BROOKLYN, N.S. - Gordon Martin, who lives in Brooklyn, Hants County, picked up the nickname Chick during his days in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and it's has stuck with him ever since.
Martin is one of those veterans who is both incredibly proud of his service, but also infinitely humble.
“Well, I don’t know why you’re interviewing me, I’m quite shocked really,” Martin said as the interview begins, shrugging.
The Second World War was at its height when Martin was a child, but he can still remember, quite viscerally, the impacts the far-away conflict had on Halifax, where he grew up.
“Halifax was such a strategic location for forces to gather and supplied to go overseas, and that’s what we saw when we were kids,” he said.
There were times, he said, when it felt like the war was right in his backyard.
“On the Northwest Commons, we’d have searchlights, pointing up and shining to the sky," he said.
“Those searchlights were incredibly powerful. You could be walking along the street and all of a sudden the siren would go off and the whole city would go black. You were supposed to hide wherever you were.”
Martin recalls watching ships come into port with large holes in their hulls, presumably from enemy fire.
Inspired by family
Martin was part of the Sea Cadets before joining the air force, saying he learned a lot from the sailors at Stadacona, CFB Halifax.
But it was Martin’s uncle, Patrick Wilson, who influenced him into joining the RCAF in 1951 – at only 16 years old.
“He was my idol, he was an air gunner,” he said. “He retired as a flight sergeant in the air force and he was on the (Avro) Lancasters, and he did survive the war, although his aircraft did get shot.”
Wilson didn't survive the war completely unharmed, however.
“The shrapnel used to come out of his face, long after the war, if he was shaving or whatever, a piece of metal would fly out of his face,” he said. “His pilot got his legs blown off during that particular encounter.”
While Wilson didn’t talk about the war a lot, Martin was extremely proud of him and chose to follow in his footsteps.
“Surprisingly, as so many of those guys did, he had PTSD, which wasn’t recognized as it is today,” he said. “I’m sure he did, too, he eventually succumbed to alcohol.”
Martin joined the RCAF in 1951, altering his birth certificate so he could get in early, as many did at that time.
Power of sport
“The air force was the best thing that I ever did,” he said. “It just changed my life totally.”
Part of what made the RCAF so vital to Martin was how integral sports teams became.
He participated in hockey and baseball teams throughout his time serving, which he said became a highlight of his career.
“I remember playing on the baseball team, but we got knocked out, but the fastball team was still in the playoffs and they asked if I would play under another name,” he said. “And I said that I was getting ready to hop on a train to head home to Halifax, and they said to me ‘if you play, we’ll fly you down in a couple days.’ And they did.”
The sports teams, and the camaraderie surrounding them, kept morale and cohesion high.
Air Force life
“After I joined, there were lots of guys who were there who had lots of medals, we were only kids, but they were very good to us,” he said. “They took us under their wing to help us, which was good.”
Martin only had a Grade 8 education when he joined but obtained his Grade 12 while in the armed forces.
During his time in the RCAF, Martin moved around a lot, going from bases in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and Ontario.
He was primarily working in supply, making sure everyone and everything was well stocked during the Korean War, which ended in 1953.
“We had a long counter and distributed supplies, first part of the line would be socks, next underwear, next boots, and it went right along,” he said. “That was fun.”
Martin didn’t see any direct combat during the war but remained with the RCAF until he retired in the 1970s.
He rose in the ranks over the years, going from an AC2, otherwise known as aircraftman 2, to AC1, and then LAC (leading aircraftsman), before being promoted to corporal after 13 years. He became a sergeant and retired at that rank.
“I loved it there, I loved working there, there were friends of mine who stayed even longer than I did,” he said.
After he retired from the RAC, Martin moved into the private sector in purchasing and sales, including with the Ganong Chocolate Company, before eventually retiring for good.
But Martin, with books about the Second World War spread over his coffee table and coasters with the Royal Canadian Legion emblem emblazoned on them, continues to think about the Canadian Armed Forces.
“It did everything for me and what I am today,” he said. “I’m not great, but I’m better than I would have been, I know. I just learned so much from so many people.”
For Martin, Remembrance Day and everything it represents, is just as important today as ever.
“I live in, I think, the best country in the world,” he said. “Safety and peace, and because of those guys who fought the Germans, the Japanese and the Italians, and defeated them, we have that peace in this country.”
Martin said he’s still in awe how countries all over the world came together to fight against fascism and what was ultimately the most frightening military power at that time - and especially how Canada rose to the occasion during the First World War.
“We were immigrants, we were farmers, we were fishermen, and we were being asked to go to war,” he said. “The significance of the poppy campaign is that it reminds me every time of where we are and the kind of life we have now.”