First In, Last Out: A Remembrance Day Story
At ELIM, we are grateful to be called ‘home’ by many veterans, including those who have lived through war or found safety in Canada as an immigrant. We recently sat down with Frank Davis, a resident at our Garrison Crossing campus, to hear his story and to learn the significance that Remembrance Day holds for him.
Frank was born and raised in the outskirts of Ottawa, Ontario. It’s where he attended school, developed friendships, and debated the oh-so-daunting question: What will I be when I grow up? With two of his uncles in engineering, Frank wanted to utilize his analytical thinking and problem-solving skills and become an engineer himself, but he also wanted to serve his country.
In 1950, at the ripe age of 18, Frank graduated high school, packed his belongings, and moved to the Canadian Forces Base Chilliwack, known as Camp Chilliwack, to attend the Royal Canadian School of Military Engineering. He lived in military housing nearby with other personnel, and quickly learned to adapt to a new way of life. “You did what you were told, when you were told, and you took things day by day,” says Frank.
Becoming a Sapper
Although both the move and military life was a significant change, Frank was enamored with learning new things. He was also determined to succeed in his new line of work, whether it was learning how to construct temporary bridges, detect mines, or clear paths with explosives. “They called us Sappers”, Frank says, proudly. “That’s what army engineers are known as.”
The nickname ‘Sapper’ derives from the French word sappe, which means spadework or trench. Military engineering became associated with this word during the 17th century, when attackers dug covered trenches to approach the walls of a besieged fort. These tunnels were called “saps,” and their diggers became known as “Sappers”.
After a year of training at Camp Chilliwack, Frank was deployed to Korea. And although he committed day-after-day to training, nothing would prepare him for what he was about to experience.
The Korean War
When Frank arrived in Korea to assist the United Nations forces with defending South Korea, the commander of the UN was about to experience “the shock of his life,” Frank says. The shock wasn’t from the mass number of tanks or heavy machinery they had brought with them; it was the fact there were no roads to put them on. That’s where the Sappers came in—to build those very crucial paths.
“Not many people realize how dangerous it is to be an engineer,” Franks says. “There’s a famous saying for us Sappers. “First in, last out.” Without roads, the infantry wouldn’t be able to move forward to fight.”
Frank also recalls a second war they battled—the weather. The arctic winds from Siberia lead to frostbite, frozen food, and a shortage of gear to keep warm. “In the winter, you’re living in the ground,” says Frank. “The dozers would dig holes and we’d stick squad tents on top…for heat, we had a jerry can full of diesel, which would slowly drip into barrels to create heat.” The summers were also a cause for concern, as the tropical heat was not only unbearable, but it brought malaria along with it too.
In conditions like this, when all you have is your troop, there is no doubt you form a very tight bond with each other. In those moments it’s all you have, so Frank became very close with many Sappers. When they weren’t building roads, they were laying mine fields, which was another risky task as they not only had to worry about running into other mines, but also other people. “I had this feeling all the time that we were being watched.” Frank’s tone changed. “And I was right.”
After laying and arming a huge minefield, which included both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, Frank and his troop were attacked. “I’ll always remember this old fella,” Frank starts, but then pauses. He bites his lip to hold back his tears. “He went the wrong way…he went into the field, not out of it.”
Frank lost a friend that day. And 515 other Canadian lives were lost in the Korean War.
Returning Home from War
In 1952, Frank returned to Canada and headed home to Ottawa to visit his family and friends. “It wasn’t the same,” says Frank. “All the guys I hung around with were still just hanging around. We had nothing in common. I had been around the world, seen different things, and these guys were still sitting on the same steps as when I left.”
At only 20 years of age, Frank experienced the fragility of life that many never come to know or understand. He saw the world through a new lens, and it made him want to pass on his knowledge to others. So, when Frank headed back to Camp Chilliwack, he became an instructor at the Royal Canadian School of Military Engineering. There, he not only taught engineering to cadets, but he also helped troublesome 16-year-olds go through military and trades training to help turn their lives around. And for many of them, it really did.
In 1955, Frank married his wife, Gloria, whom he met through his roommate, and soon welcomed their first son, Michael, in Chilliwack. Their second son, Brian, would later be born in a military hospital in Germany, followed by their daughter Gail who was born in Victoria. Although Gloria is no longer here, Frank is blessed to still have his children in his life.
The Historical Legacy of Garrison Crossing’s Location
Frank’s military career spanned 35 years and multiple locations, such as Korea, Germany, Victoria, and Suffield. At the end of it all, he settled down on the land where the military housing once was—Garrison Crossing. Yes, you read that right. Today, the Canadian Forces Base in Chilliwack is home to the University of the Fraser Valley, local shops at Garrison Village, a bubbling suburban community, and home to the residents of Elim Village Garrison Crossing.
Remembrance Day in Canada
On November 11, Canadians pause for a moment of silence to remember the men and women who have served and fought for freedom, like Frank, as well as those who have fallen doing so. “You don’t forget this stuff, it all stays here,” Frank says as he rests his hand on his heart. “I still think about it every day…the guy we lost at the minefield…the people I helped train…this day means something to me alright.”
Every year on Remembrance Day, Frank puts on his medals and stands by the front door of his building. He then marches down to the Cenotaph at the All Sappers Memorial Park in Vedder Crossing, located across the street from his Elim suite. This Cenotaph is dedicated to all Canadian and British Commonwealth Sappers, and helps to preserve the military heritage of the area.
Just as it is important to pause for a moment of silence on November 11, it’s also important to recognize the beautiful community we have around us each day, and the brave individuals we have to thank for it.
Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. (n.d.). Sapper. In Britannica.com encyclopedia. Retrieved November 8, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/technology/sapper-military-engineering