Canadian History: Remembering Orme Payne, Part One
This year on Remembrance Day, Rod Mickleburgh felt the loss of a friend, a veteran and a Second World War combat survivor who found strength in his fellow men, and one in particular.
By Rod Mickleburgh
I lost a good friend of mine this fall. Orme Payne, who fought in Italy and Holland during World War Two, passed away at the George Derby Care Home in Burnaby. He was 98 years and five months young, and I use the word “young” advisedly. Through the years, no matter how rough a time the rest of him was having, the strength of his voice never wavered, his mind and memory remained razor sharp, and he never failed to make me laugh. So, Remembrance Day in this most terrible of years will be even more sombre for me than usual. I will be thinking of Orme.
I first met him in 2015, when I wrote a Remembrance Day story for the Globe and Mail on the long, remarkable friendship between Orme and his boyhood prairie buddy, Gordie Bannerman. The two first bonded on a dusty ball diamond in southern rural Saskatchewan at the age of 12. Gordie pitched. Orme caught. “I was the only one with a glove,” said Orme. “But no mask. Took a couple on the nose. Lost a lot of blood.”
They went through school together, joined the army on July 23, 1940 (their enlistment numbers are one digit apart), fought in the same regiment right through the war, came back safe and sound, and remained in close contact with each other for the next 73 years. How close were they? Shortly after Gordie fell and broke his left leg, Orme fell and broke his right. “When it happened to Gordie, I thought to myself: ‘that clumsy old coot.’ Six months later it happened to me,” Orme said. “We figured things out. If we put our two legs together, we’d be perfect for a three-legged race.”
Their friendship only ended, 85 years after it began, when Gordie died in 2018. “The last thing I heard out of him was a joke about Bill Mather losing his gum in the chicken house, back in Neville,” Orme told me. “It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”
You can read my Globe story on the two old vets here.
After the story appeared, Orme and I warmed to each other with regular chats over the phone. Talking with him was always a delight. He was not like some veterans who, as they aged, had trouble remembering details beyond their oft-told war stories. His memory was a treasure. You could ask him about anything, no matter how far back, and he would produce names, dates and details, as if he’d been telling the story for years. As a bonus, there were always jokes or expressions that cracked me up. I started taking notes.
I reviewed them after Orme died, and I could still hear his voice and the down-to-earth way he talked loud and clear. It was pure prairie, sprinkled at times with pure poetry. He could pop expressions better than Charlie Farquharson.
…I could still hear his voice and the down-to-earth way he talked loud and clear. It was pure prairie, sprinkled at times with pure poetry. He could pop expressions better than Charlie Farquharson.
For instance: “I haven’t been to a restaurant since Caesar was a cadet.” Or: “My daughter Deb goes back and forth like a fiddler’s elbow.” Or: “Those guys had more guts than a government mule.” Or: “He was tougher than a two-bit steak in Saskatoon.” Or: “That election (2016) was as a crooked as a dog’s hind leg.” Or: “The night was blacker than the insides of a cow.” Or: “I was scrawny as hell. You could hold me up and see the scenery right through me.” Or: “This friend of mine managed a company called Neidersauser. Its name sounded like a sneeze.” You get the picture. My notes made me miss him even more. It was as if our conversations were still going on.
I’d like to share some of them with you. As Orme said of Gordie, it’s hard to believe he’s gone.
First, a bit of bio: He was born in the southern Saskatchewan village of Neville. A farm boy in a family of seven, he weathered the Depression, and joined the army at 18, as a member of the 60th Field Battery. (“I was lucky to get a meal in those days. The war was an escape.”) He became a Sergeant in the Signals Corps, responsible for laying vital communication lines between lookout and command posts and headquarters. After the war, he left Saskatchewan behind, settled down in Port Moody, worked, married and helped raise his three kids. He was a stalwart of the Legion, briefly on city council, a champion snooker player, and a golfer. At the age of 86, he accomplished the rare feat of shooting his age. Twice! “I learned to play in my granddad’s pasture. I had an old one-iron with a hickory shaft that I got from my dad,” Orme told me. “I used it for everything, from driver right down to putter. I ended up giving it to the local museum.”
Orme played hockey, too. In fact, he was on the army team that took on his boyhood heroes, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were barnstorming in Holland. They didn’t all make the trip, but their legendary netminder Turk Broda was in goal. “I hadn’t been on skates in five years, and the ones I got didn’t fit me,” said Orme, “but there I was, coming down the left wing. I got a shot on goal, and he stopped it. Someone told me later: ‘That’s your claim to fame. A shot on Turk Broda.’”
“I hadn’t been on skates in five years, and the ones I got didn’t fit me,” said Orme, “but there I was, coming down the left wing. I got a shot on goal, and he stopped it. Someone told me later: ‘That’s your claim to fame. A shot on Turk Broda.’”
There’s a lot more about Orme’s boyhood and surviving the Depression (“the tumbleweeds were big as Volkswagens”), including a harrowing trip riding the rails from Fort Steele back to Neville. But this is Remembrance Day, and Orme was a vet. Naturally, our conversations often turned to the war. We didn’t talk much about the battles. We talked about what it was like. So, let’s start there.
“There were good days and terrible days…We landed in Naples. People were poor as church mice, rats everywhere. They say ‘see Naples and die.’ I don’t know which was better to come first…. All our trucks and equipment were second-hand throwaways from the British 8th Army, but we had a bunch of prairie kids who could make anything run…. The first day I saw action, it was scary as hell. You could hear the shells exploding long before we got there…. I always made sure to tell everyone to dig a hole (slit trench) whenever we got to a place, but we were sometimes 10 miles from the front line and not everyone could be bothered. One night, a barrage came in on us and one shell blew off somebody’s leg 300 yards right through the air and onto a tank. I’ve never seen anyone dig so fast, after that…You could get killed going to your own cook shack….
“There were a lot of (Indigenous) guys with us. They were tough as boiled owls. They could sneak around where a white man couldn’t. We would often drink with them. But after all they did in the war, they weren’t allowed in the beer parlours back home…It wasn’t right…
“We had a few real bad scenes. Sometimes you felt you couldn’t hang on. We had one kid. He shouldn’t have been in the army at all. A damn good man with a notebook and phone, but not with a gun. We were at the foot of a ridge. A barrage came in, and he disappeared in a bunch of black smoke. Imagine that. And it didn’t even touch me. Geez, I was so lucky, so goddamned lucky. Really, all it was was a roll of the dice….
Orme Payne receiving a memento (foreground) of the Italian campaign in 2017 from MP Fin Donnelly. He was one of only three survivors in BC to be so honoured.
“I was a signals sergeant. I had three stripes, two bits an hour and a gun. We were often out there at night, in a strange land…. We had a good crew, 24 of them. But they were shelling us so badly, they kept hitting the lines. After that, we decided to lay two lines, and I used to get hell for using so much line…. There were three or four guys in my unit who could do most anything. Completely reliable. They were under fire all the time, but they didn’t get a mark on them. Then, they came home and shot themselves…. I know this war had to be fought, but it was a terrible thing to have been through… Thinking back, they had to take a bunch of kids off the farm and turn them into a bunch of kids who could kill someone…
There were three or four guys in my unit who could do most anything. Completely reliable. They were under fire all the time, but they didn’t get a mark on them. Then, they came home and shot themselves…
“On my 22nd birthday, I got 48-hour leave, with my good friend Jack Beckwith. We were on the Adriatic, so we decided to go swimming. We jumped in. Holy Mackerel! It was so cold, I had icicles on me for a week. But it sure refreshed you in a hurry. Jack survived the war and our cold swim. But long after the war, he drowned. A real good guy, he was a postmaster….
“One Christmas, we were in the line. We took turns for dinner. It was pretty meagre. But we all got a bottle of beer. The officers got a bottle of whiskey…. The Brits provided our food. It was all dehydrated, the cheapest of everything. American rations were so much better…. We went across one river after another. We had D-8 ‘cats. Shells would come in, a guy would get shot off, and the next guy would step right in. They had more guts than a government mule….
“The last position we had was at Mazzano, near Venice. It really rained. Our sleeping bags were wet. But we had wool uniforms. They kept you warm. The Americans all had cotton. They damn near froze to death. Some of their teeth are probably still chattering…”
The hard, bloody fighting in Italy got none of the attention or glamour of D-Day. Those who took part enthusiastically embraced the sardonic song, “D-Day Dodgers.”
“I know every verse,” said Orme.
To be continued, with Orme’s accounts of the war in Holland, growing up during the Depression and life at George Derby, under restrictions imposed by COVID-19….
D-Day Dodgers by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.
Main Image (Above): Orme Payne at the George Derby Centre, Remembrance Day 2019.
THE EX-PRESS, November 11, 2020