Albert Salomon Charest served in the army during the Second World War. Read and listen to Albert Charest’s testimony below.
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I was born to a poor family. I started working at the age of ten. I went and dug up potatoes with my little brother. We gathered potatoes to feed the family during the winter. My father was dead and my mother was left with 5 children. She was obliged
to go to the priest to seek support for the winter.
One of my friends asked me if I wanted to enlist. I said, “What are you talking about? That doesn’t make sense, you have to be at least eighteen to enlist, I’m not eighteen yet.” He said that we’d be fed, and definitely given a place to sleep, so let’s go!
When we took the Monte Cassino, it was disastrous for me. It affected me terribly. They demolished the entire village...you wouldn’t say there’d been a town there. There had been a lot of people, it was a big village; I have photos of all that, it was a big village […]. The next morning, they started the clean-up early, the others had to get through, we had to get rid of that lot on the mountain. The Germans were all captured in this area, it was the third time that we tried to get through. Where we did get through, there were specialists who went in behind, and then we trapped them. We got up and we had them. The next day, we were able to get through with our trucks, we took out about seventy of them, and we left.
We travelled through the village. I was the first to go through, with the sergeant. That sergeant was better than a major. He was an extraordinary sergeant. I had never seen an officer like that, he was so kind. He was like a father to me. It touches me each time I speak about him. There was a small boy – there was a hole there, and a little kid who was standing in the hold. The Sergeant said, “Albert, stop.” So, I stopped, we halted the convoy, and the Sergeant went to see the little boy. He asked, “Are you alone?” [The boy replied,] “Yes, my family is all dead.” I said, “It can’t be…” and asked, “Do you want to come with us?” The boy said, “Sure, I’ll come. I don’t have anything here, no one to take care of me.” The sergeant invited him to come along with us, and he accepted. He came along, sat up in a Jeep, and we took him with us. We took him on as a little soldier. We dressed him up like a little soldier and took him with us. One day, he’d go out with one truck and the next day with another. He became our little brother, it was sweet.
We had a bit of a break in Ortona. We had one, two, maybe three months of rest. Ortona was a huge battle. We lost a lot, a lot of men. Ortona was a big city, wealthy and sophisticated. [The Germans] demolished it in a few days. It was easier for me in Holland, because the transportation was easier for us. We were always behind the lines. We were replenishing supplies. We went to Germany, replenishing supplies. We did truck transport. Where they [the Germans] had damaged the bridges, we repaird them and we went over, carrying on with our transport. We brought troops, food, munitions. It was easier in Holland than in Italy or France.
If ever you go to Holland, you’ll feel more than at home. This is true – it’s nearly impossible to imagine how welcomed we were in that country. For them, French Canadians are gods, it’s us who saved their lives. I remember in Amsterdam, the Germans were really terrible, real pigs. They had crucified nine people at the bottom of a huge monument – if you’re in Amsterdam, it’s the big monument that they have all their large ceremonies in front of, there’s a huge monument – they crucified them, killed them in front of thousands of people. The Germans were rotten scum.
I saw even worse things. In Italy, I saw a mother with her three little children. They had a hay stack for their mules, their goats; that was all they had for winter. They [the Germans] took the woman, tied her near to it, along with her three little children, and they lit her on fire and stole the animals. That’s the Germans for you! It’s true what I am saying to you, I am not making up a word of it.
I saw some poor women. They would come by in the morning when we were eating breakfast. We weren’t allowed to give them our leftovers, our toast. We had to take them and throw them in the garbage, rather than give them to the women. The women had two little infants with them, about two or three years old. Poor things, they were clothed shabbily but they were wearing all they had. They came to see us with these little pots to gather something to eat for their children. I wasn’t put out; sometimes I would go without my toast and drop it in their pot. A couple of times, I got caught, but I said, “Look here. These are human beings just like any other. We’re going to throw this all out, when we could be giving it to them to help them eat and survive. If you’re going to punish me, I’m ready, it won’t be as bad as doing nothing.”
They saw what war is on the television, but on TV war is only a thing. It’s a game, a game that they’re playing. It’s a comedy.