Norman Harold Smith saw history firsthand.
As a sergeant in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) he witnessed the Second World War and the impact of the holocaust.
“Once we defeated Germany, I went to a few concentration camps and saw the terrible horrors there. Guys so skinny that’d you wonder if they could still stand up. People whose minds were already gone just wandering around,” says Smith.
With Remembrance Day approaching, the 92-year-old veteran, a Brooklin resident, took time to remember his days serving the country.
Some doubt and even question the holocaust’s existence. Smith has seen it for himself.
“Oh yes, it’s absolutely true. I did see it so no matter what anybody says, that’s its fake… It was the real truth; I saw it with my own eyes.”
He remembers one particular instance where he felt helpless after visiting a hospital in Holland, a memory that haunts him to this day.
“I was stationed in Holland. Near the airfield was a hospital full of children and we used to take candy there. We were told there was no sense in doing that, they were starved to death. There was no use, they were too far gone. It’s something you never forget,” he says.
Smith vividly remembers famine and starvation among the people of Holland.
“They would line up outside our tents begging for food. We had barrels of food. These people would dig in the barrels with their hands. They were eating tulips, anything to survive. I can still see them and that’s a long time ago.”
Smith began his military training when he was 16, but was then told he was too young to defend his country. Smith was waiting for the call when he turned 18 in 1942.
“I got my call when I turned 18, came in did my medical and so forth and went to Quebec and Halifax for my training and then off to Europe.”
To many, including Smith, being in the military meant work, food and shelter in a country that was undergoing a recession.
“We were in a recession then. Before the war I was looking for work. The military was a job, a way of life,” he says.
After his training Smith was shuffled around in the air force.
“First I moved equipment then I was a crash-tender operator and repaired damage to planes. Whatever was necessary.”
Smith got to do five missions as a mid-upper gunner before the RCAF found out he was colourblind.
“We flew over Germany and dropped bombs,” he says. “We’d be going after airfields and factories. It was very scary, but I never had any mishaps.”
Sometimes the emotions would get the better of the veteran who would throw profanities at the enemy.
“I would yell and it wasn’t very nice, you don’t really want to hear the words” he admits, with a laugh. “Take that, you [explicit]!”
The leading aircraftsman was devoid of personal feelings as he shot at the enemy.
“I don’t know how to put it into proper words,” he begins. “You’re so tense in the air and emotions are running wild. You don’t think about things. That was your enemy, that’s it.”
The veteran held no grudge or towards anyone after the war. He says he was just doing his job.
Many of Smith’s compatriots however, died defending their country. More than 45,000 died and 54,000 were wounded defending Canada during the Second World War.
“They would say, “he bought it” when one of them died,” he says. “We knew right away what that meant.”
The Second World War has long been a popular landscape for movies and video games. The former aircraftsman believes the way movies and video games portray war is exaggerated and disrespectful to deceased veterans.
“I think it’s glamourized. I don’t think its fair to the veterans that have passed away.”
Sergeant Smith was honourably discharged on Oct. 23, 1945. Hitler had been defeated, the war was over.
Upon returning to Canada, Smith readjusted to civilian life by going back to school. He took an electrical class and later founded a business called Electric Motors. Today he is retired and lives with his life partner at the Court at Brooklin in Whitby.
The veteran is decorated for his work in the RCAF. His medals include the following: 1939-45 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and the 1939-45 War Medal.
“It makes me a little weepy,” he says. “I don’t look at these too often.”
He can be forgiven for getting a little emotional staring at war souvenirs and medals.
Smith and other veterans are honoured on Nov. 11 for defending our country.
“They would do the same. I did my job,” he says humbly.