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Invermay veteran shares Second World War experiences

Living through the Second World War convinced Steve Potorieko that future wars should be avoided at all cost.

INVERMAY - After turning 18, Steve Potorieko of Invermay was conscripted into the Canadian Army in 1943. That experience convinced him that future wars should be avoided at all cost.

“With all the destruction and suffering of war, I think of how sad it is,” said Potorieko, who is 97 years of age. “I don’t want to see a Third World War.”

Steve Potorieko was born in Ukraine, but grew up in Saskatchewan. His parents, Nick and Anastazia, moved their young family to Canada when he was just an infant, and homesteaded near Invermay. Like many family farmers of the early 20th century, the Potorieko family believed in diversification. In addition to grain farming, they also raised cattle, horses, pigs and chickens.

Even though he was conscripted into the Canadian army, Potorieko said he was proud to be asked to serve his country. His first stop after conscription was with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps for basic training.

“I took driver training in Red Deer, Alta. for six weeks, and basic training was 10 weeks. We did lots of marching in parades; we learned how to march without thinking. We were taught discipline and the importance of not talking back. We were young, the training made us tough.”

Potorieko was a driver of a lorry, which is what the British called their bigger trucks. Only a teenager at the time, he said he enjoyed this training opportunity.

“It was a bit confusing since the steering wheel was on the right side. But it was quite exciting, especially since we didn’t even have a car on the family farm at that time.”

Potorieko was in the supply company in Red Deer at the time he was sent west to Long Beach on the west side of Vancouver Island, near the town of Tofino.

“We were brought in by ship and I was there for eight months, guarding against a possible Japanese invasion, which never came. I was part of a regiment of about 1,000 soldiers. There wasn't much to do, so we kept the buildings clean.”

According to Potorieko, they had plenty of reason to be concerned that the Japanese might attack Canada from the west.

“Estevan Point was nearby, and before I got there, it was shelled by a Japanese submarine. But it was mostly solid rock, so there was very little damage.”

According to information found online, the Estevan Point Lighthouse was the only aid to navigation in Canada to encounter shell fire during the Second World War. Edward T. Redford, then chief wireless operator at Estevan Point, reported the scene that occurred on June 20, 1942:

“The submarine surfaced about two miles offshore and was plainly visible. Shelling commenced at approximately 9:40 p.m. and continued for about 40 minutes. The first shells landed on the beach about 100 yards in front of the lighthouse. Mr. Lally, who was the light keeper at the time, immediately put out the light. The sub apparently then raised its sights, for from then on the shells went overhead. Approximately 25 shells were fired and, except for a few buildings hit by shell fragments, no damage was caused either to the lighthouse or radio station. With the exception of the men on shift, who tapped out word of the shelling to Pacific Command, all others gave a hand getting the women and children away from the settlement. The submarine pulled out on the surface and everyone could see and hear the diesel engines quite clearly. While naturally there was some nervousness, everyone, including the women and children, took the whole incident in their stride, then spent the following day souvenir hunting.”

The positioning of Potorieko’s regiment near an airfield gave the unit plenty of confidence that they were well prepared.

“If the Japanese would have attacked, we would have been ready,” he said confidently. “We had shells and ammunition, fighter planes, and flying boats, which were planes that could land on water.”

Potorieko was still at Long Beach when the Second World War officially ended on May 8, 1945.

“It was hard being away from family,” he admitted. “It was such a big change going from a farm near Invermay to being in a company of about 1,000 men. But I enjoyed the discipline in the army, everything was well organized.”

Of course, Potorieko and his comrades had a party when the war was over.

“The padre said a few words and we raised the Union Jack flag. Everyone was so happy.”

His experience in the army was quite positive in many aspects, but he wasn’t always happy with media coverage of the Second World War, especially after a conflict with the Japanese near Alaska.

“The Canadian Army soldiers went with the U.S. to get the Japanese out of two islands at the tip of Alaska, south of the Bering Strait near Alaska. The islands were Kiska and Attu. This was before the attack on Pearl Harbour. The Japanese must have seen them coming, pulled out and left exploding trip bomb booby traps all over the islands. The Canadians were diffusing them and some were killed. I wasn’t there, but someone I knew told me one of our soldiers raised a bomb to his ear to see if he could hear it clicking, and it exploded and took his head off. Only the general got a medal. Unfortunately, the soldiers didn’t get anything, even though they were able to take back the islands. Very little reporting was ever done on this situation during the war.”

The army discharged Potorieko in 1946, and he headed back to the family farm near Invermay. In 1956 he married Lena Matsalla and they raised five children. The family includes sons Orest, Ron and Chris, and daughters Bev and Marie. They have since been blessed with six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Potorieko farmed until 1980, and then worked for SaskTel for 10 years before retiring to Invermay. Looking back, he is grateful for the opportunities and the safety he and his family have enjoyed in Canada.

“I appreciate my family getting out of Ukraine to be in Canada. This is a terrible, savage war in the Ukraine right now,” Potorieko concluded.

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