In an interview with Yellowknifer, Joe Ouellette, the eldest veteran in Yellowknife, reflects on his military career as an anti-tank gunner.
Could you please introduce yourself?
“I joined the military in 1954. I was in the army (until) 1965. I was stationed in Canada here, and I had done (a term) in Germany. I volunteered both (terms),” said Ouellette. “My two oldest boys were born over there in Germany.
“I spent my (entire military career) as an anti-tank gunner.”
What is your story?
Ouellette said he was posted in Westphalia, a region of northwestern Germany.
“While we were in Germany, the Russians were pretty nasty at that time. My wife was over there with me. They said that the wives should be taken to England and they would stay there while we confronted the Russians. They gave us three days to last (against) the Russians. That wasn’t that good.
“Prior to that I had taken my paratrooper course in Shilo, Manitoba. I believe that was in 1958. (We did) our jumps around the Calgary area. I joined the PPCLI, which is the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and I did a term with The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada also.
“I was an anti-tank gunner. That’s (how) I lost my hearing, firing those anti-tank guns. They were so loud. Sometimes our noses would bleed from the blast, and we had no hearing protection at that time. We would tell (those in charge that) our ears were ringing, and they said, ‘Well don’t worry about it. Only lasts a few minutes and then then it’ll go away.’ It has done a lot of damage.
“Those were 24-pound rounds (we were firing). (The gun) was called a recoilless rifle. It was quite large. You could put a dime on the barrel, and when you fired it, that dime would still be there. That’s how stable that was. The back blast and the front blast were equal. Once, we put an apple box 20 feet behind (the gun), and when that thing went off, it was smashed from just the back blast. ”
(For practice,) we fired our guns at the Baltic Sea that’s just by Russian border. From there we fired at our targets which were old tanks that were killed in the First World War that were ruined… It was interesting. That was my journey as a soldier.
What did you do before and after your service?
“After the war, my dad was a carpenter. (When I left the military), I went in with him doing carpentry work. That’s basically what I had done. Before the war, I think I was a paper carrier. I had to get my dad to sign to allow me to join (the army). I was 17 (when I enlisted).”
Were you given a reason why you were needed in Germany?
“All that we were told was that we were there as a defence army. (I think it’s) because that’s where the Russians would probably hit first, Germany. We were also told that we may not have much time. They warned us that notice would be very, very (short). We had to be ready at all times.
“The Germans were happy to see us and were always apologizing for some reason. If you walked into a bar with German soldiers there, they would all snap to attention when we walked in. There was still that thought about what happened with Germany (in the Second World War). They still had that on their mind. They were feeling guilty about it, it seemed.
“(In my second term) I was married. That’s when we had our two boys that were born in Germany. They picked up very fast, those little ones. They understood German better than I could after a while because all the German women would come and get them to talk to them.”
Ouellette then shared an anecdote about his father.
“One time my dad, when he was in Germany, he was going to the bathroom… He opened the door and there were two Germans in there. He took them captured.”
Do you have any other stories you would like to share?
“We’ve done a lot of parachuting. I always wanted to be a paratrooper. We first jumped out (equipped with) the T-7 parachute. The thing we didn’t like about that is that the risers came out first, and then the chute. It snapped at you like a belt. They taught us to put our heads down because the big buckles would hit the back of your head. We had those for two or three years before they brought in what they called a T-10. All you felt (with the T-10) was your harness tightening. It just was just beautiful. It was just like going down a slide.”
Ouellette wants people to know, “our family did our part for Canada.”