Remembrance Day: August 1945 brought good news and bad

Arrested by the SS, F/Lt. Rey was put on bread and water for 30 days; his Austrian friend was shot.

Arrested by the SS, F/Lt. Rey was put on bread and water for 30 days; his Austrian friend was shot.

 

They were predicting a severe winter for 1945. But it was still August, still hot and dry, and tourism was up since gas rationing was lifted. Best of all, Germany was out of the war and Japan was clearly on the ropes; was, in fact, within days of surrender.

Too bad for the parents of Pilot Officer Robert J. Burns, RCAF, that it had just been officially announced that their son, posted as missing in action a year before, was now presumed dead.

It was a solemn time, too, for Mrs. W.H. Lord, Youbou, after her trip to Victoria to meet Col. J.H. Harrington, liaison officer for the U.S. 4th Air Force at Work Point Barracks. He’d come to Victoria to present her with a Purple Heart posthumously awarded her son, 2nd Lt. Orville H. Lord, killed in action three months before while flying his Mitchell bomber with the USAAF against the Japanese.

Home, too, were three former Shawnigan Lake School students. Not only had they been schoolmates but they were yachtsmen together, joined the navy together, went to war together and came home together, all as lieutenant-commanders in the RCN: Cornelius (“Corny”) Burke, who was awaiting his DSO and two bars, J. Douglas Maitland, nephew of B.C.’s attorney-general, and T.E. Ladner, both of whom were to receive a DSO and bar.

On 42 days of special leave in Quebec with a story to tell was F/Lt. Joe Rey, DFC, AFC, of Duncan. The special leave was that given to prisoners-of-war, that having been his fate for the past two and a-half years after flying 86 missions in the European and Mediterranean theatres. An awed reporter for the Canadian Press was sure he’d “crowded more adventures than normally highlight a lifetime” into his 23 years after being “blown into oblivion by a 4,000-pound bomb, awaking in a hospital to be nursed by Hitler’s niece, and twice escaping from prison camps…” Which no doubt explained his medals, mentions in despatches and a Presidential Citation.

Most of his missions, some of them with the USAF, were while flying as a crewman in Wellington bombers. Until May 1944 when, over Genoa, his aircraft was hit by flak which set fire to the left wing. He’d just donned his parachute when the on-board bomb exploded and — incredibly — blew him free of the disintegrating aircraft and engaged the ripcord which, upon examination later, hadn’t been pulled.

He was hospitalized in Linz, Austria where doctors removed a large bomb fragment from his hip. Marie Schickelgruber, one of his nurses and an attractive brunette, gave him the impression that she wasn’t overly proud of being a niece of Der Fuehrer.

Rey recalled the mixed reception his capture gained him: the Luftwaffe (air force) personnel were benign, the Wehrmacht (army) “markedly unpleasant,” and Austrian civilians, who by this time were suffering from Allied bombing raids, hostile to the point of assaulting him; in fact, 30 women stoned him while he was under escort.

“I was struck quite heavily,” he said, “but there was little the two guards could do against 30 determined women — or against one determined woman, for that matter.”

Once in prison camp he saw that Greek, Polish and Russian prisoners received “barbarous” treatment and the Russians impressed him most with their stoicism. After release, he saw eight Russians beating a German soldier “with absolutely deadpan expressions, showing neither joy nor anger”.

Transferred to a camp of 13,000 British and Canadian prisoners at Sagan, near Breslau in the Balkans, he made his first attempt to escape with the aid of an Austrian, making it across Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania to the Greek border where they were arrested by the SS. Rey was put on bread and water for 30 days; his Austrian friend was shot.

With the approach of the Russian army the prisoners were evacuated to Nuremburg by train, packed 50-each in small freight cars in which they spent six days and five nights. Then they were joined by 450 Italian prisoners, everyone having to use a single tap for washing, and their food consisted of four-five slices of black bread and a bowl of soup daily. With a South African and an American Rey escaped again, heading west and eluding capture until, three weeks before the end of hostilities, they were found by the U.S. 3rd Army. For Rey and his companions April 18, 1945 was “a very happy day indeed”. A piece of bread, the first he’d eaten in weeks, tasted “like angel cake to me”.

Flown to England he was placed on a diet to restore his weight from 116 to 160 pounds. In July, before heading home, he made a tour of liberated Europe and visited the grave of his brother, P/O F.L. (“Franny”) Rey, shot down in June 1944. V-E Day found him where he most wanted to be, in the midst of celebrations in Picadilly, London. Rey concluded his account with a word of praise for Canadian women serving overseas; they were “a credit to Canadian womanhood,” he said.

The succeeding issue of the Cowichan Leader published a front-page follow-up to Rey’s exciting tale by noting he’d been awarded six ribbons in all: the DFC, AFC, 39-43 Star, CVSM, the U.S. DFC and Air Medal with Oak Leaf cluster, and Mention in Despatches, had participated in 88 bombing raids, 11 of them with the USAAF. His Canadian DFC had been for taking over the controls and landing his plane when the pilot was hit in the face.

Two days later Rey was shot down and taken prisoner.