Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/7/2018 (500 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Robert Watkins, 93, is sitting in his St. Vital living room, but his mind is darting back to the HMCS Loch Achanalt, in October 1944, when the ship’s radar picked up something dangerous lurking in the Atlantic waters near the Faroe Islands.
Then a spry 19-year-old, 124-pound former Free Press paperboy, Watkins had signed up for the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve a year earlier, entering the Second World War at a crucial point for the Allied Forces. The ship’s crew was readying for nightfall when the alert bell sounded: a German U-Boat was nearby, chasing another Canadian ship, the HMCS Annan. Watkins was too excited to be afraid, and there was no time to think. The Loch Achanalt needed to attack.
Watkins loaded magazines weighing more than half as much as he did into the Oerlikon gun he manned, and soon, the German boat was sunk, its crew left dog-paddling in the water. "A lot of them were just as young as we were," Watkins says Monday morning. "War is not fun; it’s hell."
While he holds memories of the war close, it isn’t often that Watkins goes into such detail, and he’s doing so at the behest of Eric Brunt, a 25-year-old documentarian making a cross-country trek to talk to as many veterans of the Second World War as possible.
"He’s finding out things not even my kids know," Watkins says.
As Watkins outlines his service, Brunt, a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s film studies program, does his best to not "ooh" or "aah" too often, but it’s clear he’s fascinated by each recollection, no matter how routine they might’ve seemed to Watkins and the roughly one million Canadians who served during the brutal conflict that ended 73 years ago.
'A lot of them were just as young as we were' - Winnipeg veteran Robert Watkins, 93, on the crew of the German U-boat he sunk in October 1944.
For Brunt, his documentary is an urgent one. Of the million Canadians who served during the Second World War, roughly 50,000 remain alive, and their average age is 92, according to December 2017 statistics from Veterans Affairs. Their stories will disappear unless they’re recorded, a mission Brunt took on when his grandfather — who had been stationed in Atlantic Canada but was born in Winnipeg — died, his stories yet to be told in front of his lens.
"I never got to do with him what I just did with Bob," says Brunt moments after his nearly three-hour stay at Watkins’ apartment ends with a firm handshake and a smile.
In March 2008, about 9,500 Second World War veterans lived in Manitoba. By March of this year, there were fewer than 2,000.
Three months ago, Brunt decamped from Victoria in a white cargo van intending to interview as many veterans of the Second World War as possible; Bob Watkins was the 114th.
Brunt says he hopes his project inspires people, especially young Canadians, to sit down and listen to their elders, and for more people to become familiar with the stories of the Second World War, a conflict that seems far more historically distant than it is.
Some interviewees are more forthcoming than others. To re-immerse themselves into the days of war is a difficult task for some, and to do it for a young British Columbian stranger with a camera is even harder. Brunt exercises great patience in his interviews, making sure not to pry any further than his subjects wish.
With Watkins, the conversation flowed easily. A Winnipeg Transit retiree who drove a city streetcar and bus before moving up in the company, Watkins’ memory is crystal clear and his wit is whip-fast. He knows he’s lucky to be able to talk about his experiences, and it isn’t something he takes lightly.
He volunteers each week at the Naval Museum of Manitoba, identifying field artifacts, and has spent much time speaking to high school and elementary school students. He was fairly involved with his shipmates, but now he is one of only a few left, he says. It’s for those who can’t speak anymore that Watkins is baring his life’s story to Brunt.
Seventy-nine years ago, the day after Germany invaded Poland to trigger the formal start to the war, Watkins was walking along Portage Avenue when he saw a veteran of the First World War. He asked Watkins whether he’d be going to serve, and the then-14-year-old vowed he would if the war were still happening when he was old enough to ship out.
By the time he turned 18, the war was still raging, and Watkins, along with his brother Charles, was sent to the Atlantic. They both returned alive, and when Watkins exited the train in Winnipeg, he got on all fours and kissed the ground.
"War is hell," he repeats a few times throughout the interview. Brunt hopes his viewers will get the message.
Brunt is in Winnipeg for the next week and is looking to speak to any Second World War veterans willing to share their story. His phone number is 1-778-714-0071.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.