William Ryan held the black and white photograph of his Royal Canadian Artillery regiment in his hand as he recounted his time serving in the Second World War.
He served as an artillery gunner and as a dispatch rider. Ryan remembers a sunny day in France when he was ordered to carry papers to an allied Polish force. As he was approaching a Polish camp, which he later discovered wasn’t the one he was seeking; he spotted a group of 10 Messerschmitts coming out of the bright sun towards him.
He knew he was a sitting duck in the wide-open road.
“I didn’t want to lose my life, so there was a hedge there and I just tipped the bike over and one jump and I’m in the hedge,” said Ryan.
The planes didn’t fire a shot. When he entered the camp Ryan said the Polish soldiers were shocked that neither they nor Ryan were attacked.
He started to return to his headquarters and heard a sound over his bike’s engine.
“I glance over my shoulder and see the eight to 10 of them [Messerschmitts] with their Iron Crosses and swastikas,” said Ryan. “I thought ‘hey I want to live another day’.”
So again he quickly tipped his bike over and made a dash for a slit trench to wait till they flew by.
It wasn’t till he arrived at his headquarters that he discovered his base had been the target of the Messerschmitt’s’ fire.
The 87-year-old, who travelled from Courtenay, was eager to share his stories and hear other’s tales as well. Ryan and other Vancouver Island veterans shared their memories Thursday at the Best Western Plus Dorchester Hotel during a special visit by members of The Memory Project.
The Memory Project is an initiative by the Historica-Dominion Institute, a charitable organization that formed in 2009 when the Historica Foundation of Canada and Dominion Institute merged. The initiative is a nationwide oral history project that is allowing veterans to tell their stories first hand and have it recorded so others can hear their tales.
The project started in 2009 and initially was collecting the oral histories of Second World War veterans but this July, because of the success of the initial campaign, the project was expanded to collect the histories of Korean War Veterans.
The Korean War project will continue until 2013.
Members of the project record people’s oral histories and scan memorabilia to include on the website for people to access.
Alex Herd, project manager of the Memory Project Archives, said eventually the institute would like to expand the project to include peacekeeping and Cold War veterans all the way until present day, but it depends on future funding. The project was funded by the Government of Canada through the Celebrations and Commemorations Program of the Department of Canadian Heritage.
Herd said veterans involved in the Second World War and Korean War are aging and dying and their stories must be preserved before they’re lost.
“As time passes so does memory…,” said Herd. “What we need to do is get these stories so the younger generation can know this and future generations will know this as well.”
Herd said the memories shared give people a unique perspective on the same event and it either illustrates what is known or challenges the traditional historical view.
For Marilyn Marshall, who brought in her father’s memorabilia to include in the project, the histories are important to give people a sense of the true nature of war, she said. Her father, John A. Sanderson Godfrey, who served in the Korean War, wasn’t able to be a part of the project. He died six months ago, but she hopes his writings will help create a picture of the struggles he endured.
“It wasn’t all pretty,” said Marshall. “My mother wouldn’t let my dad talk about what he saw over there in terms of the battles because it was too horrific and she didn’t want our minds being hurt by it. My father didn’t really come back from Korea as far as I was concerned, another man came back.”
Marshall remembers her father leaving for more than nine months when she was in Grade 1.
“It broke my heart when he left,” she said tearfully.
She said it’s important that veteran’s stories are created so people understand what it was like for those who served in the wars.
Veteran Bob Ducharme said the project is important to help teach the younger generation.
“It’s very important to tell our stories to the world and particularly the younger generation to learn about the hardships soldiers went through and they can prevent it and bring about a better society,” said Ducharme, a member of the Korean Veterans Association and Heritage Unit and provincial president of the Métis Veteran Association of B.C.
Veterans don’t need to have served in the Canadian forces to be part of the project. They only need to be a current resident.
Veterans interested in participating in The Memory Project can call 1-866-701-1867, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.thememoryproject.com.