Jack Knox / Times Colonist
May 7, 2013
His shrapnel wounds healed, Terry Byron was in Aldershot, England, waiting to be posted back to the front when news of the German surrender broke. The sergeants’ mess went dry pretty quickly after that. What they didn’t drink, they threw at each other, he recalls. So Byron sought out Big Nan, a strapping Scottish woman with access to the officers’ mess. She said I pilfered this bottle of whisky from the officers’ supply, so you, me and these two girls are going to have a snort. With that, they drained the bottle.
That was VE Day, 68 years ago today. Not many old soldiers remain from that day in 1945. Byron, 91, is one of them. He lives by himself on his farm at the north end of SaltSpringIsland, raising ponies and beef cattle. (He had chickens until his dog died, after which the raccoons came in and wiped them all out.) Living alone on his own nearby farm is his brother Ken Byron, 92. Ken, like Terry, was a sergeant wounded while leading his platoon in the Second World War. They are tough old buzzards. They were among a big Salt Spring contingent, teens who had been in the Island’s Canadian Scottish unit, who volunteered to go overseas in 1939. When the war broke out, all us guys who had been in the militia joined up, Terry says. He doesn’t waste a lot of time remembering the bad bits. It was a tough go, but you try to forget the tough stuff and remember the funny things, the good people you meet.
Some stories still crack him up, like the time Wing Hay, a CanScot and noted boxer from Port Alberni, saw some chickens running loose. He figured that where there were hens, there would be fresh eggs to eat, so he went looking in a barn. Alas, instead of eggs he found a dozen or so German soldiers. All these buggers stood up and put their hands up. The single-handed capture made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Terry’s fighting days ended in Belgium on Oct. 13, 1944. “I was leading the platoon on the LeopoldCanal. Most of us got across. It was midnight, eh? When I thought it was appropriate, I stood up and a god damned German grenade landed right in front of me.” He didn’t take the full blast, just enough to rip apart his left knee. Trapped between the Germans and the canal, he crawled along until he found himself looking down a couple of gun barrels. “Who are you?” they asked. I said Canadian Scottish. They were Royal Winnipeg Rifles, who got him to a stretcher-boat.
Brother Ken had already been twice wounded by then. The first came on D-Day. Mortar bombs started to drop, he recalled a while ago. I dove into a tank trap. My mortar man dropped right in front of me, dead. He got a piece of shrapnel in his temple. I got a piece in my cheek, cut the artery. Ken led his platoon inland (their officer had been blown up the moment his landing craft dropped its ramp on JunoBeach) before being evacuated to England. Back in France that August, trying to extricate the platoon from heavy artillery attack in Tourville, Ken was hit again, shrapnel ripping into his right side, tearing the flesh from his hipbone.
What remains etched in his memory from that summer is the road to Falaise heat, burning tanks, smashed carts, and the stench of rotting German corpses, everything bulldozed to the side to clear a path for the Canadians marching through foot-high dust. Stink, flies, dysentery, the whole bit, he recalled last week. Ken was in the thick of things right up until the end, fighting in Germany in May 1945 when a motorcycle dispatch rider arrived. The message said Ceasefire as of 0800 hours. All firearms to be unloaded, all gun barrels dropped. I phone headquarters and said: Is this for real? Much to his chagrin, Ken, who would rather have ushered in the end with his friends, was sent to Britain and was crossing the English Channel when V-E Day arrived. By the time he landed in London, it had erupted in joy. “What a hot spot that was” he says. The present Queen and her sister were roaming around the crowd in civilian clothes. Imagine that, from full-on combat to sudden celebration. And then it was time for all these young guys, still in their early 20s, to shed six years of war and come home.
Again, not many of them survive today. Victoria lost a couple of more in the past couple of weeks, men whose stories appeared in this space not long ago. Doug Laurie survived 1944s sinking of HMCS Athabaskan, in which 128 of his crewmates died, only to spend the next year in a PoW camp; he died April 19 at age 94. Earl Taylor, an RCAF air gunner who survived the camps after being shot down over Berlin in 1943, died April 30 at 93. The Byron boys soldier on. The last of the shrapnel in Terry’s knee was removed six years ago. Ken still has shrapnel in his head. Today, 68 years after VE Day, they’re still tough guys.