He said jobs were scarce at that time and his friend, Harold Odland was going to sign up and asked him to come along and join the Canadian Army.
McKay was 18 at the time and said it was winter, February, and there just weren’t any opportunities to find jobs and being in the army not only gave him a job but allowed him to send $20 a month back home to his family in Travers.
McKay was born Oct. 23, 1923 in Birtle, Manitoba but was five years old when his family left and moved to Alberta. He said he’s spent most of his life in the Travers area which meant joining the army and leaving home for a larger urban centre was a huge change for him.
“I never knew anything, everything was a shock. You kind of learn fast.”
McKay went through four months of training but his actual deployment in the army was delayed as he came down with Scarlet fever and had to recover in hospital before he could ship out.
He actually faced another serious setback before shipping overseas. He was in a troop train that ran into the back of a passenger train in what became one of the worst CPR crashes on record. On Dec. 27, 1942 in Elmont, Ontario 37 people were killed in the crash and another 105 were injured.
“That was the worst thing I ever saw, including the war.”
Only one person was injured in the troop train, all of the deaths and injuries were to the holiday passengers. McKay said he was horrible to see all of the death and destruction but in some ways it prepared him for what he would see during his tour of duty with the army.
While he has shared some of his experiences over the years, he said there are still others he will never talk about.
He left Canada on New Year’s Day, heading out across the ocean for Europe. He was assigned to the transport division.
“Anything that had to be hauled,” came under the transport division.
When he came ashore at Juno Beach in France it was at the wheel of a transport caring five tons of explosives. As the driver he had to stay with the load for two weeks and just hope it didn’t get hit by enemy fire.
In the end all he had was one hole even though twice his transport was in the line of fire.
“There were holes in lots of trucks but not mine, just one hole in the tarp.”
At the end of the war his last load was 15 Italian women who were making their way back home from forced labour in a German shipyard. They were a very somber group whose only request of McKay was to roll back the tarp a little to give them some fresh air, a request he was quick to fill.
He said they just wanted to get back home.
“The war had ended so they sent us to pick them up.”
There were about 60 women who were transported from German by the group McKay was driving with.
“They were really quiet.”
McKay was fortunate to survive the war with only one minor injury, a shell fragment that was removed so he could go back on duty right away.
After the war ended in Europe he spent a little time in Holland and actually volunteered to go to Japan. He arrived in Calgary in August of 1945 but the war ended in Japan before he could be reassigned.
McKay said when he joined the army he had know idea what to expect.
“You grow up fast.”
At times it helps him to talk about his experiences, such as those he shared with his nephew Lynn Dickout, who then compiled the stories and photographers into a book for McKay for the recent celebration of his 90th birthday.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said of the book. “It’s so well done, too.”
He knew Dickout was working on his history because he would visit with him and record his stories but that went on for a few months before his birthday and he didn’t associate it with his 90th celebration.
Now when he looks over the book he is thrilled to see his memories put to paper.
“I remember the guys that left and never came home.”
For him Remembrance Day is a day to think of them.
All of his memories tend to flood back on Nov. 11 each year as if the decades had not passed since World War II ended.
He said he remembers seeing them, talking to them and then they are not there anymore.
He hopes each Remembrance Day that everyone will take a moment to remember the price that was paid to fight a World War and will realize war is not a choice that should ever be made again.
“It’s not the way to do it.”
For McKay, seeing the starving children was one of the hardest things for him as a soldier. He said often the men would go back for second helpings at meal time and then headed out behind the hall to give the food away to the children.
While his memories of war are hard to remember, he does have good memories of the months he spent training and the friendships he made along the way. Over the years he has kept in touch with a number of them. He met guys from across Canada and has kept track of them over the years.
He added one of the first things he learned in the army was “just roll with it.”
He said his family was always supportive of his decision to serve.
“I think it was best I got out and worked.”
His father, James McKay enlisted in the First World War but never left Canada as the war ended before he could be assigned overseas. He still remembers what his father told him as he headed off to war himself.
“You’ll be back,” was the only thing his dad said to him.