscite saw franco-Canadians overwhelmingly opposed and the rest of Canada overwhelmingly in favour. The National Resources Mobilization Act was amended to allow for overseas conscription. In June 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled a wireless station and lighthouse at Estevan Point on Vancouver Island, the only time enemy shells fell on Canadian soil. Thirty-four thousand troops were sent to defend British Columbia. On Nov. 22, 1944, the prime minister ordered conscripts overseas.
“We went to Kiska,” Robertson says.
Canada informed the United States that we would welcome an invitation to participate in the invasion of Kiska, but that would only happen after the prime minister changed the Natural Resources Mobilization Act, sending conscripted soldiers to one of the most hostile places on earth.
“I set sail from Prince Rupert, part of a convoy. I’d be 23. Kiska is rough country. Mountains. It could snow in July.”
Owned by the U.S., the islands of Kiska, Attu and Midway were invaded by Japan in 1942; it was the only American soil to be invaded by an enemy since the War of 1812. Located in the North Pacific, Kiska is part of the Aleutian Islands chain of Alaska. It has been described as having the worst sea level weather in the world: eight clear days a year amid 250 days of rain, howling winds and 100 bitterly cold days of darkness. It is treeless, wet and swampy. The expected casualty rate of Canadian soldiers who would land on Kiska the second day of battle was 1800 men. One hundred and sixty-five men were absent without leave the day the ship pulled out of harbour.
“We didn’t know anything about Kiska. They were keeping the people in the dark,” Robertson says, gravely. “And there was another little island too. I can’t remember the name.” According to Robertson, “the Japanese were trying to get to Canada so they set up a base at Kiska. A jump-off place, and there were an awful lot of troops there and do you know they were also close to winning the war.
“They (the islands) were bombed and they sent in troops to clean them up and I was part of that,” Robertson says.
“We set up camp. There were lots of Japanese,” he continues, “and they’d come in with little red-nose planes and their machine guns were just a-barking. You see, everything (on the island) was under camouflage. If you flew over you wouldn’t even know we were there. It’s mostly in the mountains.”
Robertson is sitting at his small kitchen table. He uses his hands as he talks, placing them in front of him horizontally and then moving them back and forth, away from each other and then together again, slowly, a bit shaky, trying to paint a picture of the place where he spent eight months during the war. When he adds an ominous tone to a story, he pulls his chin in slightly, drops his brow, barely, and talks through gently tightened lips.
“Ya see, I was in the kitchen as a cook’s helper but there was more than one kitchen. There was the headquarter and the second quarter. They tried to hit the kitchens to starve the troops out,” he says.
“Just happened at the time, Ed – my partner – and I were walking from one kitchen to the other and they knocked him down, not two feet from me. He just happened to be in the right spot,” Robertson says, resigned to the senselessness of war.
The U.S.-led invasion of the island of Kiska was called Operation Cottage, the last tactical manoeuvre of the Aleutian Islands campaign. For two days, Allied troops battled the weather, the terrain and . . . each other. Historical records describe friendly fire killing 28 American soldiers and four Canadians and wounding 50 Allied men. The Japanese had already abandoned the island.
Robertson was in Vancouver when he first heard the ships’ horns signaling the end of the war. “They started blowing and blowing and blowing. What the hell’s going on, we wondered. What was the commotion? And of course we had to find out what’s the matter. We broke camp and we headed downtown and there was dancing in the street and everybody had to have a bottle and you danced with everybody. Everybody was so happy. The war is over. Can you imagine, after four years, what we thought?”
Robertson came home to his parents and brother, to the farm, in the spring of 1946. “I was gone for four years. After the war they held us cooks to feed the soldiers as they discharged them. After four years you want to go home,” Robertson says, matter-of-factly.
“We were discharged in Regina. Melvin Lund and I happened to get discharged at the same time and we were down at the train station in Regina; that’s the train that came through Sturgis and Preeceville. We were stopped in Melville and we got a couple of bottles and we had everyone singing. Even the Mounted Police. And we came home to the Nut Mountain station. Course there’s no power in them days, it was dark, and it must have been an early spring because it was mud and snow, and I got my kit and I walked home. I was goddamned glad to be walking home. I was out of my uniform as soon as I came up the road.”
Robertson went right back to hauling hay with his brother. In the 1960s he went to work for the Department of Natural Resources. For 95 years he has lived a simple, quiet life. Except for four years. Except for Kiska.
“It was quite an experience.”
By Susan Lowndes