Dave Snyder of Penticton has been gathering the stories of local veterans and sharing them through his Penticton Remembers book series.
Over the last ten years, Snyder gathered over 130 stories from veterans in the region. The whole project began as a way to celebrate and recognize the contributions and history of the South Okanagan’s veterans.
“Once upon a time, Penticton was 100 years old (2008), and because I’m from Manitoba where people celebrate centennials, I did Penticton Remembers Volume I as my personal centennial project,” said Snyder. “I’ve done three volumes. The first had 42 veteran stories from the South Okanagan, volume two had 52, and the third one had 36.”
Snyder doesn’t consider himself a veteran, just “someone who wore the uniform for a long time.” It’s that relationship that has helped to get some veterans to open up about their stories,
“One of the things, Second World War veterans, in particular, many, many, never said boo about their experiences,” said Snyder. “Many veterans that I approached were reluctant. There was a grand old man who grew up in Kaleden, he said ‘Oh I didn’t do anything important in the war, and no I won’t give you my story.’ But his story is important. Because in a sense, each story is typical, some people joined up and never went overseas. Others joined up and before they knew it, a few months, later they were in Britain, then in Europe fighting. It’s amazing the contrast.”
Proceeds from the sales of his books support a scholarship that Snyder established for local cadets. The first two volumes have completely sold out, and Snyder still has a few boxes left of Vol. 3. Snyder is happy to do what he can for the local kids in helping them with their education.
“All you have to do is apply and you’ll get it basically,” said Snyder. “Last high school graduation, I had five cadets apply, one army cadet and four air cadets. So I’ve been doing that to support the local cadet corps.”
The veterans that did open up to Snyder have offered their memories and experiences for everyone to read and learn from. A number of the veterans that Snyder interviewed are still alive today and speaking with him.
“There are amazing veteran stories. There’s one story I captured in book two, he’s ninety-nine years old. Another is in the west wing of the hospital, he’s 102. I visited him just a month ago. His story is phenomenal,” said Snyder. “To survive a Russian gulag, the statistics were horrendous. I think it was 25 per cent survival. But to survive, and to live to be over 100, it’s amazing. If that doesn’t the celebrate the tenacity and strength and toughness of a human being…”
Excerpt from David Snyder’s Penticton Remembers Volume II – Veterans stories from the South Okanagan.
Aleksander Wakoluk, age 101, miracle man of Penticton
On Sept. 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht smashed its way into Poland from the West.
On Sept. 17, the Red Army followed suit from the east and by the end of September, the German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship Demarcation and Co-operation had dismembered Poland, plunging it into one of the deeper pits of misery in the history of Europe. The Polish experience in World War Two was “probably the most complex, far-flung heroic and tragic of the western Allies and is the least known.”
In October 1939 tens of thousands of Polish soldiers were captured by the Red Army and transported to Siberia gulags as slave labour. Estimates vary from 230-450,000 Polish POWs were transported to Siberia. Not satisfied with POW slave labour, beginning in February 1940 Soviets deported hundreds of thousands Polish civilians — men, women, children — to slave labour camps. In June 1941, Hitler invaded his former ally, Russia. In July 1941, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the leader of the Polish government in exile, reached an agreement with Stalin.
Gulag prisoners and deported exiles were officially freed and allowed to join a new division of the Polish Army formed on Soviet soil. General Wladyslav Anders, imprisoned in Lubyanka for twenty months feared for his former POW soldiers that the situation would deteriorate so he marched his army westward in haste. One soldier released with Ander’s Polish exiles was Penticton resident Alek Wakoluk.
Born in 1918 in southeastern Poland Alek was an agricultural student before he enrolled in the army in 1939. A month later, Alek and thousands of soldiers fleeing for the Romania border were captured by the Red Army.
Transported by rail in cattle box-car some 2500 kilometres east of the Urals, Alek and his fellow POWs spent the next two years in a slave labour camp in southwestern Siberia. Those who survived were young, healthy, very tough and lucky.
“All I think about is bread; I was hungry all the time.”
In March 1942, Alek Wakoluk and thousands of POWs were released.
Wakoluk was an artilleryman, a spotter gunner, a bombardier, one of eight men on a self-propelled gun crew that supported Maczek’s 1st Armoured Division. This division of 16,000 soldiers was a formidable force with four armoured regiments, four infantry brigades, four artillery regiments, a recce regiment, military police, engineers and signalmen. Arriving in France in July 1944, the 1st Polish Division was part of the Canadian Second Corps. It was the Poles that blocked the pocket and closed the Falaise Gap. “The Battle of Chambois decided the fate of the war in Normandy as well as that of the entire French people,” General G.G. Simonds observed. The Germans resisted the allies strongly on their territory. When the Poles reached Germany they were under British command and the fighting was fierce. Joined by the Polish Independent Parachute Brigade Maczek’s army was a considerable force. Perhaps the Polish division’s sweetest hour came, shortly after it entered the Reich when it seized the Kriegsmarine Naval Base at Wilhelmshaven. On the 6th of May, General Maczek accepted the surrender of 19,000 Germans including a general and an admiral, the Ostfriesland fleet of 200 vessels and ten infantry divisions.
For the Polish Army, the Allied celebration of V-E Day in May 1945 was bittersweet.
“Everyone was happy, but we know, we no go home,” Alek sighed, seven decades after the fact.
Sadly, the majority of its free soldiers were displaced persons, exiles unable to return to Poland because the Polish government stripped General Anders and his soldiers of their citizenship. The western powers, in which the Poles had put their trust, never came near to rescuing the country’s independence. In 1948, encouraged by a Winnipeg Polish priest, Alek came to Canada and worked for a Manitoba farmer, then to Calgary, where he found a job with the Canadian Pacific Railway. Alek was hired as a permanent section hand. In 1954, Calgary became his permanent residence.
Alek turned 102 on his last birthday. Presently Alex is a resident of the west wing of Penticton Regional Hospital.
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