Keeping the peace
Tom Lessard, former UN peacekeeper
It’s Christmas Day 1956, and I’m on leave at home in Waterloo. I had to leave at noon, so we had an early Christmas dinner. I hitchhiked to London (my parents didn’t want to drive in the weather). My last ride got me right to the CN station.
Being Christmas day the station was empty and I had a few hours to wait for the train. While I was sitting there, a gentleman wearing CN overalls came over and asked me where I was going. I said, “I’m going to Egypt.” He sat down and we chatted for a while. He looked down at my kit bag and he said, “Lessard. Do you know Warren Lessard?” I said, “That’s my father.” He said, “I’m George Cooper. I’m your uncle!” He had been with the merchant navy and had been torpedoed, and was living with his family in London. I didn’t know I had an uncle in London.
I get on the train heading for Kingston, where I was going to meet up with RCEME (Royal Canadian Electrical Mechanical Engineers) workshop – I was RCOC (Royal Canadian Ordinance Corps). We were forming there in a couple days to take a troop train to Halifax. With a troop train, especially with guys going overseas, there’s always some hanky-panky going on.
We didn’t have too much until we got to St. John, New Brunswick. The CO said “There’s a 45 minute stop in St. John.” We could go out as long as we were back in 45 minutes. It was a pretty dry town in those days, so we got a taxi and had him take us to somewhere where we could get a drink. He took us to a house where they had wine and other stuff. Of course time slipped away and we had to rush out and get a taxi. By the time we got back to the station, the train had departed. We wired ahead to hold the train. They did and we took the cab and caught the train 25 miles down the road. We got on the train and the MPs were waiting for us. They took us down to the CO. It wasn’t a formal orders parade – it was just a chat. He gave us a choice of either working our way across on the ship or he’d throw the book at us. We all said we’d work our way across.
We got to Halifax and all these troops were there – Queen’s Own Rifles and the Royal Canadian Regiment. We found out they were not going. Egypt did not want Royal infantry there, but we were non-combatant support personnel.
We got on the ship, the aircraft carrier Magnificent. We sailed out of the harbour New Year’s and we hit a storm for a day or so. That upset a lot of people’s stomachs. The waves were so high they were on the flight deck. One of my jobs was to inspect the chains holding down the 240 vehicles we had on the deck. That didn’t take too long, so I had quite a bit of spare time. We get out of the storm and two days later – near Bermuda – the CO came along and found me sitting reading a book on my bunk.
He said, “You’re not working Lessard?” I said, “Yes, I’m finished, sir.” He said, “Well, Sargeant Major, we need some more work for him.” So I had to clean the heads.
Every day we were out there and had our grog. We’d go down and meet and they’d pour us our grog in our mugs. A lot of my buddies didn’t drink, so we carried Coke bottles in our back pockets and as they were going by they’d fill them up. We made sure our jackets were covering it and we’d wander off and have ourselves a little party.
We carried on to Egypt, and got to Port Said. British and French warships were in the outer harbour; the Egyptians had scuttled a number of ships in the mouth of the Suez Canal so no one could use it. We anchored off the port. We weren’t allowed off the ship until we had our United Nations armbands and hats.
In the meantime we started to unload the ship into barges – rations and all the other things. They wanted someone to guard each of the barges overnight – it would be a long shift. He put me in charge of one of the barges (I had volunteered). Unbeknownst to me the barge was full of Black Label, Labatt’s India Pale Ale and Dow beer. He said, “Lessard, drink as much as you want, but you’d better be sober in the morning.” I did my duty – I drank my beer and I was fairly sober in the morning. We got our UN equipment and we were taken down to our new base at Abu Suwer and that was on the sweet water canal that runs between the Suez Canal and the Nile River.