Memories of freedom fight still vivid for Ponoka veterans

  • Nov. 11, 2010 6:00 p.m.

During his two-year term as Dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion

By Dale Cory

The sounds of war stick with Ponoka’s Hugh Greene

For the vast majority of people, the sound of the bugle playing the Reveille, the call most often associated with the military, symbolizes Remembrance Day more than anything.

The Reveille, the French word for wake up, was used to wake military personnel at sunrise during the Second World War.

The sometimes spine-chilling bugle call meant the start of what would undoubtedly be yet another day filled with the worst sights and sounds immanageable to mankind. Reality also dictated that it could be the last day alive for many of the soldiers who fought for freedom during the 1940s.

But for Hugh Greene, a veteran who spent the last couple of years of the Second World War in Europe, a different sound is front and centre in his mind every Nov. 11.

“It goes a way back when I was a young fellow going to school. We lived just south of Wetaskiwin on a farm. And every Armistice Day, as it was known then, they would blow the whistle. That’s one of the things that comes to my mind quickly,” said Greene, 87, and a Ponoka resident.

“I also remember some of the people I went to school with and joined up with. I especially remember one fellow I went to school with who was on a flight from England to India but never arrived. Some of the other members of the squadron were wondering what had happened. It was years later, after the war, that we found out they had been shot down over Germany. He’s one fellow I think about. There’s a couple of fellows in town here that served in India and remember this, and always wondered why they didn’t arrive in India.

“Each year, I always go in the parade, and you get thinking about things.”

Greene’s voice softened noticeably with that comment, his mind seemingly wandering back to a time he often tries to forget — but knows he cannot.

During his two-year term as Dominion president of the Royal Canadian Legion, Greene had the honour of attending Remembrance Day festivities at the War Memorial on Parliament Hill.

“It really strikes you when you see all those people lined up, along with the youths who sing, and how respectful they are of the veterans and the holiday,” he said.

Does the memory of what Hugh Greene saw, heard, and smelled during his time fighting in the war ever fade? Does the separation in years make it get easier for this veteran to put the past behind him?

“No it doesn’t. It affects you the same way every year when November 11 comes around,” responds Greene without hesitation.”

There is one particular memory High Greene knows will never fade.

“The day victory was declared — VE Day in Europe,” recalls Greene, who spent most of his wartime in and around London, transporting equipment and people. “Everybody was celebrating, although we didn’t celebrate as much as the locals, who had suffered so much through the war.”

During his time as Dominion president, Greene’s goal was to stop the decrease in membership, and involve young people. Unfortunately, membership in the Legion has not increased through the years, mainly due to the loss in veterans.

“World War II became necessary after it started,” insists Greene, “If the Allies hadn’t gone to war, and stopped the thinking of the day, we may be living in a different world today.”

Fallen comrades always on the mind of Ponoka’s Henry Pregitzer this time of the year

Most Canadians have no idea what it was like. With the exception of the few remaining Second World War veterans, and those who took part in the Korean War, and American-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, visions of war are left to the imagination and Hollywood movies.

Henry Pregitzer was there. The Ponoka resident spent a couple of years in Europe fighting against Germany forces. For Pregitzer, 89, thoughts of the war linger.

“I often think about the people in my unit who were lost during the war. I think about them,” says Pregitzer. “One or two of them I was pretty close to and was there when it happened. There’s one fellow who was killed — and I didn’t eat for three days. It just upsets you that much.”

Pregitzer, whose memories of his first days at war are astonishing, travelled to Europe in 1943 aboard the Queen Elizabeth. The three-day and four-night trip left all aboard on pins and needles.

“We made a right angle turn every six minutes in order to dodge the U-boats. By the time they would get lined up, we’d be going the other way. On the sixth of June, we went over to France. We had to get off the ship and climb off the rope ladder onto a PT boat. When we got close to the shore and it was time to get off, they said the water was only waist deep. But for me, it was up to there,” said Pregitzer, raising his hand to his chin to show the depth of the water, and chuckling at the memory. “I had to raise my head to keep my nose out of the water.”

Those lighthearted moments of enjoying a laugh were rare. For the most part, every Canadian who fought in the war, including Pregitzer, had to deal with the fact their time on earth could end at any moment.

“I remember planes going over dropping bombs – and I was scared. We were laying in this building, and all it had was walls,” recalls Pregitzer. The driver of our truck was just lying there, and he wasn’t paying any attention to it. That made it easier for me. If the other guy wasn’t scared — why should I be?”

When it was all over, Pregitzer and the other members of his unit celebrated.

“We were back in Holland by that time,” he said. “We sort of fit in with the civilians. We went out bike riding with girls and stuff like that.”

Pregitzer insists it’s important for all Canadians to remember the losses that took place during war that now allow them to enjoy freedom.

“My own kids always remember me that day and try to come to the service at the Legion,” he says. “I get calls from British Columbia quite often from people I knew. There’s a lady whose dad was killed overseas and was in my unit, and I’ve been in contact with her. I’ll call her up again this week.”

To summarize the time spent with this Second World War veteran, Pregitzer was asked what words of advice he would give to world leaders often faced with important military decisions.

“Boy, you ask some tough questions,” responded Pregitzer. “It had to be done, otherwise, where would we be now?”

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