Each November, Canadians begin preparations for Remembrance Day. We wear poppies and make plans to visit a service. As the distinct red flowers emerge on breast pockets everywhere, we think about the brave men and women who fought for our freedom. Some of us think about relatives who fought in the war and perhaps grew up hearing stories about our grandparents or great-grandparents. Some of us have no familial connection to the war.
Nonetheless, it is difficult – if not impossible – to understand what wartime life was like.
For that reason, it’s imperative to remember our wartime history and pay respects to the brave men and women who sacrificed everything to defend our country. Part of this is speaking with veterans and getting first-hand accounts of their experiences. Unfortunately, as the years progress, we are left with fewer veterans to talk with; this makes sharing our history even more important.
To observe Remembrance Day this year, we spoke with Priv. Ralph O’Brien, who served as a Deep Sea Radio Officer in World War II.
Mr. O’Brien, a resident and one of two WWII veterans at Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, is a Vancouverite through-and-through, growing up in West Point Grey. Born in April 1925, this Remembrance Day, he will be 97.
At first, Ralph struggled to enlist in service due to his employment with Transport Canada. “During World War II, if you worked for the Department of Transportation, you were not allowed to go to sea, but I managed to get myself fired so I could enlist. In 1943 I was able to go.” Ralph volunteered for the Navy when he was 18 and was deployed shortly after. He says it was an easy decision to join the army. At that time, it was very common to enlist.
Ralph loved living on boats and told us that, for him, going to sea was an exciting time. “It’s a fine thing, going to sea. I can’t think of anything better; it’s filled with lots of adventure.”
Life During WWII, From the Perspective of a Veteran
Ralph spent his time in service using his sharp eye and quick wits. His job as a Radio Officer was to monitor the airwaves amid complete radio silence to detect and identify enemy transmissions.
“I served on a total of seven ships and kept my eyes open in case our convoy was attacked by German submarines… the navigation officers depended upon us a lot.”
Ralph played a critical role in ensuring the safety of naval troops during wartime. His work on those ships saved the lives of many. “I once discovered the presence of a German wolf pack. They would come along and try to sink an entire convoy, and I prevented that from happening.”
A wolf pack is a group of submarines that travels together to execute coordinated attacks. While singular submarines are difficult to detect, wolf pack submarine groups require extensive radio communications to execute operations, which leaves them vulnerable to detection with radio equipment. It was Ralph’s job to identify these signals.
With a solemn tone, Ralph described his most significant accomplishment during his service.
“I heard a German wolf pack radio alongside the convoy at that time, and I advised the commodore of the convoy of the presence of the German wolf pack, and he made a change in the course of the convoy. I had saved the lives of 39 North American ships.“
Making the call at that crucial moment came with insurmountable pressure, but Ralph was up to the task. We were impressed with Ralph’s accomplishments and asked him questions about what it was like living on a ship during active combat. “I don’t scare easily,” he told us. “Everybody on the ship slept with their clothes on, and I would go to bed with my pyjamas on…I showed absolutely no fear.”
During the war, he made one trip to London, England and across the equator to Australia. His longest time at sea was six months. Among his many medals are the 1939-1945 Star, the 1939-1945 War Medal, Pacific Star, and Overseas Volunteer Medal.
Understanding the Importance of Remembrance Day in Canada
To Ralph, Remembrance Day means everything. To this day, he upholds an annual tradition.
“On Remembrance Day, I go to the North Vancouver Royal Canadian Legion, and I wear all my medals. I don’t drink beer, but on Remembrance Day I drink one glass of Guinness Stout, and we eat brown bread sandwiches.”
Wartime ration rules dictated that men were not allowed to buy Guinness as it was in short supply. Whatever Britain could source from Ireland was given to troops as a morale booster. Guinness was also prescribed to patients and pregnant women, as it was believed to be high in iron. With that in mind, Ralph likes to indulge once a year.
As we approach Remembrance Day this year, we must continue to remember the ultimate sacrifice that Canadian and Allied soldiers made to give us the freedoms we enjoy today.
“Naturally, [Remembrance Day] means the most to me, as I have to remember the soldiers who lost their lives in wartime. I’m a patriotic Canadian, and Remembrance Day is something that I have to remember, and do remember.”
Ralph also had some advice to the younger generation: “It’s important for young Canadians to take a moment to pay their respects; it means a great deal. Remember the veterans who died for your country.” Today, there are 20,300 World War II veterans in Canada, and each year, we must remember those and all those who laid down their lives for the future generation of Canadians – with respect and with honour.