“Thank you, Schindler!”—former tank commander Bill Heil, recalling the day a dud shell saved his life.
As I begin to write this it’s a dull, damp October morning — the kind that gets in your bones and dampens your spirit with its notice that this is just the beginning of five long months of what passes for winter on our ‘wet’ coast.
Yes, we need rain. Yes, we’re blessed compared with so many other parts of the world. But five months…
I’m rambling, stalling on writing a column about a recent passing, even if you could argue that Bill Heil had a good run at life, having made it to his 102nd year. Not only was he blessed with longevity but good fortune, having made it through a life-threatening health condition as a child, then the Second World War as a tank commander with the famous Kangaroos, specifically the 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Regiment.
Born in Lemburg, Sask., April 1, 1916, he lived on the family farm until 1940, when doctors at the renowned Mayo Clinic recommended he seek a moister climate; so he came to the Cowichan Valley to work on a dairy farm, then at a tie mill on Mount Prevost. The doctors, obviously, had served him well as, by 1943, he was healthy enough to enlist in the Canadian Army.
I wrote several columns about Bill in the Citizen in 2010, particularly about his service with the Kangaroos, whose Sherman tanks had been converted to personnel carriers.
This left them with a single machine gun for protection, not that that counted for anything on the tragic afternoon of Aug. 9, 1944, when, beyond Caen, and headed for German-held Falaise, his regiment was accidentally bombed by the USAF. Bill was with the Light Aid Detachment, resting in the sunshine, when two bomber squadrons appeared to their right.
“Softening up the enemy,” thought Bill and his mates. But they saw no bombs drop; then the aircraft turned about. “Soon they came back towards us, flying low…and the spotter plane in the front dropped flares. We watched, horrified, as we saw the bombs roll out at 2 p.m. In the terrible explosion[s] pieces flew sky-high. Ambulances roared all night. How could the Americans do that?”
Not until 50 years later, when watching a CBC newscast, did he learn that 150 Canadians were killed and wounded in that act of ‘friendly fire.’
That wasn’t his only close call. There was the time he and his unit were entrenched on a hillside, facing Boulogne. This was after some heavily-fortified Channel ports had been bypassed during the initial stages of the invasion: “What a surprise to learn the enemy had turned around one of those huge guns that could fire on England and we were the target. When one of those shells landed, there was a hole big enough to put a house into it.
“They came closer and closer, and the last one I heard, it plopped into the ground close to me but, a miracle, it didn’t explode. If it had, it would have buried me alive.”
Years later, he watched the movie Schindler’s List which tells the story of one of the many slave labour factories operated by the Germans to make war materials. As a result of inhuman work conditions and, sometimes, deliberate sabotage, many of the products were defective.
Recalling how his life had been saved by that dud artillery shell, Bill jumped to his feet in the theatre and yelled, “Thank you, Schindler!” It didn’t bother him a bit that “People thought I was nuts.”
Upon returning from the war he also returned to sawmilling and went on to own his own truck for hauling sawdust and slabs. He continued in small truck logging and hauling until his retirement n 1983.
Bill Heil was married to Kay for 70 years and they had two daughters. A longtime member of the Royal Canadian Legion, he was honoured in November 2014 by the French government, being appointed a Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honour in recognition of his role in the liberation of France.
He also participated in the liberation of Holland.
POSTSCRIPT: Some time after my series on Bill Heil appeared in the Citizen, a lady who identified herself as a former neighbour of his, asked me for copies of my columns. By the time I was able to dig them out, I’d mislaid her phone number.
If she sees today’s Chronicle I hope she’ll get back to me so that I can finally fulfill her request.