Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The enemy bares his teeth

Northern Ontario near Monteith, frozen lakes and rivers. Photograph taken from the air, April 2016

The Enemy Bares his Teeth

Monteith is hardly the place you would choose to spend a winter. The town is located in the backwoods of northern Ontario, half way between Toronto and Hudson Bay. In the 1930s it recorded the province's coldest minimum ever, when the temperature dropped to 65 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Yet, in November 1942, I was posted there to work as an Army dentist in a field hospital at the Monteith internment camp.

I farewelled my wife Marg in Toronto and, in the company of a few other officers, boarded a steam train for the 400 mile trip north. To keep us from freezing to death in the shaky wooden carriage, rudimentary heating was provided, but the wind still managed to penetrate the cracks beneath the doors. We hunkered down inside our great coats, played cards and smoked to relieve the monotony. It was a twelve hour journey through a snowy Christmas-card landscape pockmarked with frozen lakes, as white as the lunar surface.

Monteith had been chosen as the site of internment Camp 23, because of its remoteness and inaccessibility – there were no roads into the camp and no means for prisoners to escape. The camp was surrounded by forest and had a barbed wire perimeter fence and several watch towers. The place held around 1600 inmates, mostly German prisoners of war or enemy aliens. During the day some of the men were put to work cutting lumber, and hauling the logs to a nearby lumber mill, using horse-drawn carts.
On the first morning at Monteith I met my chair assistant, a bull-headed man, as strong as a Kodiak bear. His name was Fergus and he was one of the inmates.
'What's a chap called Fergus doing in a place like this?' I asked.
He replied in a broad Scottish accent, 'well Captain, it's a long story. The Allies picked me up on the Continent. When I couldn't establish my bona fides, they deemed me an enemy alien and I ended up here.'
'That's rotten luck. OK then Fergus, let's get started. Who's our first patient?'
'He's a wee lad Matrose Bochwoldt. Bochwoldt is one of the German POWs picked up from the Bismarck.'
The battleship Bismarck, the pride of the German fleet, had been hunted down and sunk in the Atlantic by the Royal Navy in May 1941. Only 115 German seamen were plucked from the icy watersthe remaining 2000 perished. Bochwoldt was one of the fortunate few to be rescued and sent to Canada.
Fergus spoke a few words of German and offered to act as my interpreter.
'Can you ask the patient about his symptoms?'
'Bochwoldt is complaining about soreness and swelling at the back of his lower jaw, on the left side.'
I looked into the patient's mouth and his fetid breath stung my nostrils. From this and the angry-red gum line, I could see that he had an impacted wisdom tooth, which had become infected.
'Fergus, can you tell the patient I will need to sedate him, cut into the gum and remove the impacted tooth.'
Bochwoldt's eyes darted and he looked somewhat alarmed at this news.
'Tell him that if he managed to survive the fiery inferno on the Bismarck, and the gale force winds and freezing waters of the North Atlantic, then this mere tooth extraction will be a breeze.'
Walking back to my hut at the end of the first day at Camp 23, I reflected on the strangeness of it all. Here I was, an Aussie, in the frozen wilds of Northern Canada, on the periphery of a war. I had chanced upon a bizarre mix of bedfellows – a Scottish enemy alien and a German seaman, a survivor of the most notorious naval battle of the war, thus far. Finally, I had come face to face with the enemy, and the enemy had barred his teeth, but the encounter was not quite what I had expected.

From the life of Bede James Smith. Based on an interview with Marg Smith in 1998. The names of the Scottish chair assistant and German prisoner-of-war are fictitious.

No comments:

Post a Comment