TRENTON – Neil MacEachern reaches into the closet at his small Trenton apartment, looking diligently, almost excitedly for his black leather garment bag. Inside is his olive drab tunic, dotted with badges ribbons marking service to his country.
“It doesn’t fit like it used to,” says Neil with a chuckle.
It’s the same army uniform he wore during the invasion of Sicily during WWII. Today marks the 70th anniversary that Allied forces stormed the beaches of Sicily and broke through the Italian Fascist and German Nazi lines. But for MacEachern, now in his 89th year, the memories are still vivid in his mind.
Born in 1924, the New Glasgow native grew up on Stewart St and started working at the local steel plant. When Canada declared war on Germany in 1939, MacEachern was, at age 16, too young to join the army. “I managed to join in 1941, at age 18 but that was still very young,” he said. “There I was, a young boy with a bunch of old men, including some who’d been fighting since ’39.”
When he did enlist, the army sent him where the need was greatest, with the 1st Anti-Tank Regiment based in Ottawa. “It was our job to bring down the enemy’s armour, such as their tanks and vehicles with our 6-pounder guns,” he said. He was the driver that towed the gun into position.
“Two of my boyhood chums Cecil and Bingo enlisted as well but they were put with the Cape Breton Highlanders. From the minute you signed the papers, you went where the army told you.”
After training in New Glasgow, Yarmouth and Borden in Ontario, MacEachern was sent to New York where he set out for England. The troops never knew what their mission was as his convoy set out from Scotland for the Mediterranean. “We found out that it was an invasion 48 hours before we landed in Sicily,” he said. As a member of the ‘Red Patch Division’, MacEachern and the other Canadian Troops were added to the British Eighth Army.
Sicily, part of the Italian fascist state under Mussolini, had joined forces with Hitler when war broke out in 1939. The plan to invade, given the codename Operation Husky, came to fruition on July 10, 1943.
MacEachern recalled thinking that as the gun’s driver, he wouldn’t get wet as the men and vehicles waded ashore. “I was wrong,” he said with a laugh. “The truck had been waterproofed but I was up to my chest in water.”
When the over 100,000 allied troops landed on the beach, they faced intense resistance from Italian and German troops. By August 17, they had liberated the island but not before Canadian forces had suffered 2,310 casualties, including 562 killed, 1,664 wounded, and 84 captured.
Sicily would be the first successful large-scale combat operation in WWII for the Canadian Army.
“I spent 21 months working my way through Sicily and Italy,” said MacEachern. He was part of the Canadian Infantry Division that bested the Germans in the Italian city of Ortona. “The infantry couldn’t walk outside because of the snipers so we blasted out walls of apartments and houses to move forward undercover,” he said.
He was in Holland when news of the German surrender was announced. “Everyone there was so happy,” said MacEachern. “The Dutch were so grateful. They’d be hugging and kissing us even while there were bones on the ground.”
After being discharged from the army in Halifax in 1945, MacEachern became a long-haul truck driver. But the war and scenes from Sicily changed him forever. “I grew up feeling old and aged, like an old man in a young man’s body,” he said.
As time marches on, many of his wartime friends have passed on. “Pretty much all have gone by the wayside, you know.” As for his boyhood chums Cecil and Bingo, they are still over in Italy somewhere, the fatal casualties of Sicily. “I hope people never forget,” said MacEachern. “It should never die out.”
On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn