It’s a day I shall not easily forget—Tuesday, 28th December, 1943. At this time I was stationed at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island—off the N.E. coast of the Canadian mainland, and though the story I shall tell is nearly two years old now, yet I can still see the events with amazing clarity.
I was just going down to the Mess to have lunch. I was leaving the Station Hospital, but as I was the duty Medical Officer, I hesitated at the door as I heard the telephone ring. I waited and soon the Orderly came to tell me that I was wanted for a long distance call.
It was a doctor’s wife calling me from a little village about 80 miles away. Apparently an airman, visiting some friends at this little place called East Baltic, was taken ill with an appendicitis. They had no means of bringing him into Charlottetown, where the only decent Auxiliary Hospital on the island was located. “Could I help and send an ambulance out to bring him in as his condition was worsening?” Knowing the roads to that part of the island to be bad at the best of times, and undoubtedly hazardous in the winter months, I queried the possibility of sending the sick airman back by train. Unfortunately the one and only train of the day from East Baltic to Charlottetown left at 6.45 a.m. There was nothing to do about it; we simply had to go out and bring him in. Rapidly I made arrangements for one of the ambulances; the driver and orderly and myself had a hasty sandwich and some coffee.
The weather was apparently excellent, the sun was shining. There had been no snow for about 24 hours, and it was deceptively warm for the time of year—just how deceptively I was to learn later. I threw on my raincoat and went to the ambulance. We did well for the first 8 - 9 miles—the road a shining white crystalline band between the fences and bordered here and there by snow-laden Pine trees, as it wound and twisted eastward along the island. I was enjoying the trip and contemplating the excellence of Canadian ambulances with their automatic heating, the pleasant powerful hum of the motor and the rhythmic metallic sound of tyre chains on the packed ice surface. The countryside was rather wild and only very rarely did we pass or even see a farmhouse.
Then it happened. I suppose we were doing about 40 when the whole vehicle did a crazy waltz, we were whirling round, then facing the way we’d come—then over in a ditch at the side of the road. The silence was audible. We all started to laugh rather ruefully and clambered out of the door—now at the top of the wreck. I rescued some blankets and we stood in the roadway. Not a soul in sight—the sun had gone down in keeping with our spirits. Way off the road we saw a farmhouse about half a mile or so away. We made for it and were most annoyed to find it had no telephone, and there was no one at home anyway. I remembered a Smithy’s place we had passed on our way out and now about 3 miles back. We set course and trudged on. It was very cold—normally one wears thick overshoes in Canada during the winter, but as we had not allowed for this contingency of an accident we kept warm by the sharp up-hill walking.
At last we reached the Smithy and persuaded a youngster to drive us in an improvised wooden-box Sleigh, drawn by a pony, to Mount Stewart, about 5 miles on our way to East Baltic. It was a rail stop and we might catch the only train of the day which went eastward from Charlottetown. After some ‘phoning we were on our way again and were we glad of the blankets and of the heat from our tightly jammed bodies in that Sleigh! We just made the train as it began to pull out of the station— mv driver and orderly remaining at Mount Pleasant.
Island trains are dreadfully slow and seem to wind interminably along the tracks. About half past six we reached Souris, where I had to change, and where I arranged to meet a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman. By this time—still in my raincoat—I was benumbed with cold. I was taken to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Station and refreshed with some hot coffee. Then I was given a large buffalo coat and cap to wear in the car, the next means of transport to the farm where the airman was sick.
The roads were now incredible and the night very black. Twice we had to push the car through small drifts, and once we had to walk half a mile to a farmstead to get a team of horses to pull us through a really big snow-drift. At last, about 8.30 p.m., we reached the rendezvous with the farmer friend of the sick man. He was to come out on the sleigh to drive me in the last 3 - 4 miles to his farm.
In the dark car we waited—10, ‘20, 30 minutes. Then faintly from somewhere I heard the sound of jingle bells, and suddenly out of the blackness and into the lights of the car a horse and sleigh appeared. I transferred myself to this new means of locomotion and was told to “hang on”. This was an incredible journey across icy fields and waste—the sleigh rocking violently at times, and the huge befurred Canadian farmer silent at my side. The moon came out and shone on a wild uninhabited vista with here and there a plantation of Pine trees— the whole for all the world like a Yuletide picture card.
In the distance, at last I saw friendly lights, and we finally turned in to the farm. I climbed down and thawed out over the. kitchen range. After some hot coffee I examined the patient and decided a special train to Charlottetown was not going to be necessary. We went down stairs and had a hearty and much needed meal and, about midnight, a doss down beside the patient. At 5 a.m. next morning we were awakened. Breakfasted on bottled raspberries and cream and poached eggs. Then off on a flat sleigh to accommodate our sick airman on an improvised straw covered wooden stretcher to the railhead at Elmira. At 6.30 the milk train roared in out of the darkness. We were transferred on board and reached Charlottetown about 11.30 a.m., where we were met at the station by another ambulance and so to the Island Hospital.
It was the longest call I’d ever had. By 2p.m. the airman was in a ward coming out of the anaesthetic, having parted with a bad appendix. December 28th, 1943 — A DAY I SHALL NOT EASILY FORGET.