KAWARTHA LAKES-100 year-old Ken May was assigned to the Perth Regiment after he hit the front lines of the Second World War.
“When I arrived I was told to go to Captain’s tent,” May told Kawartha 411 News. “I walked up to the tent and in front of it, there were 20-25 guys in a pile, wrapped in grey blankets and dog tags hanging on them, about 25 bodies. I kind of thought to myself I guess I’m here to replace one of those guys.”
It was a rude awakening for the 21-year-old from East York Ontario. May left behind a good job with Weston’s Bakery and his five months pregnant wife to join the Canadian Army on the battlefield.
“I didn’t want to leave it all but I wanted to do my duty.” he explained.
May currently lives at the Kawartha Lakes Retirement Residence in Bobcaygeon. He joined the Army in 1942 and spent some time in training before being deployed to England and then Italy.
One thing he says he will never forget is the smell of war.
“We were proceeding north up through the Liri Valley and there was the worst stench you ever wanted to smell. The smell of dead flesh is horrible, I would rather smell a skunk any day.”
To this day May says he remembers that smell. “It’s a smell you never forget.”
A few nights later he recalls ending up sleeping in a castle for a couple of nights where the room was so big it had two fireplaces.
Once again he was called to the Captains tent, this time it was good news, May was told he was being furloughed to Rome. Before he left one of the younger soldiers asked him for a favour.
“He said would you mind taking pair of prayer beads and having them blessed by the Pope. And if anything happens to me while you are away please give them to my friend who will take them to my mother.”
May spent a week in Rome exploring Vatican City and the Catacombs. When he got back he learned the young soldier had been killed. He passed the newly blessed beads on to the friend who promised to make sure they got to his mother.
Later that day May says the Captain told him they were going on a midnight attack. It was December 20th 1944 in Northern Italy. The midnight attack turned into a deadly ambush.
“The whole lead platoon was killed. It was dead and wounded all the way back. They dissolved the whole company that night there, wasn’t enough left to do anything with, that’s how badly we got hit.” he said.
The first bullet tore through Ken’s leg. He fell to the ground and began crawling. Another bullet one nicked his elbow, one went through his forearm, three in the back and one in his hip.
“Bullets were flying everywhere. One went through the brim of my helmet and I felt the wind on my ear. I was trying to pull another guy while I was crawling, he died,” May says. “I crawled as far as I could crawl, got up and tried to walk but I was staggering. Two guys found me and took me to the advance dressing station.”
From there he was transferred to the closest temporary hospital which had once been a military barracks.
“There were three doctors standing at the foot of my bed, and they were trying to decide whether they’re going to cut my hand off or not.” May exclaims.
The two bullets that had gone through his arm shattering his radius and they were concerned about infection setting in. Thanks to one Doctor, Ken’s hand was saved and he regained almost full use of it.
Ken was sent back to England and was scheduled to sail back to Canada when the war abruptly ended.
“VE Day was the day we were supposed to get on a ship to come home but everything stopped. People were out in the streets celebrating.”
A day later Ken was on that ship headed home. He and his wife Gertrude would have four children. Three girls and a boy. The youngest, Susan, says her dad didn’t talk much about the war.
“He didn’t really talk about it because he saw some really bad stuff,” she says. “We knew he was shot. We saw the scars. There’s a hole in the top of his right shoulder, you can see the scar coming up his back.”
Although he was hoping to make it to 100 without using a walker May says he had to start using one six months ago. He credits healthy living and good genes for his longevity.
“I’ve never smoked and drank very very little. I lost my mother at 101 so we had some good genes.”
He recently joined the choir at the retirement residence.
“I guess I can hold a note as good as anyone can.”
Remarkably all of Ken’s physical injuries healed.
“Life is what you make it. It’s made me one of the most positive people you will ever talk to in your life.” May says.
On this, the 100th year of the Poppy May says it’s more important than ever to remember.
“I’d like to see people wearing a poppy to show remembrance. The poppy is a reminder.”
Lest We Forget.