Walter Berg, WWII sapperBy Lt JOHN WEINGARDT, The Western Sentinel 14 August 2003
This article was compiled from an interview with Walter Berg, but also draws heavily from his autobiography My Days in the Army, distributed by Lynne Spallin, 54174 Range Road 224, Fort Saskatchewan, AB, T8L 3Y5. ISBN 0-9689706-0-5
Walter Berg was born in Eriksdale, Manitoba, January 4, 1913. He joined the Royal Canadian Engineers in January 1942. At 29, he was an ‘old man’ amongst his much younger peers.
Although his training was hard, what he remembers most was the friendship he formed with his irreverent pal ‘Basowski.’
Basowski was a joker, a comedian, a man always ready with a smart remark. Walter remembers, “We had a couple of NCOs that were lazier than cut cats, so we didn’t do much in the way of training. They used to ask for someone to take over the squad while they sat on a park bench. “So one day Basowski said, ‘I am going to take over today.
Walter and his friends knew something odd was going to happen.
“Basowski yelled, ‘Attention!’ and everyone straightened up. Then he yelled, ‘Everyone break off for a smoke!’ and he sat down on a park bench.”
Although he was popular, Basowski didn’t last long in command. Walter was assigned to the 4th Field Company No. 11 Section, in the First Division of the Royal Canadian Engineers.
His unit was sent to Great Britain. There he underwent advanced training and enjoyed weekend passes to Lon don.
Through 1942, the Canadians did not see much action, except for the Dieppe raid. Walter was not on the Dieppe raid, but his friend Basowski was. He does not know if he was killed or taken prisoner, but he has never been able to track him down to this day. Because he is not sure of the exact spelling of his name, he has been unable to find any official record of him.
Walter’s turn to deploy eventually came. In 1943, he was shipped to the Mediterranean Theatre with the rest of the First Canadian Division.
He disembarked in North Africa. The fighting there was over, but it was a strange and alien place.
He remembers riding through the desert in crowded troop trains. When ever the train would stop, Arabs would approach the boxcars the Canadians were in.
An encounter with Arabs
“We were jokingly practicing our Arabic when the train stopped. A dozen or more Arabs rose up from the ground and started to approach the train. I poked my buddy and said, ‘Here is a chance for you to practice your Arabic!’
“My buddy started to sound out, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ which sounded like, ‘Ugh a puck lug a poo.’
The Arab re plied, “Fine, Johnny, how are you? Have you anything to sell such as shoes, socks, sweaters, or soap?” Soon there were deals being made. Walter and his unit made their way to the front lines in Italy after the Battle of Ortona. For that Walter is grateful; the engineers in the line during Ortona had suffered very heavy casualties.
“The line was static in January ‘44, as everything was bogged down in the mud so we weren’t too active for a while, but it was a good time to be broken in. We were sent up to clear a minefield just behind the town of Ortona.
“Once you got the pattern where the field was, it was no problem to find the mines as they were laid every 10 feet apart. The next row was 10 feet ahead but in between like a checkerboard.” The Germans were methodical and always laid their mines in a regular pattern.
“One day we got a demonstration what a mine could do. An old Italian farmer with a mule on a sort of wagon headed right out in the minefield at the other end.
“We waved him off, but I guess he thought we were being friendly and he wave back to us.
Just then the old mule stepped on a mine and off she went, killing them both and making a hole about three foot deep and six feet across.
“This was also the first place I came under mortar and shellfire. Big Nellie yelled at me to hit the dirt fast and I sure did. We all hit the dirt except our lieutenant who bawled us out for hitting the dirt, but Nellie told me to hell with him, as he was just a show off and not well liked.
Life began to get more dangerous. Walter’s unit was ordered out into no-man’s land in the middle of the night to clear minefields. The Germans were alert.
“We hadn’t gone too far when all at once there was a blip and a second or two after a flare lit up right over our heads. Two Spandau machine guns opened up, one on our left and one on our right.
“To give you an idea of what a Spandau sounded like, try pulling a logging chain through a knot hole in a board of a granary as fast as you can pull it.
Compared to our Bren guns which went put-put-put, theirs went brrrrrrrrut!
“We were so close to the Jerries we could hear them stamping in their slit trenches.”
Walter’s section was lucky that night, and returned to their own lines without a casualty.
“But our ordeal wasn’t over, as we had to get back to that forward machine gun post of ours manned by two Van Doos. Due to us being so late, they had been relieved by two other boys. But lo and behold, they had not told their relief that we were out there.’
There was confusion about the passwords; the Van Doos spent several minutes shooting at their own engineers. The engineers kept shouting back passwords.
Eventually the shooting stopped and the sappers were welcomed back into their own lines, fortunately without any losses.
In May of 1944, Walter Berg had his closest brush with death.
“I got into my sleeping bag, and set up my mosquito net, and crawled into my nest dog-tired. I was just about to fall asleep, when I heard a plane approaching.”
At this point in the war, the German Air Force rarely made an appearance. Walter assumed the planes were friendly.
“But I was in for a big surprise, as this plane dropped a green flare, then four white ones, then a red one. I had never seen anything such as this before.
“Then all hell broke loose as a group of Stuka dive bombers came in dropping bombs and strafing with their machine guns. It seemed to me every one was aimed at me alone, and even the flares were about to descend into my poor little slit trench.
“Then a hell of a bang hit and shook the ground so bad my trench caved in on top of me and I was trapped under the sleeping bag and mosquito net. I was pinned down by all the mud on my arms, I couldn’t move, although I wasn’t hurt as far as I could feel.” Walter was pinned and unable to move his arms for hours. His friends dug him out, and he returned to duty.
Walter Berg was transferred to the Netherlands for the last campaign of the war. He continued to build bridges and clear mines.
There were many other dangerous events, and some light-hearted ones. He remembers the war’s end, and the desperate missions to get food to the recently liberated Dutch people who were starving.
Walter Berg still has many stories to tell. At 90 years old he is energetic and active with the Legion.
Those wishing to know more should obtain a copy of his sometimes humourous, sometimes somber, but always informative autobiography.
Commodore Tim Maindonald, Chaplain General of the Canadian Forces, recently authorized the awarding of a chaplain’s coin to Cyril Martin. On December 5, Major Gary Marche, Land Force Western Area Chaplain, traveled to the Mewburn Veterans’ Centre in Edmonton to present the coin.
Cyril Martin is 102 years old, a veteran of the Second World War. He is also one of only 16 surviving Canadian veterans of the First World War.
Although Cyril has difficulty speaking, his mind is still sharp. Two of his daughters, Naomi and Vi, were with him at the presentation and were able to tell some of his remarkable story.
Cyril Martin was born February 18, 1900 in Clapham, near London, England. His father was a bricklayer. Struggling to find work, the family emigrated to Canada in 1907. They settled in Verdun, about an hour from Montreal. Cyril’s mother died when he was 12, and he became ‘the man of the family.’ To help his father, he worked delivering milk and assisting an electrician. When war broke out in 1914, he went to work in a munitions factory.
Many of Cyril’s young friends joined the armed forces; he thought it was remarkable to see his pals in uniform. When a navy recruiter visited his factory, he convinced Cyril to join up.
However, Cyril was only 15, and his father had him taken out of the navy as soon as he found out.
But with the war on everyone’s mind, it was impossible to keep dreams of ‘adventure’ out of a young man’s head, so Cyril tried to join the army.
The army recruiters knew he was lying about his age, and they asked, “Why should we take you?”
Cyril’s response: “I can blow a bugle.”
16th birthday in France
He was enlisted and sent overseas. When his 16th birthday arrived, he was already with the Canadian Army in France.
Immediately, his eyes were opened to the suffering around him. He saw children, his age and younger, missing arms and legs. He no longer felt young.
Cyril was assigned to the Canadian Light Railway. His job was to lay down track from the rear areas over the shell- holes and up to the trenches. On these small railways, ammunition, food, and other supplies would be taken forward. The Germans did their best to stop that, and often the tracks would be blown up almost as quickly as they were laid down.
It was dangerous, horrible work.
There were lice, mud, rats. Shells, bullets, and gas constantly fell.
Cyril was haunted by the helplessness of the animals they used. He still remembers the sound of their mules when they were hit.
He recalls seeing a young man next to him standing up to read a letter, only to be killed instantly with a head wound.
The war affected his outlook on life, and the filthy conditions affected his body. He contracted ‘trench fever.’ He became so ill that he was sent to Eng land to recover. He spent the rest of the war with a young boys’ regiment in England, and returned home to Canada when peace came.
Faith In God and man shaken
For Cyril, peace was hard to find. He had been deeply religious when he went overseas, but the war had shaken his faith. He wondered, “Where has God gone?”
He was still a teenager, but he had seen so many terrible things. He could not believe what people were capable of doing to one another.
He realized that it would be easy to go one way, and become very, very bitter.
But Cyril began to think about the good things he had seen. He remembered the comradeship, the wonderful comradeship he had shared. He recalled the sacrifices his friends had made. He had seen men risk their lives to carry messages, to help others, to do their best to keep Cyril alive.
The goodness in human nature that he remembered became the focus of Cyril’s life. His new outlook is what changed him, and in 1919 he decided to become a minister.
He attended Toronto Bible College for several years, and came out to Saskatchewan to preach. He attended St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon and was ordained as a United Church minister in 1929.
He was married and had a son by the time war broke out again in 1939.
Under no illusion as to what was waiting for him, Cyril re-enlisted in the army, this time as a chaplain.
He was assigned to the 7th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, stationed in England. His son, Munro, was also in England, a soldier with the Canadian Paras.
Father and son meet by chance
They met once, by chance. Cyril was in an English pub, and recognized the uniform of some Canadian paratroopers. They knew Munro, and agreed to take Cyril to find him. Munro was on his way to the same pub, and father and son met walking around a street corner.
They returned to the pub to spend some peaceful time together, only to have a German bomb fall close-by. Walls collapsed, and Munro pulled himself out of the rubble, fearing his dad had been killed.
He saw Cyril walk out of the carnage, covered from head to toe in white dust but otherwise unharmed.
Soon they had to go their separate ways. Cyril was sent to Italy and Munro was eventually dropped in France on D Day. They didn’t see each other again until the war was over.
As a chaplain with an operational artillery unit, Cyril was very busy. Along with regular religious duties came the extra demands of war. He tended to the wounded. He calmed the fears of men. He buried the dead.
He remembers many soldiers, strong men, weeping from what they saw around them. But Cyril had his wisdom. He truly knew what they were experiencing: he had been through it years earlier as a teenager.
There were new images to haunt him. Time had passed, but people had not changed much, they could still do terrible things to each other.
He remembers burning tanks, and the sounds of men who could not escape them. He remembers trying to comfort men as they died in hospital.
But time had made him more sure of himself, and during this war he kept his faith in God and humanity.
Once, a wounded German was brought into a Canadian hospital where Cyril was. The German, about 16, was terrified, afraid of his wounds and afraid of his captors. Cyril showed the young man his Bible, and his face relaxed.
After the war, Cyril continued to work in a military hospital in England.
Cyril’s ‘Family of Nations’
Eventually he returned to Canada, and his family grew. In addition to Munro, Cyril and his wife adopted six children. Two were Dutch, two were Irish, one was English and one was Swedish. His family earned the nickname ‘the Family of Nations.’
Through his life he spent 55 years as a minister. 50 years as a Legion member, and 50 years as a Mason.
Cyril spent his post-war life seeking out knowledge. He loved electricity and ham radio. He built a 40’ tower and spoke to friends around the world.
He traveled extensively. In his 80s he visited the Amazon and Russia. He visited Jerusalem, Rome and many parts of Europe. He loved history and visited as many cathedrals as he could.
In 1997, he was invited by the governments of Canada and France to attend the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Cyril went with his son Munro. Only five other First World War veterans were still able to make the trip. They were given medals on behalf of the French people and visited Vimy and Passchendaele.
He has a large legacy; including great-great grandchildren, there are 56 people in his family. Many of the veterans at the Mewburn Centre joke and say that his birth certificate must be wrong; nobody can look as young as he does at 102.
In October, St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon awarded him with a Bachelor of Theology degree.
Despite the violent century that he experienced. Cyril feels things are better now. When he was a child, there was child labour, which he experienced first-hand. That has changed for the better along with other things. His vow as a young man to focus on the good in people stays with him.
To meet him is proof that his spirit is still as strong as ever.
A spirit still willing.
After he presented him with his coin, Padre Marche told Cyril that he would be leaving for Bosnia in the spring.
“Would you like to come, Cyril?” he asked.
“Yes I would,” he barked back. “and that’s no lie”.
102 years old, and Cyril Martin still has the desire to go overseas to minister to Canadian soldiers. With a heart like that, no wonder he has lived so long.
Cryril Martin passed away 17 November 2003 at the age of 103.
By Michael Welzenbach, Reader's Digest, August 1999
The night of Sunday, January l9, l997 was quiet in the sprawling Dart mouth, N.S., apartment complex at 7 Jamieson Street, a stone’s throw from Halifax Harbour. Outside it was bitterly cold and snowy. In apartment 324, after cooking himself a frugal ham burger supper, 46-year- old Dave Crocker turned on the television to keep his mind off pressing personal problems.
It hadn’t been a good year for the stocky, unemployed firefighter. After 22 years of faithful service with the Department of National Defence (DND), Dave had been laid off in 1996 with a year’s salary and severance pay. He had searched for work as far afield as Ottawa, without luck. With child-support payments for his two sons to worry about, his severance pay couldn’t be stretched much further. To make ends meet, he’d had to borrow money from his elderly parents, and that hurt his pride.
About 1 a.m., Dave went to bed. An optimist, he told himself it would all look better in the morning. With his qualifications, a job just had to turn up, even if it meant leaving his beloved Nova Scotia.
Across the hail in apartment 321, Wayne Wells had long been in bed. He had to leave for work at 6 a.m., and before that he generally took Bear, the family’s big Australian shepherd, for a walk. His wife, Debra, 42, went to bed shortly after midnight, admonishing her 17-year- old daughter not to stay up too late. Hazel-eyed Jamie was baby-sitting her cousin, Donald Joseph, or DJ, as he was called. But the 2 ½ year old toddler was restive and it took an other two hours before she was able to lull him to sleep in her bed.
Dave Crocker awoke around 7:30 the next morning and prepared himself a leisurely breakfast. At about 9:20 he smelled something peculiar. Glancing up at his front door, he saw with alarm that smoke was snaking around the edges of the frame.
At that moment, fire bells went off throughout the building. Dave jumped to the door and opened it. The hallway was rapidly filling with thick, acrid smoke. He spotted the source instantly—apartment 321. The folks with the big dog.
Dave leaped across the hall and tried the door. Locked. He pounded on it. “Is anybody in there?” he yelled. Putting his ear to the door, he heard a muffled voice calling: “There’s fire in here! There’s a fire in here!”
“Open the door!” Dave shouted as he wrestled with the knob. But there was no response.
Quickly, Dave assessed the situation. Like all doors in the building, this was a steel fire door. Without an axe, there was no way to open it. He had to get a key—and fast. Whoever was in 321 wouldn’t last long.
Years of training kicked in. Dave dashed back to his apartment and dialed 9-1-1. “There’s a fire at 7 Jamieson Street,” he growled urgently in a raspy voice.
“Please stay on the line, sir,” came the reply.
“I can’t. There are people who need help!” he barked. “Just get somebody over here. Now!”
With that, he raced towards the superintendent’s flat, some 40 metres down the corridor at the other end of the building. Bewildered residents were milling about in the smoky hallway. “Get outside!” Dave shouted as he ran by. “Close your doors and get outside!”
Arriving out of breath at the super’s door, he hammered on it: “Bob! Open up! There’s a fire! I need the keys to 321. Quick!” But the super’s wife told him Bob had gone to alert residents about the fire, taking the keys with him.
Wondering desperately how he could get into 321, Dave sprinted back down the hall. The smoke was now only about a metre from the floor and turning dark. He kept his head low to make the most of the oxygen remaining near the floor.
In her bedroom, Jamie shed the fog of sleep slowly. Had she heard her mother call or had she been dreaming? DJ lay sleeping beside her.
Curious, she walked to her bedroom door and opened it. Black smoke billowed into the room, blinding her. In seconds the room was so dark that she could barely make out the bed. Numbed with terror, and gagging, the asthmatic teenager groped for her sleeping cousin. Gathering DJ in her arms, she turned and plunged into the blackness.
Disoriented, Jamie staggered against the row of closets in the hall way, feeling her way desperately to wards what she hoped was the front door. She had progressed no more than three metres when the smoke overwhelmed her. Her lungs burning, Jamie slumped against the wall, clutching DJ’s little form to her breast as she slid to the floor.
On the verge of complete collapse, Jamie felt something warm and wet seize her ankle. Reaching down, she realized it was Bear. The dog could see under the dense smoke and was gently but firmly tugging at her with his big mouth. She forced herself to stand up, and then let herself be guided by the dog into the hot black nothingness.
Bear pulled Jamie to the front door, where he stopped and whimpered fearfully. Jamie still couldn’t see anything, but she put out a hand and it landed on something familiar: the dead bolt.
SUDDENLY the door swung open. Amid a rush of black smoke, soot stained Jamie, led by Bear, emerged from the apartment. As Jamie, blinded by the smoke, made her way down the hallway towards the stairs, she was met by Dave. He gathered her and the child in his arms. “Get your head down,” he urged, and hustled them along the corridor to wards the spacious, high-ceilinged stairwell.
As they approached the stairs, and neighbours reached out to take Jamie and DJ down to safety, the girl suddenly cried, “My mother’s still in there!”
Dave looked back up the long corridor. The smoke was now less than a metre from the floor and descending fast. “Get her outside,” he said, and turned back.
In the freezing parking lot, Jamie Wells watched the fire, comforting her little cousin. Tears streaked her blackened face as she prayed for her mother to be okay.
This time Dave had to crawl on his hands and knees. At the rate the smoke was lowering, there would be no breathable air in a matter of minutes. As he struggled forward, eyes stinging, Dave tried to formulate a strategy for finding the girl’s mother. Would she be in one of the bedrooms? If so, where were they? He knew 321 was a two-bed room apartment. Would the layout be similar to his own one-bedroom abode?
As he peered through 32l’s open doorway, Dave knew he had only minutes to find anyone alive in such an inferno. There could be a massive flash fire at any time, sucking away all remaining oxygen instantly. Oh well, he thought, I’m here now—and if I don’t find her soon, I won’t be getting out either!
Dave had seen serious blazes before in his career. But it was one thing to combat a fire wearing protective clothing and breathing apparatus, backed up by trained colleagues, and quite another to be ‘heading into one in shirt and jeans, all alone. Determined, he lowered his head and crawled through the doorway into the blackness.
There appeared to be a dividing wall to his left—the kitchen? If so, perhaps the bedrooms were down what looked like a corridor to his right. “Is there anybody in here?” he choked out.
He was about to start off to his right when he heard a moan on his left. Straining to see, he perceived a slight movement and crawled to wards it. An object came into focus: a woman’s foot.
Dave hustled towards her. Grabbing her shoulders, he pulled hard— but she didn’t move. He planted his elbows and tugged again but could not budge her.
It was too dark to see beyond the woman’s head, so he moved for ward. Then he saw the problem: The woman was gripping the edge of the dividing wall for dear life.
Dave yelled: “Let go! You’ve got to let go!” Prying with all his might, he managed to free her hands. Then, taking the semiconscious woman firmly by the arms, he pulled her towards the door.
The deadweight of the victim proved far heavier than Dave had anticipated. He had to get up on his knees and heave to move her. In doing so, he momentarily thrust his head up into the lowering ceiling of smoke—and felt the full ferocity of the heat. The whole place could flash any second.
Urgency lent sudden strength to his weary body. Grimacing in the choking pall, he wriggled furiously backward towards the door with Debra in tow. Only a metre to go.
Just as he managed to jerk the woman’s limp body across the apartment threshold, Dave heard an explosion. They had only just escaped the flash fire.
Dave dragged Debra down the hall, still keeping his head low to breathe. The journey to safety seemed to take forever. But now Dave could hear the scream of sirens outside as fire engines sped to the blaze.
When an exhausted Dave at last reached the relative airiness of the third-floor foyer, he felt for Debra’s pulse. She had severe burns on her legs and hands, and her hair was covered in soot.
“She’s still alive,” Dave announced to the assembled bystanders, “but she needs air. Can somebody carry her outside?” As willing hands reached to help, Dave suddenly realized he had forgotten about his neighbours’ big dog. He hadn’t seen it since the fire began.
Once more he started up the corridor. In the back of his mind, he knew this third venture was highly dangerous—even crazy. But he had to try.
Now the smoke was only centimetres off the floor. He had to slither along on his belly in order to breathe.
“Here, boy! Here, boy “he began to call hoarsely as he neared apartment 321. But there was no response. When finally he arrived at the door and peered in, the flat was a flaming maelstrom. If any living thing was still in there, it was too late to do any thing about it.
Dave squinted back down the hall. It was completely choked with smoke. There was no way he could make it back to the stairwell. Urgently, he squirmed across the broad corridor and hauled himself inside his own apartment, slamming the door behind him.
Smoke now filled his place, too. If the blaze jumped the hallway, he would have to act quickly to protect his property. He threw open the balcony doors for ventilation and turned on the fans over the kitchen stove and in the living room to speed the process. He then soaked towels in water and pushed them snugly against the bottom of his door.
As he did so, he heard heavy boots tramping through the hallway. Someone pounded on his door and shouted: “Fire department! Any body in there?”
“I’m okay!” Dave yelled back. “I’ve got towels around the door. Don’t break it in!” Then he made for the balcony to breathe in fresh, cold air. Looking up, he ducked back in alarm. Fierce orange flames were now roaring just over his head. The roof was on fire!
Dave considered his situation: The apartment complex was built on the side of a hill, so his balcony was only two storeys up. He could, he reckoned, climb down to the balcony below his and jump. At most he’d break a leg.
As he was deliberating, firefighters came racing around the back of the building. A ladder clanged against the railing. As a firefighter started up, Dave yelled down: “It’s okay. I’m a fireman. I can climb down myself!” His fiery ordeal was over.
Dave Crocker went to visit Debra Wells in hospital a week later. She did not remember a thing about the incident, other than calling to her daughter that there was afire.
“What do I say to the guy who saved my life?” she asked him. Awkward with compliments, Dave shuffled his feet, abashed.
As for that other hero: In the thick smoke, Bear had slipped away unseen after he guided Jamie and DJ to the front door. The Wells family, and Dave, hailed Bear as a hero. He now lives in the country at a friend of the Wellses where there’s lots of room to romp— and good, clean air to breathe.
Dave was rehired by the Department of National Defence in October 1997.
On March 5,1998, Dave C rocker was awarded the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission’s Medal for Extraordinary Heroism and on September 17, the Governor General’s Award for Bravery. He also became the first Department of National Defence firefighter in history to win Canada's Firefighter of the Year award.