Book Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy: Breaking the Silence

 

Breaking the Silence – By Ted Barris – Published by Thomas Allen Publishers

290 pp.  – Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

“As Breaking the Silence recounts, during the war nearly one thousand instructors and students lost their lives in training accidents – a fact that is not even acknowledged in military records.”

In a speech to the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879, General William Tecumseh Sherman famously declared “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.”

“Uncle Billy”, as he had been known to his boys in the Union Army, knew what he was talking about. As Commander of the Military District of the Mississippi during the Civil War, he had been a central actor in what remains to this day the bloodiest conflict in American history. Even so, his remarks to the cadets represented an astonishingly unusual display of candor for a combat veteran. As innumerable friends and family members of war veterans will attest, the overwhelming majority prefer to keep their memories to themselves, and it is only on exceedingly rare occasions that they can be persuaded to share their accounts of the horrors they have witnessed firsthand.

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Author and broadcaster Ted Barris found this out for himself through his interactions with his father, who had served as a U.S. Army medic during the Second World War. As a teenager in Toronto during the early 1960’s, Barris once spent several weeks at home convalescing from an injury. During this time, his father entertained him with a variety of humorous anecdotes about his time in uniform. Shortly before he was due to return to school, Barris asked his father if he had been awarded anything for his wartime service. In short order, Barris Sr. produced a single medal, saying nothing about its origin or significance. He quietly suggested that, should the decoration be of any interest to his son, he might wish to put it away for safekeeping.

It wasn’t until his father died nearly 40 years later that the younger Barris learned the full story. While reviewing some his father’s papers after the older gentleman had passed away, Barris stumbled across a U.S. Army citation describing how, in February 1945, his father had entered a wooded area heavily strewn with mines and booby traps to rescue four wounded comrades. The mysterious medal Barris had been shown as a teenager was a Bronze Star, and it confirmed that his father was a bona-fide war hero.

His father’s refusal to discuss his experiences in battle – something Barris describes as being “a kind of unwritten code among veterans not to reveal the reality of wartime memory” – is a phenomenon that has served to provide a powerful bond among combat veterans since time immemorial. In Breaking the Silence, the younger Barris shares with readers the stories of Canadian veterans he has known and interviewed over the years, and reveals for the first time some extraordinary tales that vividly illustrate the trials these men and women endured in the service of their country.

One of the more interesting themes that emerges in this book is the fact that the term “veteran” encompasses many more than just those who saw action on the front lines. During the Second World War especially, many thousands of military personnel served on the home front in seemingly mundane and unglamorous jobs, but their contributions were every bit as important to the Allies’ eventual victory as those made by the fighting men at the sharp end.

A case in point was the 5,000 airmen who served as instructors for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Barris points out that although these pilots tended to be viewed with disdain by their colleagues who were flying in combat, the reality for instructors was that their jobs could be every bit as demanding. For one thing, it wasn’t uncommon for BCATP instructors to routinely log twice as much time in the air as pilots serving in operational squadrons. And even though they didn’t have to worry about enemy fighters or anti-aircraft fire, that didn’t mean that the task of training raw rookies was entirely free of danger. As Breaking the Silence recounts, during the war nearly one thousand instructors and students lost their lives in training accidents – a fact that is not even acknowledged in military records.

The instructors who served with the BCATP eventually produced over 250,000 air and ground crew for the Allied air forces, and their efforts undeniably turned the tide of the war in the Allies’ favour. Tragically, at the end of the conflict they were treated in a deplorable fashion. Because most instructors had not left Canadian shores, they were not considered to be veterans, and were denied the benefits accorded to others. Even though most of them had accumulated far more flying time that pilots who had served overseas, BCATP instructors were often turned down for opportunities in commercial aviation, with the explanation that such jobs were being held for returning combat pilots.

Another important theme that is explored in this book is the experiences of those who served in Canada’s “forgotten war”, the Korean conflict of 1950 – 53. Figuring prominently among these is 2897 Major-General Herb Pitts, who as a young man entered Royal Roads in 1948 as a member of the first intake of cadets after the Second World War. Originally trained as an Armoured Corps officer, after volunteering for service in Korea Pitts expected to be assigned to the Lord Strathcona’s Horse. Due to a shortage of infantry officers he instead soon found himself soldiering with 1 PPCLI.

Breaking the Silence recounts some of Pitts’ more noteworthy accomplishments as a 22 year-old platoon commander. A true Patricia all the way, Pitts sought to earn the respect and trust of his men by sharing the same hardships and dangers that they faced. Barris relates the events of the night of November 30, 1952, a story which illustrates in compelling detail Pitts’ courage and tenacity under hostile fire.

Assigned to oversee the placement of concertina wire intended to serve as a barrier against their Chinese enemies, Pitts led a work party into No Man’s Land accompanied by two of his best men. Partway down the path they were following, one of the men inadvertently detonated an enemy mine. The result: one young soldiers had his head blown off; the other, mortally wounded, died in Pitts’ arms within the space of a few seconds.

Even though he must undoubtedly have been badly shaken by the incident, Pitts maintained his composure and called for stretcher bearers to evacuate his fallen comrades. He then mustered the PPCLI wiring parties to carry on with their task, and within a few hours, over 1,800 yards of concertina wire had been laid. The process was repeated two nights later, again under Pitts’ leadership, and this time at a point deeper still in No Man’s Land. The mission had been accomplished, a critical Canadian position was secure, and in recognition of his “coolness and leadership” Pitts was awarded the Military Cross, making him one of three members of the Class of 1952 to earn that decoration in Korea.

Barris is the author of several books on Canadian military history (some of which have been reviewed in this pages) and Breaking the Silence is his latest contribution in this regard. In keeping with the quality of his previous work, the book is meticulously researched and superbly well-written. Discussing the experiences of Canadians who have served in conflicts ranging from the Great War to Afghanistan. Breaking the Silence is a fascinating look at the hardships, horrors, and heroism that will be invariably found in that great and terrible experience we call war.

The last Canadian veterans of the Great War are now all gone, and the ranks of those who served in the Second World War and Korea are rapidly thinning. As these old soldiers gradually leave this world for the next, their places are now starting to be taken by another generation of veterans who have served their country with distinction in a new war in a new century. But one thing that Canadian veterans of every era can be thankful for is that they have passionate friends and supporters like Ted Barris, who are committed to recording and preserving their stories for future generations to remember and appreciate.

Breaking the Silence is an excellent book that will be thoroughly enjoyed by all Ex-Cadets, regardless of age, rank, or service affiliation. Once again, Ted Barris is to be commended for producing a masterful piece of work that celebrates and pays tribute to the courage, dedication, and accomplishments of Canadians who have served their nation in time of war.