Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In Conversation With...Vernon Mitchell

First published in the November 9 edition of The Oxford Journal.

Dear Madam:
I am directed to inform you that according to advice received from overseas, the above-mentioned member of the Canadian Army is en route to Canada aboard a hospital ship.
When his mother received this letter, Lance Corporal Vernon Mitchell of Cumberland County was recovering from wounds he received when his company came under artillery fire in Germany in March of 1945. He was 21 years old and had been in the army two-and-a-half years. 
“I was living in Clairmont [Springhill] when the war broke out and right off I had a burning desire to be a soldier,” Mr. Mitchell says about his 16-year- old self in 1939. Since he was too young to join the army, he joined the reserve army until he turned 18, then off he went to the recruiting office in Truro. He was still too young. 
“I was very disappointed but as I started walking out the door, the recruiting officer called me back and said, ‘Vern, if you would like to be 19 from now on...’ and that was it, I was in the army.”
He had four months of basic and advanced training then boarded a ship to England (via Scotland) where, after two weeks, the reserves were called upon to build up the regiments. 
 “I, of course, wanted to be in the North Nova but I didn’t make it,” he says. “I got close; seven of us went to the North Shore New Brunswick regiment. The North Shore was part of the 8th Brigade, part of the 3rd Division. The 3rd Division was training for the Normandy landings.” 
Private Vernon Mitchell is one of the Canadian soldiers who landed on Juno Beach in June 1944. 
“We saw the coast of France coming up. I was feeling excitement, apprehension. We went down cargo nets into the assault boats. It was very rough. Many of the people in my boat were sick. We were fortunate because we were the first to land; there was nobody ahead of us, nobody on the beach but the welcoming committee of the enemy.”
As he begins talking about his first day in action in France, about landing at St. Alban-sur-Mer and about their objective to capture the town of Tailleville, his voice gets quieter. 
“It brings back memories, talking about it,” he says and clears his throat.
“Our main objective was the city of Caen. It took us about a month to get in there, all the Canadian army,” he remembers. “I was wounded in the elbow [in July] and went back to England for a month then returned to Belgium in time for the action in the Breskens Pocket.”
The Germans had fortified the city  of Breskens but the allies needed to take it back because it was on the Scheldt Estuary and provided access to the port of Antwerp for bringing in supplies by boat.  
It is telling that Mr. Mitchell can speak the name of every occupied place his company marched into throughout the winter.  The names, in French and in German, roll easily off his tongue. 
“We travelled up the coast to capture all those fortified cities like Boulogne, Calais, Le Have.” He pauses, again, then says, “I guess if you’re doing a good job, they keep you at it, don’t they?”
It was after crossing the Rhine River and capturing the city of Millingen (in Holland)that his regiment came under fire. Mr. Mitchell, now a Lance Corporal, was leading a section of men.
“I stepped up the road and said ‘Let’s go’ [to the ditch] and that’s the last thing I remember. When I came to, a piece of shrapnel had gone through my leg and there was another one in my chest. That was the end of the war for me.”
This reminds him of the night before when a group of them had tried to figure out how many of them had survived from June. “Out of 1,000, give or take, that had landed on D-Day, we could only count 46,” he says.
He gets out a thick book of over 600 pages that is a history of the North Shore New Brunswick regiment and he opens it to Appendix B which is a list of the fatal casualties of World War II. There are four-and-a-half pages of the names of men who perished from that one single regiment. There is a hand-written number at the end of the list: 639. 
He is asked, What was it like?
“For the front line troops, it was pure hell,” he says. “It was day after day. It was...I don’t know. We were in slit trenches [what the Americans call fox holes] and there was two men to a trench. The food wasn’t good. It was the middle of July before we got a piece of bread. I was down to 126 pounds when I went back to the hospital [with his elbow injury]. I had been 148.” There are long pauses now as he thinks back. “It was...Bah.” Pause. “There’s...” Pause. “I think there’s 5,000 buried in Normandy.”
After the war, Mr. Mitchell returned to Oxford, married (“She settled me down,” he says), worked at a variety of jobs, raised three children, and helped build the Oxford Legion which opened in 1956. In 1994, he returned to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day to walk on Juno Beach and visit those 5,000 comrades. He now lives with his second wife in Amherst and will celebrate his 87th birthday on Sunday. There is a strong sense that his nine months of action and these memories are a distressing but vital part of him. 
“I’ve read that in the Second World War, there were 50,000 young Canadians killed in the army, air force, navy and merchant marines,” he says. “That’s a lot men. A lot of young people who had to have been perfectly healthy and fairly intelligent.”
He is asked, How does that make you feel?
“I look at those medals and I was proud to do it,” he says. “I was proud of my regiment and I was proud to be part of it.” He points to the book. “But look at the survivors.”

By Sara Mattinson

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sara

    Thank you for capturing and recording Vern's story, and for doing so in such a warmhearted and genuine way. A brave and selfless young man ....!

    We are thinking of his family especially now, and our love and condolences on his recent passing.

    Sincere regards

    David Mitchell
    Cape Town
    South Africa

    CCGS member
    (researching Mitchells of Cumberland County)