Bill Chandler

Remembrance Day – Remembering the war

Jack McKinley shares the connection between Second World War veteran Bill Chandler and Chris van Rooyen.

What the hell does Bill Chandler’s tie have to do with the Second World War and the First Canadian Army’s liberation of Holland? When you look at the tie, with its blue and gold coloring, it does appear to be familiar; however, you cannot immediately recall where you have seen it before. You know the type of tie, the one that, when tied, develops an uncomfortable oversized Windsor knot.

But before we answer that question, let me tell you a little bit about Bill and refresh your memory regarding some of the events around World War II.

At the end of 1944, after the initial June 6 D-Day landings at Normandy, a large part of the Netherlands, including the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, were still occupied by the German military. The First Canadian Army was assigned the task of clearing the coastal areas and opening channel ports.

It was into this arena that an 18-year-old youth by the name of Bill Chandler had found himself.

Born in New Brunswick, Bill was in Toronto in 1943 when he enlisted for service into the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. After training at Camp Borden and because he was only 17 and too young to serve overseas, he was posted to Prince Rupert to defense the home front against the possible Japanese attack. Two months later, he boarded a train for Halifax and then a ship for England, where he arrived in December 1943. He was not in the first D-Day assault of June 6, 1944, however, arrived in Courselles, France, on July 8, 1944, one month later as an 18-year-old infantryman. He transferred to the South Saskatchewan Regiment at Caen, France. During the 10-month period from July 19, 1944, until May 6, 1945, Bill, along with the Officers and men of the South Saskatchewan Regiment battled their way from Caen in France, through Belgium and Holland to Oldenberg, West Germany, in what was one of the heaviest fighting of the Second World War.

Today, we do not like to think of what battlefield conditions were like; however, we can acknowledge that the first baptism of the regiment at Caen alone resulted in the loss of 12 Officers and 196 other ranks. The South Saskatchewan Regiment lost 460 of Bill’s fellow servicemen during the 10-month campaign, with another 1,358 wounded or taken prisoner of war. Bill himself was wounded in Foret De Londe, France, in August 1944 and spent three weeks recuperating before he returned to the front lines. With the persistent and sickly odor of fetid flesh and the continued shelling, tension and anxiety were a constant. It was necessary to live most of the time below the surface of the ground. Standard practice during these days was to dig a hole immediately on halt or rests and crawl in. Bill was in Oldenberg when a “Cease Fire” was announced on May 6, 1945. He returned to Canada in July 1945 and immediately volunteered for duty in the Pacific. He was waiting to start Officer training when the Americans, on Aug. 6, 1945, dropped he atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, stopping the war.

Bill had met Eileen and mustered out in August of 1945. He has lived in nearly every province in Canada and eventually settled in Ladysmith.

I would now like to introduce Chris van Rooyen. Born in a small town of Zwanenburg in Northern Holland, he was four years old on May 10, 1940, when the German troops invaded The Netherlands. Four days later, after the destruction of much of Rotterdam, the Dutch Army was forced to surrender. History tells us that the Dutch suffered greatly under the five years of German rule, and by May 6, 1945, it is estimated that 170,000 Netherlanders had been killed or starved to death. When the Allies arrived in Western Holland in April 1945, the people had almost reached the end of their endurance from the misery and starvation which had accompanied the “Hunger Winter.” Food supplies in the cities were exhausted, fuel had run out almost entirely, and transportation was virtually non-existent. Chris confirms that two of his sisters and one brother died of malnutrition during this time. He remembers those oppressive times and the terrible difficulties he and his family faced just to put food on the table. He recalls his mother making soup from tulip bulbs and he and his brother stealing sugar beets off a wagon and boiling these down to make syrup for pancakes. One morning, he looked down the street of his town to find all the ornamental trees had been cut down for firewood. He and his brother were then tasked with trying to split wood from the remaining stumps for their firewood. During the winter of 1944-45, his father, along with all the other males between 16 and 60 years of age were removed from his town and taken to a camp in Germany. The camp was later destroyed by the Russian Army, and Chris’s father walked home across Germany and Holland. It took him six weeks.

In spite of the very difficult times, Chris does not hold hard feelings toward the German people. As a nine-year-old kid, his contact with the regular German soldier was mostly good. He recalls one German soldier asking to hold Chris’s baby sister, as he had a young daughter back home whom he really missed. He remembers walking and running five miles to get some grain that was being handed out by the soldiers. When it became his turn in line, the seam on the pillow case he was using to hold the grain tore, and he was told to move on, leaving the grain on the ground. Another German soldier grabbed the bag, tied a knot in the bottom and then filled the bag with twice as much grain as he would have gotten otherwise.

It was on Chris’s ninth birthday, May 5, 1945, when the First Canadian army marched down the main street of the town of Holfweg, Northern Holland, liberating that town. On that date, the Southern Saskatchewan Regiment was marching toward Oldenberg.

After a winter of war and starvation, it was no wonder then, that Chris and his fellow countrymen were so jubilant and Chris still considers this his Armistices Day. Drums of food were air-dropped into the city, and it was the first time that Chris and his family tasted candy, wieners and crackers. The Canadian people are held in very high regard to this day.

Chris married Mary in 1959 and immigrated to Quesnel, B.C., in 1964 and then to the Island in 1969. In late 1999, they moved from Parksville to Ladysmith.

Now, about that tie that Bill was wearing. Chris and Bill belong to the same church, and it was after Mass one Sunday when they happened to sit together for coffee that Chris noticed the tie Bill was wearing. It turned out to be the Legion dress tie, and it was not long before its as determined that when Chris was in the jubilant crowd in the town of Holfweg, Sergeant Bill Chandler of the South Saskatchewan Regiment was marching through the town of Oldenberg on the Germany/Holland border. While Bill recalls the jubilant crowds, Chris recalls his appreciations. There is a definite pride when you hear the two of them talking. The pride of conquering some very difficult times and sharing similar experiences, albeit from differing perspectives.

It is unique, also, that this experience is first shared after a 58-year period, all because of a blue and gold tie.

Nov. 11 and this time of remembrance is so important. I am thinking of how devastated and angry I felt when our two servicemen were recently killed in Afghanistan while on a peacekeeping mission. With today’s media, you immediately felt and shared the pain of their family and friends.

Having now spoken to Bill and researched the battles of his regiment and the losses they experienced, I can better appreciate the difficulties of those times. Having also spoken to Chris, I can better appreciate the reality of conflict and the impact that war has on those that are not directly involved. And like them, I can strengthen my resolve to show the same integrity and leadership that men who fought or experienced the Second World War exhibited. Not to react from what is propagandized as moral high ground or from an economic interest, but to respond because it is right.

On May 8, 1945, in the town of Often, against the background of war, the South Saskatchewan Regiment held a memorial service for those who made the supreme sacrifice. Padre Captain Walker’s words spoken on the day deserve repeating: “help us to be worthy of victory and enable us to establish truth, justice and peace.” Then all present repeated the Lord’s Prayer.

— Submitted by Jack McKinley

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