CNIB Brantford client shares WWII stories with students

By: Carol Goar

CNIB Brantford client shares WWII stories with students - Photo of Mick CollinsIn full uniform with 11 medals, a remarkable memory and an inviting smile, Brantford’s Mick Collins is the kind of veteran who brings Remembrance Day to life.
On November 11, he’ll share stories, answer questions and help students imagine what it would be like to go to war.
Few of them will guess Collins is 96.
Even fewer will suspect he lives with a serious eye disease (age-related macular degeneration) that causes damage to the macula, the central part of the retina responsible for seeing fine details (such as reading print or seeing faces).
Collins doesn’t dwell on his disability. He’d rather talk about his 12 years in the British Army during World War II, five of them in a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp.
He signed up at 18, seeking adventure and eager to see the world. He had no inkling war was imminent. On September 3, 1939, an urgent message came by Morse code. “Shut down the camp. Return to barracks. War has been declared.”
By mid-month, his division was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Its job was to set up a communication system and build pillboxes (small concrete bunkers with peepholes for rifles).
Collins and mates knew they were outgunned (they had World War I rifles and the Germans had submachine weapons), but they didn’t know how fast the Germans were advancing. Collins’s platoon made it to the French seaport of Dunkirk in 1940, expecting to be evacuated. Instead, the lieutenant in charge told them to build roadblocks to stop the German tanks. Within days, the town was surrounded.
“We decided to escape but our platoon ran smack into a tank,” Collins recalled. “We threw down our rifles and we were taken prisoner.”
He spent the next five years as a POW in Poznan, a heavily fortified Polish city. On arrival, his head was shaved and he was assigned a number: 3861. That would be his only identity.
“Morale was pretty high among the prisoners in the beginning,” he recalled.
As the war dragged on, conditions worsened. Food grew scarce. By 1944, they had to stretch one loaf of sawdust-filled black bread among 22 men.
The camp closed in January of 1945 and the prisoners embarked on a 1,000-mile trek to France. Temperatures were frigid. Several men lost limbs to gangrene. Collins tried to escape once and got beaten up.
When Collins completed his military service, he and his wife moved to Canada. They raised a family in Montreal before moving to Brantford where Collins managed a national library supply company.
A widower for 17 years, he now lives at Tranquility Place.
“They all call me Mick,” says Collins. “I cheer up the ladies. It makes me feel good.”
Determined to stay fit, Collins walks two miles a day. He buys his own groceries, goes on bus trips and he seldom misses a dance at the legion.
To read and keep track of his schedule, he uses a closed circuit television (CCTV) purchased through CNIB. It magnifies print and removes the black spot from the page.
Having cheated death, survived a POW camp and outlived most of his contemporaries, Collins isn’t about to let low vision slow him down. The Saturday before Remembrance Day he’ll meet his buddies for dinner at the legion to talk about old times. A few days later, he’ll receive the names of schools he’ll visit.
A young lad caught him off guard a couple of years ago. Staring at the veteran’s medals, he asked: “Were you afraid in the war?” Collins had to think about it. “All the men in my platoon were afraid,” he said. “But, when you’re with good friends, you don’t feel so scared.”