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The Pratt Family

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      OCTOBER 1989      p04  
Colin and Clara Pratt kept a small farm on the Gordon's Reserve at the beginning of the 1940s. The Pratts had five children ages eight to fourteen and the farm, though small, provided for their most basic needs. These were good years, productive years and the family's future looked promising. Then the Second World War changed everything.

Military service was a proud tradition from both the Pratt and Anderson sides of the family. Clara's grandfather Archie Anderson fought in the Boer War and had been awarded a distinguished service medal. Both families had relations who fought in the First World War. Clara's father and all her uncles went overseas. Some did not return but died on foreign soil. Their sacrifice was underscored by the fact that Indians were not required by Treaty to serve in Canada's armies.

In keeping with family tradition, Colin Pratt decided he would enlist. In 1942 he walked from Gordon's Reserve to Saskatoon, a distance of one hundred twenty miles, for the sole purpose of joining the Canadian army. He was placed in the Royal Saskatoon Engineers and after eight weeks of intensive training he was sent east for transportation overseas. At the train station in Regina his on Hector, then age fourteen, told his father, "Dad I will see you on the Rhein River". It was a promise he would keep.

In early 1944 Hector Pratt aged sixteen years joined the Canadian Army and like his father before him lied about his age. The elder Pratt claimed to be seven years younger, the younger Pratt claimed to be three years older. Neither by their actual age were eligible.

Hector had joined in time to take part in the fierce fighting in Europe that followed the Normandy invasion. The First Canadian Division under the command of Canadian General Cerare and under the overall command of the famous British Field Marshal, Bernard Montgomery, saw heavy fighting through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

It was in Belgium that Hector first tasted combat. He felt the fear all men face under fire and it was here he killed his first German. He saw the face of the man he killed and was tormented by the memory for weeks later.

Though the Germans were reeling under blows from the allied armies, they were still a formidable foe and some of the heaviest fighting of the way lay ahead. The Pratts were in the thick of it.

The war was an ever present strain on Clara Pratt and her children. She lived daily with the uncertainty that one of her loved ones may have died in battle. She prayed constantly. The Pratts had been a very close family and now their sole link was the packages they prepared for overseas mail. In addition to letters, Clara Pratt always enclosed vitamin pills. She worried that her men needed proper nutrition.

The first Christmas apart was a particularly hard one for the family. They had carefully prepared their Christmas packages for hector and Colin only to find out that the very ship carrying their precious cargo had been sunk by a German submarine. When Christmas Day arrived, dinner was prepared in silence. When they gathered at the table, the silence lingered and no one ate. The first tear fell from their mothers cheek, then they all cried until they could cry no more. Finally the table was cleared. No one had eaten a single bite that loneliest of Christmases.

In late January 1945, the Allied armies had beaten back the last major German offensive, the desperate Battle of the Bulge. Hitler's grand plan of a great Blitzkrieg to the sea dividing the allies armies into two, faltered and failed in the Ardennes Forest. The once invincible Panzer formations had been bled white in an all or nothing gamble. The allies now had one last obstacle before entering Germany itself, the crossing of the Rhein River.

In February, 1945 the Canadian First Division was assigned the task of clearing out German troops south of the Rhein River in the Hochwald Forest. This battle, code named Blockbuster, was intended to secure the south bank of the Rhein in preparation for crossing. The Canadian army ran into unusually strong resistance. A crack German paratroop division backed by the fanatical Hitler Youth and led by a wiley commander doggedly contested every foot of ground. German General Schlemm was a master of defense. He choose his own tactics rather than wait for direction from Berlin as did most other German commanders. He stripped anti-aircraft units of fifty 88 mm guns and skillfully employed them as anti-tank weapons against the Canadians. The German 88 mm gun was a devastating weapon when properly utilized and Schlemm knew how to use it.

Hector Pratt went into battle with 137 men and returned with 35 standing. The fighting was intense. The Hitler Youth were fierce fighters. They were children of 12 to 15 who were so indoctrinated in Nazi thought and ideology that they would rather die fighting then surrender. Toward the end of the war Germany had lost so many soldiers it was using young boys and old men to fight.

At age seventeen Hector Pratt was made a front line sergeant with up to seventeen men under his command at any time. During the fierce battle of the Hochwald Forest he went behind enemy lines to rescue a wounded comrade. He took a red cross arm band off a dead stretcher bearer and crossed over. He had hoped the sight of the Red Cross would protect him as under the Geneva Convention governing rules of warfare, Red Cross men are to be considered free from attack. He succeeded in his rescue attempt but found the wounded man had since died from four bullet wounds.

The Germans retreated across the Rhein and signaled the end of the battle with the blowing up of two bridges. There were many casualties on both sides.

It was about this time that Clara Pratt experienced some strange omens. An owl fluttered around her home and would not leave. No one could kill it even when they were certain they had shot it. Rats began to be seen around the home. One day the family placed traps and baited them with cheese slices. The next morning Mrs. Pratt was startled to find a neat stack of cheese slices on the floor by her bed. All the traps were still set. Then one day while doing her housework she paused and blurted out, "We lost one! We lost one!" She grabbed her oldest daughter Dolly and said, "Why did I say that? Why did I say that?" Within two weeks the family received notice that Lawrence Anderson, Clara Pratt's only brother had died in combat. The day they received the notice was the last day they saw the rats.

Following the Battle of the Riechwald Forest, the Canadian army was prepared to cross the Rhein in conjunction with allied crossings on a broad front. The Canadians were regrouping when word reached Hector that his father was emcamped less than one quarter mile away. They had been camped within walking distance of each other for weeks.

In 1942 in Saskatchewan, Hector had promised he would meet is father on the banks of the Rhein River. On the eve of the allied crossing of the Rhein father and son embraced within sight of the river. Hector had kept his promise.

The Canadian First Army crossed the Rhein and advanced into Holland. Nazi Germany was in ruins. The Soviet armies were advancing on Berlin itself. The Holland operation meant mopping up a by-passed German army.

At ten in the morning May 4, 1945 in northern Holland, Hector Pratt heard the war was over. Three German soldiers who surrendered that day could not believe and were very bewildered when Hector refused to take them prisoner.

Immediately following the Nazi surrender, the Canadian army began looking for soldiers to fight against the Japanese. Hector volunteered. Re-enlisting soldiers were the first to be sent home. By the time Hector stepped onto Canadian soil Japan had surrendered.

He arrived by train in Regina and from there made his way home. There was a dance at George Pratt's place that night. Clara Pratt was there with her family. No one knew Hector was coming home. They all thought he was still in Europe. He was wearing his uniform when he walked into the house. Clara Pratt turned to see who the new arrival was and saw the stranger was her son. She let out a cry of surprise and fainted. Her only son had returned home. The people began a giveaway in gratitude for his safe return. Colin Pratt returned that Christmas.