His memories start in the small fishing village of Spakshuut on the North Coast of British Columbia.
The once prosperous town of Port Essington, founded in 1871, was a hub of fishing, logging, and hunting with many of the European-Canadians, Japanese-Canadians and First Nations employed at the local canneries. By the 1940s, the canneries had closed, and the community was left inhabited by a few straggling families trying to keep their lifestyle and community alive.
Joseph Albert Brooks was one of nine children of one of those families. Today, he is 95 years old, as he tells The Northern View, his younger siblings attended Indian Day School in the town, his mother skinned and smoked harvested meat while growing vegetables in the garden to preserve. Joseph helped his father, a chief, to fish, hunt and hand log. They lived off the land, battling to support the family and sharing necessities with village members in need.
On September 1, 1939, the world heard the declaration of the start of World War Two. No one was left untouched by the effects and influence the international conflict inflicted. The lashings on global towns and cities certainly didn’t take long to leave communities scarred. More than 8,000 km away from the frontlines, Port Essington was one of the wounded.
Joseph said that many boys from North Coast villages enlisted and left their home fronts to fight for freedom. It was in the midst of the fighting and late in autumn — the exact year he doesn’t recall when he first heard the news of his friends. It struck the village deeply that three boys from one family Joseph had grown up with were unaccounted for and classed as MIA.
“Some of my friends were missing. We didn’t know if they were alive or in prisoner of war camps. Germany was advancing real fast, taking countries,” he recalls.
Not only did he lose his enlisted friends to the frontline, but Japanese friends he grew up with, who had taught him to speak their language, were taken away from the fishing village to internment camps.
“So my dad said you better go and volunteer for the army. He told me to defend the country because this is our homeland. So I volunteered.”
Albert said as a 19-year-old, he was scared but wanted to uphold his country and, most of all, help find his missing friends. He said he just knew he had to go.
The purpose and the meaning of defending his country — doing his duty, were so profound to Joseph that more than 76 years later, he can remember with preciseness and accuracy, almost down to the hour of the day, each minute he spent in basic training preparing to fight.
He recalls the name of the Union Steam Ship-owned ferry that transported him to Vancouver, The Venture. He remembers the vessel being so packed with Canadian and American soldiers that each meal had to be served in three different sittings. He remembers the voyage took seven days from Prince Rupert because they stopped in every inlet to pick up more passengers.
Upon arrival, Joseph and many others were transported by bus to Little Mountain Barracks. He remembers the rows and rows of beds in a long room and the sergeant teaching them the basic regimentation of following rules, marching, and collecting eating utensils and meal trays.
They had various medical examinations in the mornings. During the afternoons, the troops were marched to classrooms where they had 300 to 500 answer questionnaires to complete. Albert said the questionnaires were to see how smart they were. He recalls getting more than 70 per cent on the test, but he wanted a position as a frontline battlefield soldier.
He said he wasn’t trying to glorify any effort, but he felt his experience handling a rifle was best suited in that area. Joseph’s dad had taught him from the age of nine to shoot with the proper way to hit the target. He was adept with a rifle from having to hunt food for survival.
The new recruits were shown movies of the happenings in Europe and the atrocities occurring along the frontlines.
“[The movies] made me feel like I had to do my best … and do my best not to get shot, ” he said, adding adamantly the thought of taking of bullet scared him, but the thought of his missing friends edged him forward. The content of the four-hour films made them angry, he said.
One day, after more marching, Joseph’s name was called. He was told to report to the medical centre. Once there, military staff handed him a discharge slip explaining he was not fit for active duty due to hearing loss. Joseph’s hearing was two percent under the required level. Thus he was not allowed to serve or defend his country or search for his missing friends.
Disappointment ran deep in his heavy heart on the journey back to Port Essington, but he said his family welcomed him home with open arms.
Joseph returned to ‘normal’ life in Spakshuut. Despite not being able to serve on the frontlines in Europe, he focused his efforts and rifle skills on Port Essington’s front lines finding food to share.
“Those years held harsh winters. They would have starved or frozen,” he said, speaking of the elders and families left behind without the strength of youth to support them.
In 1944, with fighting in Europe hitting the crescendo and the front lines moving closer to England, military recruiters conscripted young men from Canadian communities to fight against the rapidly advancing German forces. Joseph said the day came when they knocked on the family’s door in Shakshuut.
The young man was still eager to go and complete his duty to his country. However, upon being told of his earlier rejection, and hearing of his dedication to supply his village elders and residents with harvested meat and fish processed by his own hands, and the warmth provided from jackpine logs he cut and carried down the mountainside, Joseph was told he was fulfilling his duty to his country and to carry on at home.
Joseph said after the war ended, his friends came home. Some had shell shock. One had lost an arm. One was released from a German POW camp. Some of his Japanese friends also returned. But, everyone was different and carried their own scars.
He acknowledges that there are fewer veterans to tell the stories each year, and the thought of another war happening today frightens him. Today’s youth need to hear about the sacrifices made for them, or the understanding will be lost, he said, adding that he believes veterans are to be very much respected. He respects them, he said, and in past years he has been proud to lay a wreath, wear a poppy and fly the flag in memory of those who served, those who didn’t make it home and in memory of those who served in different ways.
K-J Millar | Journalist
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