By Andrea Arnold
The Goat interviewed several veterans living in the Robson Valley. We also reached out to currently serving members of the Canadian Forces. We asked them specifically about what it was like or is like to communicate with family back home during their time abroad.
Standing at attention at the cenotaph in McBride this November 11, was one of the Robson Valley’s only living WWII veterans, Kenneth (Ken) Hooker.
Hooker, born and raised in Dome Creek, enlisted when he was 17-years-old. “My girlfriend at the time said we needed to get married. So I enlisted,” he said with a smile.
Private Hooker left for Europe as a member of the Canadian Scottish Regiment in 1943 on the New Amsterdam. His tour of duty took him through England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. His company was in Germany on May 8th, 1945 when victory in Europe was declared. They were surprised when the General entered their bunkhouse and announced, “Boys, you can all go back to bed. The war is over.” Hooker was then sent to Shiloh, Manitoba to be prepared for deployment to Asia when Imperial Japan surrendered on August 15th, 1945.
During his years of service, he recalls writing and sending letters often (unless they were deep into enemy territory, then sending was postponed). Mail took a long time to get to them as they were frequently on the move.
He recalls one Christmas package that arrived. “I was seeing the local school marm at the time and Mom and Mary had gotten a picture of her. They had somehow attached it to the top of a Christmas cake. How it stayed there during shipping was amazing.”
Robert (Bob) Balcaen served in the Air Force for 8.5 years during peacetime. The 19-year-old Balcaen had followed in the footsteps of his great grandfather (WWI) and his father (WWII) as well as 10 of his aunts and uncles. He spent his years of service in Quebec, Ontario, Mississippi, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
While serving in Quebec, he met Private Hazel McMaster, a fighter control operator, also serving in the Air Force. A year later, the two got married and McMaster (now Balcaen) was granted an honourable discharge to stay home and raise their family. When Bob was sent to Mississippi, Hazel went to McBride, and they corresponded via letters. Upon discharge, the family all returned to McBride where the couple still lives today.
Andreas (Andy) Werner served for 5 years (1977-1983) with the Canadian Scottish Regiment Victoria Unit A. Corporal Werner was trained by the United States Rangers as a spotter. Once trained, he travelled to several locations, however, is under a “gag order” and is only permitted to speak of his time in Cyprus (79-80).
While in Cyprus, he says communication was good, with postal service running daily. They also had access to phones and were able to call home often. In the other locations, though, the servicemen/women were not permitted any correspondence with home. Upon discharge in ’83, Werner stepped into the cooking trade and continues this passion at the Beanery 2 in McBride.
David (Dave) Hruby watched three of his brothers leave their hometown of Hawkins, Wisconsin before he too enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17. (More recently, two nephews also served, and all members of the Hruby family returned home safely).
During his years of service, Hruby spent time in Vietnam and the Philippines as well as on the San Diego/Imperial Beach, California based USS Ticonderga (CVS14) – the oldest aircraft carrier at that time. Hruby served as an Aviation Machinist Mate Second Class while in Vietnam. While there, he remembers writing to family “usually every three days, but it would take a couple of weeks to get to them.” He recalls that mail would arrive to them in the field only once every week or two. “Not too many mailboxes where we were,” he joked.
Hruby said that getting letters from home was great. These deliveries where even more exciting when pictures were included. For example at Christmas, he received a photo of a very snowy Wisconsin and admits to feeling homesick when he saw it. Among his favorite deliveries was items sent from his Uncle: corn whiskey, (Moonshine), in a bottle filled to the brim and sealed, carefully hidden in what appeared to be a carton of oatmeal.
One of the perks given to individuals serving in the US was free postage. This allowed items and letters to be shipped out frequently without the worry of cost. Hruby also recalls that hunting and fishing licenses were $1 (in your home state) for those serving. He was never sure what good that did, though, as they were never home to benefit.
A few years after Hruby’s discharge in 1974, he and wife, Rosemary, found their way to McBride where they settled. Hruby became Chief of the McBride Volunteer Fire Department (38 years ago) where he continues to serve the community.
Current residents who are serving
Currently four young men are representing the McBride area. For their safety, and by request these individuals will not be named. They each enlisted for several different reasons; challenge, travel opportunities, exciting career, to learn a trade, serving like family members before and to be a part of something bigger.
A lot has changed in the years since Private Hooker embarked on the New Amsterdam to serve in Europe in 1943. No longer are phones hard to find (usually), though there are exceptions. One active corporal remembered having to share a pay phone with 50 guys during training when cell phones were not allowed.
The young men currently serving often have the ability to enjoy face to face conversations through video chats, as well as receive texts and email. There are still times, however, when communication is either impossible due to lack of service or electricity or not permitted due to location.
Hooker, Balcean, Werner and Hruby all agree that receiving a letter from home was an exciting event, especially when the delivery contained some extras like photos, food or gifts. The locals who are away from their families now, even with access to all kinds of technology allowing for instant communications, agree with the veterans. It brings an extra level of excitement to hold a piece of home when a letter or package comes in the mail. As one corporal stated “it’s kind of fun and different and it gives you something physical to hang on to if you need a morale boost.”
Letters written and sent, no matter the method, anchor soldiers to home and also record history.