Living to tell his story

THIS week marks 75 years since the end of World War II. Some men left their homes in the Caribbean to fight in Europe on behalf of the British Empire, others looked to neighbouring islands for jobs. For such ones, Trinidad represented a land of opportunity.

During the war days two American bases were set up in Trinidad, one in Chaguaramas, the other in Wallerfield. Trinidad was also an important source of aviation fuel for fighter planes, fuel was also supplied to the British Navy ships. According to Beverley A Steele who researched and wrote about the experiences of Grenadians during the war, many Grenadians were lured by the prospect of jobs on the American bases and boarded schooners bound for Trinidad, braving the dangerous open seas that were frequented by submarines. Among them was my grandfather Ralph Elms who left Grenada in 1941. By the height of the war he was already in his early 20s. Elms was born in 1918 to a Scottish mother and British father. It was the year that the first world war ended and the Spanish influenza began. Elms’ first few months were uncertain, as a newborn he had fallen seriously ill with scarlet fever and the doctors were sure that he would not survive; but to their surprise, he did. He grew up with his parents and siblings in Mt Moritz where his father had two acres of land close to the sea, as a young man Elms spent many nights at the water’s edge. His father was big into agriculture.

“But agriculture and I were total enemies,” Elms said years ago while recalling his childhood days.

Off to the unknown

Feeling hemmed in, Elms decided to take his chances elsewhere, that ‘elsewhere’ happened to be Trinidad. One can only imagine him onboard either The Enterprise or the May I Pick amongst dozens of Grenadian men watching the familiar landscape of their homeland fade into the distance as they ventured off into the unknown. As war raged on in Europe, Elms got a job with the English contingent for aircrafts at the Air Force base in Wallerfield which was used as an aircraft maintenance and supply facility. His job was to help refuel the allies’ fighter planes before they flew off on missions.

“I was well treated by the soldiers,” he once said of those days.

The war ended on September 2, 1945, and by that time, Elms was already married and had started a family. Once it was safe to do so, he obtained a pass by Harriman & Company on Chacon Street in Port of Spain to take a trip down the islands which had been occupied by the Americans during the war days, along with Scotland Bay and Carenage.

At that time, vestiges of the war were still clear and present. Elms recalled that there were two powerful anti-aircraft guns stationed on Monos, one above the house which he eventually built and a second one which overlooked the Second Boca. There was also a road on which the Americans drove their vehicles that led from Biche Cayenne to the top of the hill by the first anti-aircraft gun. It was a long rotating gun and the soldiers had dug a trench around it in order to use the gun at any angle, two soldiers were needed to manoeuvre it.

After the war, Elms went on to manage a cocoa estate in Gran Couva, he later returned to Monos where he remains to this day—75 years after the war ended.

The island has changed much since the war days. Once occupied by foreign soldiers, it has since become a popular holiday hotspot and Biche Cayenne which was once used as a drop-off location for soldiers was, up until the pandemic, frequented by boat loads of excursionists who often left their garbage strewn on the bay.

As for grandpa, at the age of 101, he has long outlived his generation and is the oldest living resident on Monos island. His body and mind, once active and agile, have been lost to time and have faded away like many of the machines, artillery and bunkers once used by soldiers when the world went to war.

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