Coffee With...Wesley Oake

Terri Saunders tsaunders@ganderbeacon.ca
Published on November 10, 2011

There are certain things Wesley Oake doesn’t like to talk about. He’d prefer not to answer specific questions such as those which attempt to elicit from him the number of people he may have killed in his lifetime. He doesn’t want to talk much about the intimate details of war or the things he experienced in his younger years. But the Second World War veteran’s eyes light up slightly and he becomes animated when talking about the men with whom he fought battles in England and Italy. He recalls with appreciation and reverence the fact he made it back home to Canada when so many others did not. If you really want to get him going, ask him about the thing which matters to him the most. When he speaks about Myrtle, his wife of 65 years, you can see on his face and hear in his voice the young man in his 20s who, having returned from the war-torn battlefields of Europe, wanted to wait just one day before marrying his sweetheart. Mrs. Oake was a little less spontaneous and didn’t take her beloved as her husband for a year. The couple now live in Gander, have five children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Q: How old were you when you decided to join the military?

A: It was in 1942 and I was 20. I was living out in Robert's Arm but working here in Gander. That's when they were staring to build Gander and the Americans were here building the airport. I worked there as an ordinary labourer. I left Gander by train and went to Grand Falls-Windsor and volunteered, and that's where I got my medical and everything. After I was accepted, I went into St. John's and did training. I was trained to march and to handle guns.

Q: Where did you land when you were first sent overseas?

A: I went with the 166 Royal Newfoundland Field Artillery Regiment to England and then after I arrived there, I took different training in artillery and that was vicious artillery. That was heavy artillery. I went on from there to action in Africa and Italy and that lasted two-and-a-half years.

Q: What were your first impressions upon arriving in England?

A: My first impression was, I wondered what had gone wrong with the world because at that time, when we arrived there, that's when the armies were bombing Great Britain and we had to stand guard during what they called The Blitz. That was an awful experience that I don't want to talk about, actually. But you know, how the British people stood up and put up with it and still kept in there - that amazes me because there were hundreds of thousands killed by the bombings. My other first impression, I suppose, was that we were all going to be destroyed but that we had to fight on. We had to fight.

Q: Many veterans don't want to speak about the harsh realities of war. Why do you think that is?

A: It's just because they know what war is. War is to kill. That's what it is. When I was first going in and speaking to school classes as a veteran, first of all I would tell them, ‘You can ask me any question but you may ask questions that I will not answer.' For instance, the first question they'll usually ask a veteran when he goes in is, ‘How many did you kill?' You don't talk about that. That's not what it's about. But it's important for them to know war is killing and war is terrorism, really. It's got another name now - terrorism. That's what it is. We're at war now, really."

“My first impression was, I wondered what had gone wrong with the world.” Wesley Oake, veteran

Q: Does it surprise you to realize that, even after two global conflicts, war continues to rage in different parts of the world?

A: No, it doesn't surprise me, because that's the way human beings are. World War One, when that was fought and ended, that was supposed to be the war to end all wars. And certainly World War Two, experiencing five years of the world at war - I thought after those there would be no more wars. But my opinion about that changed after I got older and got involved in the world more than being a military person.

Q: When did you come home?

A: I returned to Newfoundland after the war ended in 1945. I got out of the military when I came back. I went back to Robert's Arm because that's where my parents were living and I already knew Myrtle before I left. She was very young then, but she was my sweetheart and I never forgot about her. So when I came back, she was working in Corner Brook. I came back on Sept. 25, 1945 and I wanted to get married the next day, but she kept me waiting for a year, rightly so. She was still very young."

Q: You worked in the pulp and paper industry for a few years before deciding to go to school. Where did you study?

A: I went to Mount Allison University (in New Brunswick) in 1961 and I studied arts. I went from there to Pine Hill Divinity Hall School of Theology (in Halifax), which is now the Atlantic School of Theology, and I graduated from there and came back to Newfoundland and was ordained to the Christian ministry in St. John's. I then took a year's leave of absence from the conference, and went to Asbury Theological Seminary (located in Kentucky) and took another full year in theology and evangelism. I had ministries in Newfoundland and Ontario before I retired in 1987. That's when we came back home and we've been here ever since.

Q: Many veterans don't have a lot of pleasant memories of war, but you have one that's good.

A: I suppose the biggest thrill of my life when I was in the military was on my birthday, which is May 31, and I was in action then up in the mountains in Italy. I received a telegram from Myrtle wishing me a happy birthday. It was so wonderful, you can't imagine. I'm assuming it took her a full month's worth of her wages at that time to pay for that telegram to reach me in Italy. And I got it on my birthday. Isn't that beautiful?

Q: What made you decide to join the military in the first place?

A: When I am asked that question by young people today, I say it was for the simple reason that they might have the privileges that they have now - the freedom to do as they wish; the freedom to live. That's why. And, of course, in defence of my country. If we hadn't gone and fought and won a victory, we wouldn't be here today. We wouldn't have this freedom."

tsaunders@ganderbeacon.ca