An interview with a veteran of two wars

90-year-old veteran shares wisdom about today’s conflicts, both foreign and domestic

Second World War and Korean War veteran Alex Sim. (Jim Elliot/The Omega)

Second World War and Korean War veteran Alex Sim. (Jim Elliot/The Omega)

Few people have such an intimate understanding of the meaning of Remembrance Day as Kamloops resident Alex Sim. Sim is a veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War, whose unique military career began at only age 16.

Sim attempted to enlist in the Royal Canadian Airforce (RCAF) in 1941. After making it as far as the swearing in ceremony so he could begin his training as a fighter pilot, Sim was outed as underage by the recruiting officer, who had been his high school teacher the year before. Sim then attempted to join the Calgary Highlanders. After telling a Highlanders’ sergeant at the recruiting office that he was 18, half a year too young for overseas service, he was told to walk around the block and reconsider. After returning to the recruiting station and telling the same sergeant that he was 19, Sim was accepted. Sim’s aunt eventually intervened and had him discharged. By the summer of 1942, Sim had enlisted in another regiment by altering his younger brother’s birth certificate.

When asked why he was so determined to join, Sim said that “there were stories coming out, nothing official yet, on what was happening in Germany,” and that he wanted to join based on “a sense that we’ve got to stop this from happening.” Sim also spoke about his family’s military history, including his grandfather’s service in the First World War and his uncles, who were taken prisoner with the British Army at Dunkirk in 1940.

After finally making it into the army and being transferred through several units, Sim found himself with the Regina Rifles in England in time for the D-Day invasion. Sim went ashore on June 6 at Courseulles-sur-Mer.

“You could hear the gunfire and things, but you’re in a steel box landing craft. I guess you wondered how the day was going to end…you wondered whether you were going to make it to the beach.”

Sim fought on for the remainder of the war, including battles at Leopold Canal and the Nijmegen Salient. “Nijmegen Salient I guess for me was the worst part of the war… can remember sitting there at night and thinking that I didn’t figure I would survive World War II. I didn’t think I would be killed, somehow in the back of my mind I thought the war was going to go on so long that I would die of old age.”

Sim went on to serve in Korea with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. His unit earned a Presidential Citation for their actions at the battle of Kapyong. Sim recounted that on the voyage to Korea, upon finding out that all the Canadians on the ship were volunteers, an American Sergeant remarked, “I heard you Canadians were crazy, but I didn’t know just how crazy until right now.”

Sim’s experience reflects Korea’s reputation as a forgotten war. “When the war ended so did the publicity, everyone forgot about the 25,000 Canadians who went to Korea and didn’t remember us for a long long time,” he said.

Sim spoke with great respect for the new generation of veterans returning from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Bosnia. “I don’t know if I would survive their type of war. At least in both of my wars you knew who the enemy was.”

Sim went on to criticize older Veterans who saw PTSD claims from Afghanistan veterans as illegitimate, suggesting that the “24 hours of agony” created by irregular warfare was as bad as anything he faced in Europe or Korea. “If I had to go to war again, I would prefer to go back to our old type of war…I would say these young guys that are veterans of Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina are entitled to every privilege we got from World War II.”

Sim also had definite opinions on the state of Veterans Affairs in Canada. “I joined the army when I was 16 and I retired when I was 43. I have hearing problems and a bad knee. It took me nine years of fighting to get hearing aids.”

According to Sim, despite the efforts of his local Veteran’s Representative, the head office in Ottawa saw “no great degree of evidence that hearing was lost due to military conditions.” Sim called the lump sums awarded for veterans’ disability benefits “an idiot system.”

“They weren’t taking proper care of the people who had done the job they were sent to do and did it very well,” he said.

In his personal life, Sim will be celebrating his 69th wedding anniversary with his wife Dina at the end of the month. “She was 14, I was 15 when we first met at the riverbank in Calgary across from the stampede grounds,” Sim said.

Sim is also the honorary Commanding Officer of the 419 Squadron of the RCAF, the squadron that performs the flyover at Kamloops’ Remembrance Day ceremony. The 419 Squadron gave Sim a unique gift for his 85th birthday: a flight in the co-pilot’s seat of one of their jet fighters.

Sim will lay both the D-Day Normandy and Korea Veteran Association wreaths on Remembrance Day at the Kamloops cenotaph.