Gillis, Eugene

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                                   EUGENE GILLIS
                                A life in the RCMP
                                 By Bonnie Sweeney

Capturing two German prisoners of war was the highlight of his 25-year career with the RCMP, says Gene Gillis of Cassilis. Gillis was stationed in Ottawa on Jan. 3, 1944, when Hans Hein and Heinz Schrodt walked away from a lumber camp. “They were among a work crew from the concentration camp and were working near Sheerway, Quebec and they just disappeared,” Gillis said.

As Gillis sat in his home Friday recalling the days when he was with the RCMP, he was surrounded by many souvenirs. But the only souvenirs he had of the German prisoners were their photographs, an article published in the RCMP quarterly and memories. “They belonged the Afrika corps and were pilots. They planned to steal a plane and go to the United States,” Gillis said.

Two days after they disappeared, Gillis, then posted in Ottawa, patrolled from there to Pembroke, Ontario by police car. He checked all traffic, but didn’t come up with any leads. He delivered photographs and circulars to town police at Arnprior, Renfrew and Pembroke, also the CPR police and the Ontairo Provincial Police at Renfrew and Pembroke. He was joined over the next few days by RCMP Constable Douglas Taylor. They checked freight trains, vacant summer cottages and camps in the area, but there was no trace of the missing POWs. “We found out later they were stealing our food from summer camps, flour, anything they could get to mix up to eat. The people of the area were quite worried,” Gillis said. The agent for the Sheerway depot of the J.R. Booth Lumber Company where the prisoner of war crews were working had his men make a complete circle of the area, but found nothing.

“We got a phone call from a truck driver who said he saw two suspicious men running off the road as he was driving by,” Gillis said. That was on Feb. 9 on the road between Rapids des Joachim and Sheerway, Gillis said. After the tip from the truck driver, Gillis contacted Ontario provincial police constable Frank Cottell. They drove to Rapids des Joachim where they contacted the forestry office and instructed that all residents of the area be warned to keep an eye out for the POWs. “Then we drove a few miles further and interviewed the driver who saw the two men. I asked the truck driver for the use of his truck, because I figured the police car would be too noticeable,” Gillis said.

Sure enough, about a mile from where they met the truck driver, they found the two German prisoners. “It was in a gravel pit, but there was a sort of little cave there. All they had were a few things with them. I think they really wanted to get caught, they were hungry and cold. One of the pilots could speak fairly good English. I remember him pointing at me and saying, ‘Look, mountain police, mountain police,’” Gillis said. The two didn’t resist, but upon seeing Gillis they immediately hauled on their German coats over their prison camp clothing. “They put them on real quick, because they knew they had protection as prisoners of war,” Gillis said.

The prisoners were taken to Pembroke, where they were examined by a doctor and then driven to the Petawawa military hospital.

The following day, Gillis returned to Petawawa where he interviewed the Germans. Heinz Schrodt issued the following statement on their escape:

“On the evening of Jan. 3, I and my Comrade Hans Hein left the Sheerway lumber camp at 10:30. Our reason for leaving was due to the fact that previous to leaving Medicine Hat, Alta., Hein was appointed camp leader and I was appointed assistant. We did not feel that we should be compelled to work in the bush.

“For two weeks after our break, we stayed in a vacant cabin and returned to the lumber camp several times at night to obtain provisions. We slept near the camp several nights. For four or five nights previous to our capture, my Comrade and I slept out-of-doors in our blankets. We had four double blankets between us.

“Our plan was to reach the Ottawa River and travel southeast along the north bank until we reached Waltham, Que. We knew there was an airport in Quyon, Que., where we would take a plane and fly it to the United States and if possible, reach New Orleans, where we might get aboard a neutral ship and eventually reach Spain or Portugal. “Hein has operated American types of planes. I can fly a Canadian-built plane as the principal features of the mechanism are the same as our own.”

When picked up, the POWs were carrying only $14 in U.S. money and 25 cents in Canadian. They each had an Afrik corps packsack containing numerous articles and notions, kit and clothing. “We knew they couldn’t cross the river, it would have been suicide because of the rapids, even if they could have stolen a boat.”

                       Gillis has part of famous snowshoe

A piece of strapping from the snowshoe of Albert Johnson sits in Gene Gillis’ den. Albert Johnson is world-famous. He is known as the Mad Trapper of Rat River. His story was the subject of a movie starring Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin.

Gillis is an ex-RCMP officer living in Cassilis. Gillis joined the force in 1934 and went to Regina for his training.

Johnson’s story began on Jan. 31, 1931, when he shot RCMP Corporal Alfred King. King had knocked on the door of the trapper’s log cabin near Aklavik, far north of the Arctic Circle in the western end of the Northwest Territories. There had been complaints that Johnson was messing with another man’s trap line.

King survived the attack, despite having to be taken by dog-sled in -40F weather to a doctor.

The shooting prompted an enormous manhunt for Johnson. The mysterious trapper seemed to have a supernatural ability to live on almost no food and travel in the most vicious snowstorms across mountain ranges previously thought impassable. They chased him for about 250 kilometers. And on Feb. 17, 1932, RCMP, with help from bush pilot Wop May, trapped him on a bend in the Eagle River and killed Johnson in a shootout.

There still remain some doubts about Johnson’s identity and why he shot the officer. The manhunt happened two years before Gillis joined the force. But he remembers the many conversations of the killing of the trapper, he said.

Gillis and his wife, Ruth, came to know some of the officers who had been on the hunt and in particular Alfred King. “He had a nickname; we called him ‘Buns.’ King was from Prince Edward Island. My wife and I came down on the train with Buns from Ontario one year; that was the year he was retiring. I don’t know if he’s still living or not. I’ve always intended to visit him, but never did,” Gillis said.

Gillis is not saying how he got the piece of Albert Johnson’s snowshoe, only that it “conveniently fell” into his hands. The famous snowshoes now hang in a museum in Regina, Gillis said. “We’ve been told that many of the strappings were damaged when bullets were fired at Johnson when he was carrying the snowshoes on his back,” Gillis said.

                                      Different now

The RCMP has changed a great deal, even in training, from the days when he joined, Gillis said. “It was by foot, canoe or horseback in the summer and snowshoe or dogsled in the winter,” Gillis said.

One winter, Gillis and a war-maiden made a four-day trip to the Elk Island Game Reserve. “We went to check the elk. We heard the wolves were killing a lot of them. Off we went with a pack horse. We made the trip which took four days by horseback. It was hard, I wouldn’t want to do it again,” Gillis said, shaking his head. The first night they slept on the floor of a big old Indian camp with the horses nearby for warmth. Gillis leans back his head and laughs when he remembers the second night. “The next night we made it to the old castle. The owner wasn’t there, but the caretaker was. He found a barrel of whisky. We had a very pleasant evening. The next day we were on our way again,” Gillis said.

Source: Miramichi Leader – April 10, 1991

                             EUGENE GILLIS...CONTINUED...
                        Career as Mountie began with walk down the river

The day he applied to join the RCMP remains vivid in the mind of Gene Gillis of Red Bank. In the spring of 1934 he put on his best boots and set out for the long walk down the ice from his home in Red Bank to Newcastle.

He wasn’t alone. A friend of his was also determined to become an RCMP officer. There was still a great deal of snow and the ice in the river was still strong. The walking was good. There were no cars, or at least not many. There were no busses or any other way to get there. Many people travelled by horse and sled, but even then the highway was only a sled track. We made good time on the ice. Coming back we talked about how long it would be before we would know if we were accepted and wondered what it would be like to be a Mountie.”

He had almost given up waiting to hear from them when he received word in June he had been accepted. On June 23, he joined the force in Ottawa. His friend hadn’t been accepted and he had to make the trip to the RCMP training centre in Regina alone.

It’s believed Gillis was the first from the local area to join the RCMP. He remembers the pay - $1.25 a day with a pay hike of five cents a year for the next five years. He found himself in a different life style. This was the first time he had been that far from home.

He had completed Grade 12 in Windsor, Ontario. At that time the school there took certain studentswho could work their way through their high school years.

Shortly after arriving at the barracks in Regina, the new recruit was introduced to the drill halls and the riding school. Recalling the days of training for the musical ride, Gillis spontaneously laughs out loud. “I felt sorry for some of the guys. I had at least been on a horse’s back before, but some of them had never been that close to a horse before.”

He’ll never forget the elderly man who was in command of the riding instructors – a Sargeant Major Griffith. “He was quite old and I believe retired from the army. The corporals instructed all the mounted trainees and sometimes took a troop out for exercise rides on the Prairies,” Gillis said. The training for the musical rides was done in a large building with sawdust and earth for a floor. This was not only to protect the horse’s hoofs, but also protected the recruit’s bottoms, and all of us found out what it was like to be thrown from a horse, including me,” he said.

The new recruits soon learned that horses knew a great deal more than they did about the RCMP training. “Just when everything would be going real peaceful, with all the riders getting their horses to do what had to be done, the instructor would walk up on the viewing stand. Quickly he would fire two or three shots. Well, you can imagine what happened. The horses, of course, were used to it and came to expect it. I really believe the horses looked forward to it, they seemed to enjoy throwing their rider. Sometimes every man would be dismounted,” Gillis laughed.

Another manoeuvre they had to accomplish was to dismount while the horse were cantering, run to the horse ahead and mount it. “In the drill halls, we were instructed in foot and arms, P.T., judo and boxing. After that, we had classes in rules and regulations. On Sunday, there was church service and relaxation,” he said. Gillis enjoyed being part of the musical ride. In the spring after his training, he was transferred to Vancouver, leaving Ottawa in a blizzard and arriving in B.C. on April 1 to see apple blossoms and green grass.

It was while he was in Vancouver he met movie actor Nelson Eddy. “Nelson Eddy and his film crew came right over to us in the stalls and we got to know him quite well. He was doing some mounted scenes for the picture Rose Marie.

Also in Vancouver, he took part in a drug bust. “We were watching this big freighter which we suspected was moving drugs. It was getting ready to leave the harbour and once again we had found no drugs on it. But just as the anchor was lifting, we spotted something on the large chain. There were about three boxes, about the size of beer boxes, attached to the chain. It wasn’t a large seizure in today’s terms. I can’t remember what kind of dope it was, but it was one of the more serious ones which was worth about $250,000,” Gillis said.

                          Gillis met the Duke of Windsor

One thing about a visit to the home of Gene Gillis, it’s not boring. The walls and cabinets of what he calls his “catch all” room are lined with souvenirs from the days he was an RCMP officer, a school teacher, a boxing instructor and a special agent of the Department of Indian Affairs.

He joined the RCMP in 1934 and left when his term was up in 1946 to take a job with the Chatham branch of the department of Indian Affairs as a special agent. “The pay was a heck of a lot better,” he said. But in 1949 he rejoined the RCMP again and went to Ottawa with a motorcycle squad, directing traffic, particularly around Parliament Hill.

In 1939 while on general duties at Parliament Hill he met the Duke of Windsor and his wife. “I was excited to meet them but I was also embarrassed,” he said. He would wear his formal red suit in the day time, but at night wore the regular uniform. “The Duke of Windsor came over to me and asked me where my red coat was. “Without thinking, I said ‘Oh we only wear that for the VIPs.’ What I meant to say was, ‘We wear the red coat when the public is around.’ I’ll never forget his wife, she got a great kick out of that. She turned to the Duke and said, ‘Oh Edward, that’s a real good one on you.’ Boy, did I feel bad,” Gillis said.

That year he also made the cover of Canada’s national travel tour guide. He is shown on the steps of the Parliament buildings with a man and a woman from the national film board on each side of him.

On a high shelf in his den sits a tiny glass dog, one of his favourite souvenirs. Like everything else in his den, from the strap from the Mad Trapper of Rat River’s snowshoe to his lacrosse stick, they all have a story behind them.

The glass dog is about an inch high and was given to him by a con artist, he said. “I was assigned to escort him to Prince Albert. He was a very proud person and after we got on the train he asked if I would take the handcuffs off so people wouldn’t see them. I didn’t take them off, but I agreed to handcuff him to my suitcase. When we got to our destination, he reached in his pocket and pulled out this (glass dog) out. ‘It’s all I have,’ he said, ‘and I want you to have it for being so nice to me.’ I’ve treasured it ever since,” Gillis said.

But that wasn’t all the con artist gave him. He also gave him information. The con artist told Gillis to go back where they came from, go to the Marconi factory, then walk 40 feet. Gillis did and in the ground he found a gun. “A lot of people, including those at the factory, couldn’t figure out how I could just walk to a spot and find it so easily. I had a lot of fun telling that story,” Gillis joked.

After rejoining the RCMP, he left again a year later. “I was going to be posted to St. Regis, patrolling the reserve there where all the trouble was last year. At the same time, Indian Affairs were after me, so I decided to leave. I joined as assistant superintendent and stayed there 12 more years, retiring as superintendent in 1962 in Shubenacadie, N.S.,” Gillis said. In all, he said 25 years as an officer, counting the years in the force and as special agent.

He had an offer to teach school in Whitneyville and he took it for one year. “They were an unruly bunch when I went there. But I have to say when I left they were a pretty good group of kids.”

                             Gillis goes to B.C.

The first posting for Gene Gillis of Red Bank was a long way from home. He was first posted was to a small detachment in the interior of B.C. to check and discourage people from riding the freight trains and sometimes the passengers trains free of charge.

Asked if he was ever in serious danger, he said yes. “I had to run the top of trains while the trains were moving and that’s not easy. I had a few close calls while doing that. You had to do that when you saw someone up ahead poking their head out. All we could do was try and scare them, because when you got to where you saw the head there was no one there anyway.”

Other times, while riding trains it was boring. “But there was one part of the trail where the tracks cut through high banks. And snakes, were there snakes. When we got to this part we would use our revolvers to see how many snakes we could shoot. Besides, it was good practise for us,” he said.

Source: Miramichi Leader Weekend – April 12, 1991

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