It’s been 80 years since Charlie Reid, 101, served overseas as a tank driver in the Second World War.
But when you pick up his old black woolen soldier’s beret, it still smells of diesel.
When Reid was drafted on Dec. 29, 1942, he was a 19-year-old farm boy from Old Ridge, north of St. Stephen.
By the time he was discharged in 1946 at 23, he had fought with the First Hussars in bitter battles, including the closing of Falaise Gap, the Battle of Le Mesnil-Patry, and the clearing of the cross-channel guns at Calais. Reid was also among the Allied forces to land at Juno Beach in Normandy in June 1944.
“At night, I go to bed, and I go over some of that stuff,” said Reid, who still lives independently, drives, and plays violin.
“It comes to the fore, I would say, because you hear so much this time of the year for Remembrance Day.
“But if you thought about it all the time, it would drive you crazy.”
From the farm — to France
Reid had a “great life” growing up with his brother and sister on the family farm.
In those days, much of St. Stephen still ran on coal, which arrived on three-masted sailing ships and was delivered by a horse and wagon. The unpaved streets were sprayed with water to keep the dust down.
Reid always loved anything with a motor. At 13, he was driving his father’s old Durant car — “and I was out on the highway driving from then on. No traffic. But a lot of dust.”
He had a job he loved as mechanic at Imperial Esso in St. Stephen. But by 1942, “we all knew we were going to get drafted,” he said.
“You didn’t really didn’t want to leave the farm, but you kind of set your mind that you were going to do it anyway.”
Into the unknown
Reid joined up in the winter of 1942.
After basic training, he set sail on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam from Halifax for Greenock, Scotland, with almost 9,000 other troops, and a kit bag in his hand.
The once-luxurious Nieuw Amsterdam had been outfitted inside with thousands of hammocks — “one down here, one up here. You could hardly turn over on the bottom. Every night, they’d close all the drapes and windows, and there were about three, or four hundred in that place. It didn’t smell very good by morning.”
The boys amused themselves by running and sliding on the wet wooden deck of the ocean liner.
“Wonder we hadn’t slid overboard,” Reid said. “The seas, oh, they were rough. You’d go way up. Then your heart would come right up in your mouth, and way back down.”
From Greenock, they were sent to Brighton, England, then to Windsor to pick up their tanks.
“Before they sent us to France,” Reid said, “they gave us a medical. I often wondered why. [I thought], ‘they’re going to kill us anyway.'”
Reid left the United Kingdom after midnight on June 7, 1944. He landed in Normandy with some 14,000 other Canadian troops.
On Juno Beach, “there was a beach master there telling us what to do, they had a tripod set up. You go beyond that,’ he said, ‘you’re on your own. No man’s land.'”
A tank driver who’d been ambushed came in, warning Reid “it’s bad.”
Days later, at the Battle of Le Mesnil-Patry — the last attack by an armoured battle group conducted by Canadian troops in Normandy — he saw his friend Lt. Jameison Martin “peeking up too far out of his turret.”
“All of a sudden he disappeared,” Reid said. When Reid looked again, “his head was gone”
Not long afterward, he saw a wounded officer waving a Luger.
“He was out of his head with shock and he was firing that in the air, and yelling and yelling. I don’t know whether he got back or not.” Another friend of Reid’s from Fredericton was killed “100 feet away from where I was.”
While Reid was never injured in battle, he said, “we could have been killed anytime.”
‘There’s soldiers that are not made for war’
While all of his war experiences were frightening, Reid said, the uncertainty was the worst.
“We were supposed to take Calais, and they parked us on the street — and we sit there, and we sit there. We’re supposed to go, and then we get ordered not to go. Your stress kept building up, and building up.”
Some soldiers broke under the strain. “There’s soldiers that are not made for war. It’s not their fault. They just can’t handle it,” Reid said.
“But it wasn’t all terror-stricken. You got relaxed and you had fun with the boys. You played cards and so on.”
His driving skills honed on the dirt roads back in New Brunswick served him well in the war.
“I loved to drive a tank,” he said. “It was great fun.”
On May 8, 1945, when Germany surrendered to the Allies, Reid was in Nijmegen, Netherlands, close to the German border.
He stayed in nearby Arnhem for a year and worked until the end of 1946, when his name came up on the list to go back home.
After landing back at Pier 21 in Halifax, it was a train journey to Saint John, then a bus back home to Old Ridge.
“The old roads were there then,” he said. “We went into Seeleys Cove and all those fishing villages, and into St. George, and into Saint Andrews, and into St. Stephen, and I didn’t mind at all.”
His parents were there waiting for him with their 1930 Chevrolet.
“I remember my mother gave me a big hug, and my dad — in those days, your dad didn’t really hug you. You got a great big handshake. But he was just as happy as she was.”
‘You couldn’t tell it the way it was’
But readjusting to civilian life wasn’t easy.
“I had a lot of problems after I got home with post-traumatic [stress],” he said.
“They didn’t call it that. Then it was battle exhaustion. The things I wanted to do, I’d have to make myself do it. I’d go to the bank and go to the door, and then turn around and go back to the car. I don’t know why.
“I still have to plan everything,” he said. “But now it don’t seem to bother me.”
For a long time, he spoke to no one about what he’d seen overseas.
“No, I never,” he said. “Nobody ever knew I was in the army. No one ever talked about it. You couldn’t tell it the way it was.”
In recent years, Reid has been talking a lot more, thanks to New Brunswick military historian Darren McCabe.
McCabe has been recording Reid’s stories in the hope of one day turning them into a book.
“Once I get started, I can’t get stopped,” Reid said.
“My generation, and the generations after me, could learn from those stories,” McCabe said. “If you don’t remember the past, you’re doomed to repeat it.”
As for Reid, he sees himself as “lucky, I guess.”
“I sometimes think I’d like to be back to 20 years old. But to experience the best part of it.
“I wouldn’t want to experience the worst part.”