THE CRISIS AND THE COLONEL
Winning two D.S.Os by the time he was 25 didn't mean the end of war to Lieut.-Col. Jimmy Dextraze of the Van Doos. A strong sense of duty pulled him from his $10,000-a-vear job and his family to meet a new crisis with the Special Force
SINCE he has been old enough to vote, the several careers of Jacques Alfred Dextraze have been inexorably entwined with the crises of our times. For him, the Crisis of 1951 is only another knot in the long skein of public tribulations which have tangled the personal lives of most of us. His own life has been moving in fits and starts for a decade: from crisis to crisis, from civilian to soldier, soldier to civilian and back to soldier again. Although he has been married for more than eight years he can only be said to have had three years of normal home life. The rest of his days have been spent getting adjusted to war and to peace and back to war again.
The Crisis of ’51 sees him commanding the second battalion of the Royal 22nd Regiment which is part of the brigade group or “Special Force” that Canada has placed at the beck and call of the United Nations. It is another turning point in a seesaw career which has cast him as assistant shipping clerk at 19, private soldier at 21, lieut.-colonel at 24, lumberjack at 26, company executive at 30 and now lieut.-colonel again at 31.
His financial status has been subjected to the same wild caprice. In 1941 as a civilian he was making $780 a year. In 1945 as a soldier he was getting $5,000. He quit the Army to go into the woods at $2,000. In three years he had worked himself up again to a job that was worth something like $10,000 to him, with a promotion in the offing. He threw it all up last August to go back on Army Pay-
Only a man with a strong sense of purpose, a prodding conscience and a toughness of spirit and body could do these things. Dextraze has been developing such qualities since he was a boy in Montreal. He was, as his father put it, “a rough guy” who went hunting at eight, read cowboy stories and war books (Napoleon was a favorite) and broke windows and crockery.
“The boy is either going to be a big zero or else an A-l man— there’s no in-between with him,” Fred Dextraze said, and packed him off to boarding school where he could learn English and get some discipline.
After school at 17 he started as office boy for the Dominion Rubber Company Ltd. at $1 a day. He wouldn’t work for his father, a man of bold resolve who in his 40th year had quit the shoe business to launch himself in paper boxes. “Our temperaments,” said Jimmy Dextraze, “are too much alike. There would be a clash of personalities.”
He followed the austere pattern of the 30s, took his girl to a regular Saturday night movie and after-show sundae, read a lot, worked hard at night school twice a week, but had few close friends. When war broke out he was 19. He tried to join immediately, without telling anybody, and was rejected for flat feet. He took exercises to try and right this without much success. In 1941 he got into Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, flat feet and all. The deficiency didn’t stop him from winning two D.S.Os in the field.
He rose quickly from private to corporal to sergeant. He was a good soldier who never went AWL or had a crime on his sheet. At officers’ school he was second in a class of 500. On embarkation leave he married his sweetheart, Françoise Paré, against her father’s wishes. She did not see him again until the end of the war, more than two and a half years later, and by then he had a two-year-old son.
While he was at officers’ school his battalion had been cut to ribbons at Dieppe. Dextraze was one of 65 new officers sent up as potential reinforcements. Lieut.-Col. G. J. Gauvreau, the commanding officer, chose 30 of them. Dextraze’s knees were trembling in terror lest he be rejected. But Gauvreau (later a brigadier) quickly picked him out. “It was the way he stood that impressed me,” he said later. “That, and his neatness. You could drop Jimmy Dextraze into mud up to his neck and he’d still look immaculate.”
Dextraze rose through nine battalion jobs, from intelligence officer to commanding officer. Gauvreau found him one of the few completely dependable men he ever
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knew. You only had to give Dextraze an order once. But, as Gauvreau later remarked, “it was best if you gave the order pleasantly.”
He went into action as a major and won his first D.S.O. in the withering crossfire at St. André-sur-Orne near Falaise in the summer of 1944. With a company of men he took a church full of Germans at bayonet point and held it. It had controlled 8,000 yards j of front and in the fields before if two I entire companies of the Black Watch : lay where they had fallen, like sleeping
men, a grisly testimony to the effectiveness of its defenders. Dextraze, with his leading platoon commander j shot down, and his troops hesitating, leaped out in front, pipe upside down in mouth and carried the assault through.
After that they began calling him “Mad Jimmy” and “Patton Junior.” As C.O. of the FMR’s toward the war’s ;*nd he won a bar to the D.S.O. when he talked a German general into surrendering the Dutch city of Groningen, the last big stronghold before the» port cities of the north.
He drove his carrier two miles behind the enemy lines and climbed the stairs of a convent which served as German headquarters with his hands in his pockets to show he wasn’t afraid. They were a strange pair: the old
general, short and fat and polished, and the 24-year-old Canadian in corduroys, low shoes, peaked cap and silk scarf.
At first the German thought the Canadian had come to surrender to him. Dextraze lit a cigarette, pointedly neglected to offer the general one and gave him 15 minutes to give up. He offered to show the general his troops and the general came along. He took one look at them and surrendered. He offered Dextraze his hand. It was refused. “I felt bad for him, too,” Dextraze said later.
He broke open a bottle of champagne to celebrate his victory, but with the war drawing to a close, he began to be assailed by the ludicrous and unhappy vision current at the time, of wing commanders running elevators in civilian life and young lieut.-colonels selling shoe laces on street corners.
“What will I do on civvy street?” he asked a couple of war correspondents who were drinking with him.
“ What can I do?” pointing at the room littered with maps and the lethal tools of his trade. “This is all I know. I have no training for anything else.”
He had no desire to go back to his $65-a-month clerk’s job and there was no new job in sight. With the smoke of Groningen turning afternoon to twilight, his future looked as dark as the debris-littered streets outside.
He went back to Canada still unsure. The best the Army could offer him was a captaincy in the Permanent Force.
J He asked his father what he should do. “Get out of the Army,” the old man said. “You aren’t cut out to be a peacetime soldier. Get out before you get thrown out.”
The Singer Sewing Machine Company was looking for some bright young men for its hardwood logging operations (for sewing machine cabinets). They offered Dextraze a job at the bottom of the ladder at $40 a week, j He took it.
His father, who sometimes likes to ! talk in metaphor and parable, gave him j some advice. “Son,” he said, “don’t forget your daddy walked out of the ■ shoe trade after 23 years. Now you’ll ¡ have to be like your dad. You must start building a new nest like I did. And, if you don’t take time and
patience, the first windstorm you have that nest will go to pieces.”
Dextraze, who had been used to having 1,000 men do his bidding, now began to take orders from others. He and his wife moved to Thurso, Que., a small company town of 2,000 people in the logging area between Montreal and Ottawa. In the city Mrs. Dextraze had been used to a maid and a car. She had been used to getting $3,000 a year as a lieut.-colonel’s wife. Now, with her husband away for weeks and months at a time, and a new baby on the way, she found herself stoking a wood furnace in a big, old frame dwelling.
Dextraze was joe boy on the gang of timber cruisers, pulling sleighs, doing odd jobs, sleeping in the snow and shivering in the 40-below weather.
In the first year the family went through all its wartime savings. The time came when 50 cents stood between them and payday. Dextraze got leave from the company and used his army credits to take a provincial government forestry course at Duchesnay. Barely reunited with his wife, he was now separated from her again, for neither could afford to visit the other. He got so wrapped up in the course he often forgot to write her. But he finished it in half the required time and by the following winter he was foreman of hauling operations.
He dined at Ruby Foo’s
He worked hard, often 20 hours a day, and learned to roll logs in the water like a veteran. His Army training helped him. He knew how to handle men and delegate authority. He treated forest fires as a military enemy, using walkie-talkie intercom, aerial recce from the company plane, scouts, and an orders group. Like a j good soldier, when the fires raged, he j always kept his flanks protected.
By 1948 he was woodlands manager bossing 600 men. By last summer he had. everything a man could want. At Thurso the company built him a ! $25,000 rent-free 10-room house finished in veneer and plywood with a living room 45 feet long and 35 feet deep. He had a new Meteor car, a ! company yacht and an airplane at his | disposal. He had a private telephone | line 50 miles into town. His heat was ¡ free and he got his food wholesale. He had a lake at his front door and a golf course at his back. There were canoes, motorboats and saddle horses at his disposal. He had a fat expense account and $13,000 in company life insurance. When he went to Montreal with his wife on a week end he’d spend $200 or $300, take his friends to dine and dance at Ruby Foo’s and pick up the check. In another six months he might have been general manager.
Then the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel and the news bulletins took on the still-familiar phrases of the Army communique.
Jimmy Dextraze had never quite forgotten the Army. He had kept two closets full of training pamphlets in order and properly indexed. To keep his hand in he had drawn up a plan for the military defense of neighboring Duhamel. Now he walked the woods with a portable radio and a pocket full of maps. At night he glued his ears to the loud-speaker.
The news that Canada was to raise a volunteer force was followed by a series of insistent “unofficial” pleas from Ottawa that Lieut.-Col. Dextraze take command of a new battalion of “Van Doos.”
Twice Dextraze flatly refused. He had a wife and three boys now, had survived a full year in action and won two D.S.Os. That was enough. His
family didn’t want to lose him again.
The pleas continued and for two days his work suffered as he struggled with the prospect of disarranging his life
On one side was his family. “You can’t educate kids properly on an Army salary,” he told an acquaintance later. “I am an eager beaver and a guy who is ambitious. I had to go through a loi and I don’t want the kids to go through it.”
On the other side there was what he felt to be his duty.
He made his decision just after the 10 o’clock news on a Friday night. The radio had been full of talk about the new force and Dextraze finally turned to his wife and said: “There’s no use, Françoise. I am going to be unhappy if I don’t go.”
They took a long walk in silence through the birches and maples and around the moonlit lake and over the gclf course. Finally he turned to his wife and said: “Well, what are we
gcing to do?”
“You’d better go,” she said.
When his immediate boss heard about it he hit the roof. He felt that Dextraze was more valuable to the country in his logging job. He got to Ottawa before Dextraze did. He saw the Minister of Defense and the Minister saw the Adjutant-General and the Adjutant-General called Dextraze in and, with some humming and hawing, asked him if he were absolutely sure he wanted to go back in the Army.
“I am 30 years old,” said Dextraze, “and able to make my own decisions.”
The Phantom of Falaise
They gave up their home and their car, their lake and their boats and everything else Mrs. Dextraze and the boys took a small apartment in Montreal. Her husband went off to Fort Lewis, Wash., with the Luger he took from the general at Groningen, to train his men for war. She has not seen him since. He avoided taking Christmas leave. “I have said good-by once,” he said. “I do not want to go through it all again.”
Once in uniform he gave himself to the Army as completely as he had once given himself to his civilian job. The tempest of nervous energy that is in him is directed at the single stated purpose of making his soldiers the finest in the world. His feeling for his men borders on the mystical.
“My family is no more,” he said recently. “Now my family is my whole bloody battalion. There’s nothing counts for me else ... I haven’t had time to write home to my wife for 12 days—she comes second now and she understands that.”
He is a quick, wiry little man who seems to dart rather than walk. His eyes are dark and agile, his smile white and quick and the bones in his cheeks accent his Gallic good looks. He works 16 hours a day and more and almost every night in the week because he feels personally responsible for the life of each man under him. The sight of whole companies of dead men lying in the fields near Falaise still haunts him.
“If I spare myself today,” he said recently while drinking beer with some Army friends, “then when we get into action these men will be lacking something because I spared myself. If men are killed because of that then I will have to account to Someone some day. I am the guy who’s responsible. Even drinking this beer tonight I feel guilty.”
A free night or a week-end leave is, to Dextraze, a cause for remorse rather than celebration. He has been known to cancel week-end excursions at the last moment and spend his Sunday
preparing the following week’s training.
“If you have my kind of conscience,” he explains, “you always feel unhappy if you take time off.”
His own personal successes have given him an unshakeable cocksureness. “If a man makes up his mind to do something and works hard at it then there’s nothing can stop him,” he is fond of saying. This is, in a sense, his catechism and it has worked well.
He believes that a man does not need to get killed in action if he trains himself properly and keeps mind and body alert. He himself suffered only superficial shrapnel wounds in a year at the front. Once he took out a carrier alone on patrol because his men were sleeping. The vehicle was hit by a German bazooka, but Dextraze, who is never still, had leaped from it to safety before the shot struck home.
For these reasons Dextraze drives his troops and officers almost as hard as he drives himself. He has his officers up before 6 a.m. to do P.T. “None of this good thing of getting up at 8 and quitting at 5 and putting on the service dress and forgetting the men,” he has told them.
He is a strict enough disciplinarian. When the battalion arrived in the U. S. he called his troops on parade for a lecture. He told them to act like gentlemen, dress properly and refrain from going AWL or “I’m going to hat you with a big baseball bat.”
“Is it all clear?” he shouted in French.
“Yes,” they shouted back.
“Is there anybody here going AWL?” he shouted.
In spite of this the occasional soldier has been picked up in such unlikely places as San Diego, Calif., and Reno, Nevada.
“It is this beautiful America, the land of plenty,” Dextraze remarks, not without a certain sarcasm. He has not yet got used to the long lines of slot machines in the U. S. men’s and officers’ clubs which the Canadians share.
To delinquent soldiers he invariably says: “I asked you if you were going
AWL that time on parade and you did not tell me,” and awards stiff field punishment—nightly drill with full pack at 130 paces to the minute.
But he is fiercely and possessively proud of his troops.
In the field, with his silk scarf in the regimental colors of red, blue and yellow tucked into his tunic—a regimental “quiff” which he introduced among the officers to give his unit some individuality—his slim figure threads and darts about between his troops like a rabbit.
“Nobody can walk up and talk to my men in the field,” he told an acquaintance recently. “No—not even the brigadier himself: he has to come to me first. Because I know them better than anyone. I live with them!”
This independence of spirit which has served Dextraze so well in war and in peace will continue without question to decide his future course. Should the Crisis of 1951 deepen into the Crisis of 1952 and the Army require the continued services of Lieut.-Col. Jacques Dextraze, he will proceed independently, as he always has, to follow the dictates of a conscience that is never stilled and to hew to his own clearly defined concept of duty.
“I will not quit the Army if I see it is really important to stay,” he says. “But I will make that decision for myself. No matter who talks to me or what they say, / will be the sole judge.”
A friend said of him not long ago: “When Jimmy makes up his mind about something no power on God’s green earth can change him.” ★