South Surrey’s Bill Marr – a Chinese Canadian tank-driver veteran of the Second World War – turned 100 on Aug. 25.
The occasion, although muted by pandemic restrictions, was marked by a visit to Marr, who lives at Rosemary Heights Seniors’ Village, from his son Gary, also a South Surrey resident.
“He’s doing well – as well as you could expect for 100,” Gary told Peace Arch News.
His dad – who volunteered for the Canadian Army when he was just 20 – drove tanks in the European theatre of war including the Normandy campaign of 1944, following D-Day.
Marr also received a letter of greeting from BC Lieutenant Governor Janet Austin, on behalf of the Queen and a visit from the Army, Navy Air Force Veterans in Canada Pacific Unit 280, represented by Kelly Kwong, RCAF vet George Ing and King Wan, president of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society.
A long-haul truck driver for most of his peace-time career, Marr was born in Cumberland on Vancouver Island, but had moved to Vancouver by the beginning of the Second World War, and lived there until he relocated to South Surrey in 2011.
Interviewed in 2018 by South Surrey-based documentary producer Alison MacLean, Marr remembered his war service in uncharacteristic detail including facts – Gary told MacLean – he hadn’t ever heard when he was growing up.
In that video interview, Marr recalled that, as a member of an armoured division of the Canadian Army he drove a US-produced Sherman (the standard combat tank for the Canadian forces), in which he was a member of a five-man, and sometimes four-man crew.
“It was a pretty small, but fast machine,” he said, recalling that it was different from the tanks he and his comrades trained on in Canada, before embarking to Europe.
He said the tank was steered by two handles, one controlling steering to the left and the other to the right, and that it was often a bumpy ride, given the tanks ability to roll over most obstacles in its path.
“Sometimes you’d bang your head on the (compartment ceiling),” he laughed.
“It really hurts but when it’s wartime, you don’t care. If you’ve got to get out of (a dangerous situation) you go as fast as you can go. After the Germans shoot you up you’ve got to get going. The bullets were flying over there.”
A lot of the time, the tanks travelled by night, he added, which meant drivers had to be extra-vigilant.
“The light (of the vehicle ahead) would be about twenty feet from you – it shines down, it doesn’t shine up at all,” he said.
He recalled developing a stoic attitude about seeing action.
“It was alright – I didn’t mind it. After a while, you think back – hell, it’s only a war. What can you do? You know, when you’re in the army you’ve just got to go along with it.”
But one thing Marr was unable to forget was the emotional impact of losing a comrade in battle.
“Someday the guy right beside you, he gets it right away – and you don’t. You just figure yourself lucky, that’s all.”
He became tearful recalling one incident when his tank ran into a German patrol unexpectedly.
“We had to shoot them up. Your buddy’s right beside you. He gets it and you don’t. You don’t forget a buddy. You might have been beside him for a couple of years. All of a sudden, he gets shot – it’s pretty hard to take. You see two or three guys mown down right in front of you, you figure that any moment it’s going to be your turn.”
Marr said that joining the legion following the war helped him deal with some of the harder memories, simply by talking about them with others who had shared similar experiences.
“You talk about it – he’s a vet and you’re a vet. It’s not easy to get over. It was tough.”
Interestingly, Marr said he doesn’t recall any instances of discrimination once he was in the Army.
“At that time, there was no such thing as racial discrimination,” he said.
“When you’re in the army, you’re in the army. They don’t care who you are or what you are,” he added, noting that he was also treated with respect by others he encountered in Europe.
“As a Canadian, they looked up to you,” he said.
Looking back now, from a vantage point of more than 70 years, he’s proud of his war service, he said.
“When you think back, for who you are, for the time you had, and the training, you did good.”