Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: The War Effort

In 1943, when the Second World War was in full swing, Duncan MacLeod decided he was going to go and fight the Germans. He went to the local recruiting office with visions of charging into battle, but the recruiters had a different vision: before them was a short, scrawny young man who didn’t even look like he was old enough to carry a gun, let alone strong enough. And he wasn’t — old enough, that is. Duncan was only 15. He told them he was 18, but they just wouldn’t buy it. Get a letter confirming you’re really 18, they said, and maybe you can go overseas. Duncan’s father was dead and his mother was dead set against the idea of her son going off to war, so there was no way he was going to get such a letter. He was out of luck. But he wasn’t out of options.

A friend told him that if he could get to Halifax, he could probably get on a convoy heading across the Atlantic and work his way across as a coal trimmer, which involved keeping piles of coal level in ships’ holds, feeding the coal into the engine, and helping to put out fires. When he got to England he could join the army; no one would be able to check his age over there. It sounded like a good plan, so Duncan sneaked (or snuck, as we say back home) onto a train bound for Halifax and steamed towards his destiny.

There were two things Duncan didn’t realize when he got on that train: that he had actually jumped onto a troop train, and that his mother had called the RCMP. The former he discovered when he noticed so many people wearing uniforms; the latter became apparent when he noticed RCMP officers getting onto the train at the Point Tupper ferry crossing.

The RCMP officers searched the entire train, but Duncan MacLeod was nowhere to be found. That’s because he had hustled off the train at the ferry crossing and hid in the bowels of the ferry itself, where a black man working in the boiler room gave him coffee and doughnuts. When the ferry reached the mainland side of the Canso Strait, Duncan slipped back onto the train and continued on towards Halifax.

As he hid in a dark corner on the train, Duncan thought he was going to make it. Even when a porter stumbled upon him, he thought he was going to make it. But then he heard the telltale click of a pistol; when he turned around he saw two Colt .44’s pointed at his head. At the other end of each was a military policeman. Duncan MacLeod’s war was over before it had even begun.

Duncan was handed over to police officers in New Glasgow, who chucked him into a holding cell because there was no judge in town to charge him with anything. In fact, the judge would have to make the trip from Antigonish, about 70 km away; since the judge wouldn’t be coming until the next day, Duncan MacLeod would have to spend the night in jail. Duncan spent the evening watching people walk past his barred cell window, which was right off the sidewalk of a busy downtown street.

The next day, Duncan was taken to the town courthouse, where he came face to face with a gruff-looking judge, who was undoubtedly not too pleased that he’d had to travel all the way from Antigonish just to deal with some young punk who’d been caught hitching a ride on a troop train. Sure enough, his voice was as gruff as his appearance.

“What’s your name, young man?”

“Duncan MacLeod.”

The judge made a face like he’d just chomped on a lemon. “I’m not in the mood for jokes, boy. I asked you a question and I expect a proper answer. What is your name?”

Duncan thought maybe the judge hadn’t heard him, so he said it louder this time. “My name’s Duncan MacLeod!”

“That’s my name!” bellowed the judge.

Duncan MacLeod was never charged with anything. The judge, Duncan MacLeod, asked him if he had any relatives in the area; Duncan said he had an uncle working in the Trenton steelworks, so the judge told him to go there, and released him. Duncan soon returned to his family in Sydney. By the time he was old enough to join the army, the war was over.

A young Duncan MacLeod.
A young Duncan MacLeod.

The MacLeods would contribute to the war effort, however. Duncan’s uncle Robert, the youngest child of Angus and Jessie MacLeod, served as a member of the Cape Breton Highlanders. My grandfather told me Robert had been wounded on D-Day, but the Cape Breton Highlanders weren’t on Juno Beach that day, so Robert may have actually been wounded in Italy, where the Highlanders saw a lot of action at places like Ortona and Coriano Ridge. Anyway, as the story goes, an explosion blew Robert MacLeod’s clothes clean off and left him naked and pitch black from head to toe. He was taken back to England to recover, then went back into action.

Robert MacLeod survived the war and went back home to his family, who had other battles to fight — as did Duncan MacLeod. But those are stories for another day.

***

Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod is a series of posts on my MacLeod ancestors, based on a combination of research and stories told to me by my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod. To read other posts in the series, click here.