For most of us tales of World War 2 (WW2) are confined to the history books. For a select few, however, the events of 80 years ago is an experience and memory that still lives on, both in their hearts and minds.
One such indivual is Edgemead resident William (Willie) van Schalkwyk (99), a surviving WW2 veteran. As a young man who lived at the time of the war, Willie felt that it was his patriotic duty to serve his country, says his stepson-in-law Chris Teale.
The senior citizen, Chris says, signed up as a soldier in 1940.
“The reason why he joined the South African Medical Corps was to help save lives,” Chris explains. He says most of Willie’s siblings also joined the South African Air Force (SAAF).
“Whilst he was in the then Union Defence Force, part of the British 8th Army, his brothers and sisters joined the SAAF.”
Willie joined the army as a medic and served in Egypt in North Africa for three years at the 8th Army Base Camp Hospital.
Here he served during the battle of El Alamein and other frontline operations.
“He treated German, Italian and allied soldiers irrespective of race, belief and nationality.”
Willie remembers life in Egypt’s western desert very well and recalls that it was not pretty, Chris says. “The soldiers had to dig trenches for three months after arrival using only picks and shovels.” While in the desert they were bombed almost daily by the aircraft from the German Luftwaffe and Italian Air Force. “Willie himself also had to be hospitalised at the Alexandria camp for two weeks after contracting sand flea fever.”
After three years, their unit returned to South Africa. “On their way back to South Africa on a ship, they were attacked by a submarine,” tells Chris.
After his return in 1943 Willie served at the Military Hospital in Wynberg for the remainder of the war.
This was due to an injury to his left eardrum which meant he could not be deployed to Italy.
During his service Willie received several medals including the 1939 to 1945 Star, Africa Star, and Defence Medal. He also received the War Medal and the Africa Service Medal.
Chris, a former curator at the South African Air Force Museum at Ysterplaat, says in August this year, Willie will be celebrating his 99th birthday. There are, however, no big plans for this year’s celebration as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We will celebrate the big 100 next year,” says Chris whose own mother also served in the Royal Air Force during the war. His mother passed away a year ago at the age of 98.
“She refused to tell me of some of the work she did. That is how it was, our parents did not speak to the children about the war. And so with Willie, this is the first time he has really talked about it and it is a new experience for all of his family,” Chris says. According to Chris, these days Willie occupies himself with all sorts of entertainment. “He loves playing scrabble, watching sport, news and current affairs and watching movies on television. He is also writing his memoirs.”
Willie and his wife, Jean, have been married for 43 years and still live in their own home. The couple has three children of whom two had already passed away.
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