My name is Paul Wheeler and I was a cadet corporal instructor with “D” Company at the Valcartier cadet camp in 1974.
I was recently contacted by a fellow cadet NCO from that summer, Gerry Fostaty. He wrote to say that our former CSM Gutta, was trying to compile a list of those who were part of “D” Company that summer to let them know about the yearly memorial parades that happen at Valcartier.
I haven’t spoken with anyone about that summer for over 30 years – it has been inside me like a black cloud in the distance – always there, but safely far away. Hearing from Gerry after all those years, and knowing that there were others that still thought about that terrible summer, was a surprise. I then searched the web for any items about that summer and found the Black Watch web Meet & Greet.
To see the messages posted there by those who were part of “D” Company was quite emotional. There is obviously still much sorrow, confusion, distress and even anger about the explosion that summer and I felt a sense of sadness to see how this event changed the lives of those who were part of our unit. And there was also a sense of comfort in knowing that I was not alone in living with those memories.
After the explosion happened, I kept some notes and newspaper clippings, thinking that they might be useful some day. They have managed to follow me around for all these years and, after reading the questions that some of you had about what happened that summer, I though I would share some of the information and memories that I have.
“D” Company was Valcartier’s bilingual company, made up of cadets from Quebec. There was one mainly English speaking platoon (#10, if I remember correctly), one fairly fluent bilingual platoon (my #11 platoon) and one mainly French-speaking platoon (#12).
On the day in question, Tuesday, July 30, 1974, the bunk beds in #11 Platoon’s barracks were all pushed together to the back of the room to make enough space to house the explosives safety lecture that the “D” company cadets were going to receive. As I remember, there were approximately 70 cadets, four or five cadet NCO’s and two regular force instructors in the barracks. The cadets were all seated on the floor and the two instructors were at the front of the room, near the doorway to the center common/washroom area.
Myself and Marc Slater, another cadet NCO, were seated on the first row of bunkbeds, immediately behind the seated cadets. The 70 or so cadets that were seated were quite cramped.
The officer that was instructing, Captain Jean-Claude Giroux, and his assistant, Corporal Claude Pelletier, proceeded to speak about the dangers of unexploded ammunition and munitions and started pulling various ‘dummy’ munitions out of a box, showing the cadets what these various munitions actually looked like. After he showed and spoke about each one, he passed it to the cadets who circulated it around the room.
Midway through this presentation, there was a very powerful “boom” and the room immediately filled up with smoke. Marc and I were stunned by the initial explosion and my first thought was that Captain Giroux must have set off some sort of demonstration explosion – it didn’t seem real.
With Marc and I still sitting on the bunkbeds, the next thing I saw were cadets emerging from the smoke – running past us, between the bunks to get to the exit. Most had a strange expression on their faces and there was a high-pitched muted sound that I could hear. It took a second to realize that my hearing had been damaged with the explosion and that the sound I heard was the cadets’ screams as they ran by.
It started to dawn upon us that something terrible had happened and as I looked to the front, the smoke started to clear and I saw many dark shapes on the floor. The smoke continued to drift away and the shapes became bodies – some moving, some not. And my hearing started to come back and, as it did, the noise level got louder and louder. That sound is etched inside – a combination of crying, screams, soft moans, and calls for help.
We stayed in the room and did what we could. There are some images from that time that are still as vivid as they were that day. I won’t describe them other than to say it was a graphic look at death and at dying.
We still weren’t quite sure what had happened and whether there was danger of another explosion. It started to quieten down and there were three or four of us going around the room to look at the injured and dead. This seemed to last for quite a while, but in fact was only probably a minute or two.
The entrance to the common area was suddenly full of people. Looking in to see what had happened. Then there were yells from many asking about medical help, ambulances, but some were unable to comprehend what they were seeing and simply stared at the carnage.
Finally, the ambulances and medical help started arriving and I was able to leave the building and try to find the cadets in my section.
The rest of the day seemed to rush by in some sort of hazy blurr. The remaining cadets of ‘D’ Company were segregated from the others in the camp. We ate separately, marched separately and had little or no contact with others in the camp. As word got around Valcartier about what had happened, we began to notice the stares and hushed conversations from others in the camp.
We spoke quietly among ourselves about who we knew had died, who was injured, and who was missing. As the day wore on and it became apparent how terrible the tragedy was, cadets from our group would break down, start crying or shaking. And the others would comfort them.
We were moved from the barracks to a separate building – a chapel, I think. There were beds brought in to sleep and the lights turned down. The memories from that night were so very clear. Many of the cadets were unable to sleep. Some needed to talk, some needed to think, and some simply had to weep. There were some who, once sleep came, tossed and turned and mumbled. Some who cried out.
I can remember CSM Charles Gutta, a man we respected and believed to be ‘super-tough’, speaking quietly and gently to one of the distraught cadets in the sleeping area. Trying to comfort him as you would a baby.
And our CO, Colonel Whitelaw, trying to ensure that everyone was comfortable and doing what he could to not make the cadets feel alone, even for an instant. There was a moment that night, when I was watching him and saw him let his guard down for a second and there was such sadness etched across his face.
It was a sleepless night for many of the cadet NCO’s. There was a sense of responsibility for ‘our cadets’ and, at the same time, a sense of helplessness. We talked for a while, then drifted off into our own thoughts.
The days that followed were a jumble of trying to figure out what had happened, trying to contact familes to reassure them and to seek reassurance and trying to move forward from the state of shock we all seemed to be in.
There was an inquiry and all cadets present in the barracks were questioned. It was very upsetting for some and some others became very angry.
In the end, there was an official Coroner’s Inquest and blame was placed on Captain Giroux and three other Armed forces personnel. The coroner also blamed the higher authorities of camp Valcartier, saying that “apathy or detestable routine seem to have fostered a climate of negligence and carelessness”.
It was determined that a box of 19 live green-colored M-61 grenades were being returned from a practice range in the same truck as the box of blue-colored dummy demonstration armaments. The live grenades were being transported in a cardboard box that was too small to hold all 19. Two of the grenades fell out of the box. One of the two grenades was seen mixed yup with the dummy ammunition and returned to the original box. There was no search made by the driver or the warrant officer in charge to see if any other grenades had fallen out of the box and there was no count made of the live grenades to see if any were missing.
When the box of dummy armaments made it to the classroom, both Captain Giroux and Corporal Pelletier assumed that the lone green colored grenade in the box of blue-colored ammunition must have been a ‘dummy’, simply because it was in the same box.
The grenade was passed to the cadets by Captain Giroux and soon after exploded in the hands on Cadet Eric Lloyd.
I stopped following the case after that point and never found out what had happened to those implicated. Frankly, I didn’t want to know anymore. What had happened, happened and I just wanted to get on with my life.
Today, 34 years later, I can look back at the events of that summer without becoming upset. There is just a sense of sadness, quiet sadness, that the lives of such wonderful, young men whom I knew were ended so tragically.
The following are the names of those who died in the Valcartier cadet camp explosion:
Yves Langlois, 15 years old
Pierre Leroux, 14 years old
Eric Lloyd, 14 years old
Othon Mangos, 14 years old
Mario Provencher, 15 years old
Michel Voisard, 14 years old
There were over 30 others injured in the explosion. There was one cadet in particular, Yves Senecal, who suffered brain damage from the blast and his life changed forever. And after looking at the Black Watch web Meet & Greet posted messages, there seems to be a few with suffering from stress disorder and the memories of that fateful day. They are the ones who need our support.
Now that I know about the yearly observation, I am planning to go next year (2009) to the 35th memorial parade. Perhaps this is the opportunity for all of us who were a part of this to come together…