This Remembrance Day, one of Yellowknife’s oldest living veterans will be among those reflecting on the highs and lows that come with a life of military service.
Joseph (Albert) Ouellette, 85, has been living in Yellowknife since 1978, working as both a corrections officer and as a safety department worker with Cominco Mines. Ouellette is also a 10-year military veteran, having served two tours in Germany up to his military retirement in 1965.
He comes from a family of military service-people.
Born in 1935 in a northern community near Prince Albert called Bear Lake, Ouellette joined the military as a paratrooper in 1954.
“I had always known about paratrooping by watching it in the movies and I had always wanted to be a jumper,” Ouellette said in an interview with Yellowknifer from his retirement home at Avens Manor.
“I got a chance when they were running a course in Shilo (Man.).”
Ouellette laughs when he recalls his very first jump and compares it to “sliding down a slide.”
“They would tell you how to leave a plane and if you made the proper exit, it felt like you were sliding down a slide. The first few I did was in a T-10 parachute and all the cords would come out and the chute would snap you like a whip.
“The T-7 parachute, which came out later, was different because it would just feel like your harness was constantly tightening.”
Military service was a common theme for Ouellette’s family as his father Ted had served in Germany with the Royal Canadian Engineers in World War II. A number of Ouellette’s brothers also served, including – James Oliver – who was two years older than Joseph.
He was killed in action in 1953 while serving as a sniper in Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953).
Losing James was hard on the family, Joseph said, showing the brother’s registration card that he still keeps in his wallet.
“Yes it was,” Joseph said when asked if it was a tragedy for his family. “James was the first one to join and as soon as he was of age, he had got his signature from Dad and went and joined.”
When James was killed, another brother – Leonard – who was serving in Korea at the same time, was sent home as a result, Joseph explained.
James’ story is featured in a history book called Sam’s Sloppy Sniper Section: Korea 1951-1952 by Don B. (Sam) Urquhart, which describes how James, as a scout on patrol, was killed during a fierce firefight after his patrol secured a major hill objective in Chinese territory.
As for Joseph’s experience, he said it was during the height of the Cold War and Soviet Russians were not far from where he was manning three or four, large and loud anti-tank guns.
“Germany was interesting because we were firing great guns and not far from the Russian border,” he said, adding the experience led to needing hearing aides later in life.
“We had no hearing protections when firing these big weapons and the blast would be so hard that my nose would bleed sometimes.”
Joseph recalled the Russians were “pretty feisty” during his period in Germany.
“In fact they told us that if the Russians invaded, the wives would be taken to England and we would have about three or four days to last and that would be it,” he said.
Ouellette has two sons living in Yellowknife who were born during his service in Germany – Darrin A. Ouellette, who works at the legislative assembly and Darrel, who works as a corrections officer at the jail.
Ouellette’s wife Doreen, who was unavailable for an interview, has been serving with the Legion’s ladies’ auxiliary since 1982.
Married for close to 60 years, the two will be marking Remembrance Day as they usually do – taking part in service ceremonies.
“People should remember because of what the military is doing and the protections they provide for Canada,” Ouellette said. “And not only Canada but their peacekeeping force which is always all over the place, too. If it wasn’t for the military we would be in deep trouble. ”