John Olbey celebrates his 100th birthday on February 27th, 2022. He was born in Chaham on February 1922. He earned several medals while serving as a Sergeant in the 4th Canadian Armoured Division/Headquarters during the Second World War. His brother George, served in the Signal Corps, and his other brother Wilfred, served in the forestry unit in British Columbia.
On Remembrance Day 2021, John appeared in the History Channel’s documentary “Black Liberators WWII” which tells firsthand accounts the stories of Black Canadians who fought for Canada in the Second World War. Two years earlier Mr. Olbey was interviewed by Chatham daily news. Below are parts of the interview.
In 1942, John Olbey boarded a train in Chatham with his friend and neighbour, Ray Williams and travelled to Windsor where at 21, enlisted in the Canadian Armed Services on Aug. 12, 1942.
By February 1943, Olbey arrived in Scotland, where he would go on to serve in the European theatre of war in the Britain, Belgium, France, Holland and Germany.
“I was with the tank crew and I started out being a driver, then a co-driver, then a gunner, (and) then I was a crew commander for a while,” he said. In 1944, Olbey and two of the men in his tank were shot at and he was one of three men in the tank sent to a field hospital. He said, “There was a fire in the tank and it burnt me pretty bad,” Olbey said.
Olbey recalled arriving in France in July 1944 and leaving Germany in May 1945. “Some of the things were pretty nasty,” he said at the time. “You did what you had to do.” Olbey described his arrival in France as a “baptism by fire,” adding it was a “bloody battle” when they moved through Caen, a port city in the country’s northwest. He fondly recalls a few chance meetings during the war with his old friend, the late Cpl. Arthur Alexander, who served as rifleman with the Queen’s Own Rifles, an infantry regiment that was on the first Canadian ship to land on Juno Beach on June 6, 1944, for the pivotal D-Day battle.
“When we first went over, my unit was doing some shelling at night (in Belgium),” Olbey said.
He remembered arriving at a school yard when it was his turn to cook for the crew, so he got out the tank to make the meal.
“The shells start coming – Moaning Minnies we called them,” he said.
Olbey said someone in a half-track vehicle nearby called over to him and, to his surprise, it was Alexander. He recalled another time: “We were in a break-down area taking a rest, and I walked over to see some of these guys” and one of them again turned out to be his chum from North Buxton.
After the war Alexander became popular a barber for the Black community in Chatham, with his King Street East shop also becoming a social hub. “We used to talk about (our chance meetings during the war) down at the barbershop once in a while,” Olbey said. But the realities of the Second World War often meant friendships were short lived. “I run into quite a few guys in adverse conditions and then they’re gone, and you never saw them again,” Olbey said.
When the war ended, he arrived in Halifax before being shipped to London, Ont., where he received his honourable discharge in May 1946, along with train fare back to Chatham. “The trains were always busy and we couldn’t wait, so a friend of mine and I got out on the highway and hitchhiked to Chatham,” he said. Olbey remembered walking in the door and his parents were “spellbound” when they saw him standing there. “They hadn’t expected to see me for a long time,” he said. After the war, he worked several jobs – everything from tending bar at the Royal Tavern to being a chauffeur – before continuing his education to earn his designation as a millwright.
There’s been one constant in Olbey’s life since the war ended – his wife of 71 years, Olive. The couple still live in the home they have owned for over 70 years.
HONOURABLE SERVICE MEDALS
Sgt. John Olbey earned the following medals and decorations for his service to country as a member of the Fourth Canadian Armoured Brigade:
France and Germany Star
King George VI Medal
Canadian Voluntary Service Medal and Clasp
British Service Medal
Holland Service Medal
When asked to describe his service time in sentence or two, John said “I was never so happy as when it was over. My crew by that time by that time, I’d seen so many. They were gone. Dead. The pictures. Some of the pictures, we buried them. I don’t remember their names now, but uh...you thought about them. They had families, I know that. I didn’t have any family, just myself. So many that... got shot up at the last. Felt sorry. I wouldn’t want to see another one, no. I know it’s dirty over there now. Terrible. When asked how important he thought the Canadian Armored corps was to the war effort during Second World War, John replied, “First up. Bang up. Johnny on the spot. Thorough. No cry babies. They do what they were told”