A true story.
Dedicated to my father – Voitto Olavi Pokela
Father’s Day – 4th September 2016
He was suicidal. The twenty-one year old war veteran, rifle in hand, headed into his family’s forest. Not too far from the house so it would not be hard to find and retrieve his body. Just about to pull the trigger, he was stopped by the sound of angelic voices singing gospel music: No one can understand me like Jesus. It saved his life. Later he was to marry the owner of one of those voices.
Just 16. They were calling for volunteers. He was eager. He wanted to defend his fatherland. Only to be told he was too young. So he lied about his age and at age 17 was accepted. Like so many others. The consequences of that decision were to haunt him for life. He lived through the horror that was war in Finland between 1939 – 1945. That man was my father. He carried this photo of mum in his pocket throughout the war. It was a lifeline to home.
A machine gunner, he also dug trenches, trudged through freezing winters, battled starvation. Amazingly, given his role and function, he survived. It was in these harsh conditions and limited food supplies that he learnt to eat blue vein cheese. It came supplied with the army rations. Others thought it was cheese gone bad and refused to eat it. He gladly took all of it. It staved the hunger. And he developed a lifelong love for it. He saw action across many parts of Finland from the south to the north in Finnish Lapland.
He called it a dirty war, the one he was in. It was well known that the Russian army did not like to take prisoners. If caught there was a high risk they would be shot just as they did their own troops if they were caught retreating. It made the Finnish soldiers fight all the harder to avoid capture and almost certain death.
At some stage during the Continuation War Dad had gone to the Supply Store to get replacement boots and socks for his worn out ones. The Supply Seargent asked him what he did. I’m a machine gunner. He was told there was no point in being given any as he would not last more than a day or two. Such was the fatalistic attitude stated in a thoughtless matter-of-fact manner, without any regard for the person being addressed.
In assaults against the Russians a machine gunner killed enemy soldiers. Dad says he killed hundreds. During flashbacks, he saw the faces of every soldier he had shot. Many studies have been conducted on the effect of chronic PTSD in war veterans. It is relatively recent that this research was extended to include WW2 veterans. “Reported symptoms include reliving an event through bad memories, nightmares, flashbacks and feelings of fear and horror. Possible triggers can be certain sounds, smells and news reports of a similar event. Feelings of numbness, jitteriness, an intense awareness of potential danger, sudden anger or irritability and difficulty sleeping or concentrating can occur.” Chronic PTSD in ageing war veterans becomes more acute with each successive life loss.
Dad was awarded this medal
In 1998 when Saving Private Ryan was first released in the cinemas, depicting war in all its unsanitised graphic reality, Dad and the boys went to see it. They returned home in a very sombre mood. No-one was willing to talk about it. Dad summed it up: It showed war as it really was. Over the years this is how I recall my father ‘telling’ us what war was like for him. He took the whole family to view the famous WW2 Finnish movie Unknown Soldier when it came to Adelaide and was shown in the local Estonian Club. Widely regarded as a canonical movie of the Continuation War it tells the story from an ordinary soldier’s perspective.
Dad found it extraordinarily difficult to share his personal war experiences. He would tell the funny stories quite happily. As for the real, nitty gritty stuff – they remained far too raw and painful to share. A few times he tried to tell us about the battle for which he was awarded the medal for bravery. He could never get past the first sentence before dissolving into great gulping sobs of anguish. Likewise, I only once heard him briefly mention his faithful four legged partner. He was a loyal friend, a good soldier, killed in action he said.
Dad suffered from nightmares all his life. Mum’s singing in her sleep mostly kept them at bay. Sometimes he would wake her up saying I’ve listened to six hymns. You can stop now. I’m ready to sleep! But I do recall some occasions when he was on official Church business here in Adelaide on his own, hearing him screaming in terror of a night.
THREE FINNISH WARS
The Finns describe their involvement in the second world war as three distinctly separate conflicts:
- The Winter War from 1939 to 1940 (against the Russians)
- The Continuation War from 1941 to 1944 (also against the Russians)
- The Lapland War from 1944 to 1945 (against Nazi Germany)
The Winter War
On Nov. 30, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland with more than 400,000 troops. The assault was almost three times larger than the Allied landing at Normandy. Soviet Leningrad, a city of five million, by itself contained more people than the entire country of Finland. The Winter War became one of the USSR’s most shocking defeats. The Finnish army, ill equipped but skilful and just a third the size of the Soviet force slowed and bloodied the invaders until a peace treaty ended the war. Finland was forced to cede territory to the USSR.
The Continuation War
Keen to regain lost territory, Finland formed an alliance with Germany during the Continuation War. It seemed a good strategic move to defend the borders against the Soviet Union. Unusually, the Finnish government did not take any anti-Jewish measures despite Nazi Germany’s repeated requests. The Finns resisted the pressure. Surprisingly Hitler continued to view Finland as an ally. Finnish Jews joined in the fight against the Soviet Union. Finland adopted the concept of a “parallel war”pursuing its own objectives in concert with, but separate from, Nazi Germany. The Finnish government’s main objective was to regain lost territory.
Finns living overseas at the time were considered enemies of the state due to this alliance. In Australia, they were interred in enemy war camps. Except for those who were fortunate enough to live in the thriving mining town of Mt Isa in North Queensland. Mine production was crucial for the war effort. Mt Isa Mines refused to stay operational without its Finnish labour force. The Finns living there were exempt.
Armed with sisu*, that peculiar national Finnish characteristic some describe as fortitude, ski troopers, quick and agile in the forests, wove through the trees, using their white uniforms to remain concealed in the snow. The skiers tossed Molotov cocktails and satchel charges through exhaust openings into tanks’ bellows, causing the vehicles to explode from the inside out.
A bitter winter saw temperatures in some areas plummet as low as – 50. It was so cold that when a soldier was hit by a bullet and his circulation slowed, his body would snap freeze. When the snow finally melted , the corpses of thousands of Soviet soldiers were unearthed in the Finnish woods, each body still contorted in its final moments of life.
It was during the Continuation War in a Finnish assault against the Russians that Dad earned the Medal for Bravery. Sometime during this war he also suffered an injury. When jumping into a trench he landed on his hip in a way that caused a serious enough injury to require hospital admission. After the war he applied for war veteran’s ranking. This would have given him additional financial support. However, no record could be found of the injury or hospital admission. His application was not successful. He was to suffer with chronic back and hip pain for the rest of his life. In latter years he required a hip replacement.
The Lapland War
in Northern Finland was fought against Nazi Germany after Finland signed an armistice with the Russians. Under pressure from the Allies and Russia Finland was to drive the German troops out of their country. Germany had used Finland to access Russian territory. German troops were responsible for a front of nearly a thousand kilometres in Lapland. They built close to a 100 prisoner of war and labour camps, imprisoning some 30,000 Russian soldiers. Given Lapland’s infrastructure was poor, the Germans used the prisoners as a workforce. The German built infrastructure was almost completely destroyed during their retreat.
Not only did they destroy their former bases and camps, they also burned down every Finnish village. A total of some 16,000 buildings, over 1,000 road bridges, some 100 railroad bridges and 40 ferries were blown up. 170 kilometres of railroad, 9,500 kilometres of road and almost 3,000 culverts were destroyed. Tens of thousands of head of cattle and reindeer were killed and over 130,000 land mines and other explosives were planted in the landscape. After the war these mines killed 2,000 people.
Most of the civilian population of Lapland was evacuated to Sweden and Southern Finland before combat started. 100,000 Finnish Laplanders became refugees. Only 600 Finnish troops were left to fight the Germans. Most of these were fresh recruits. Because of this, the last part of the Finnish Lapland War is called the Children’s Crusade.
Of the Lapland War I can recall a still horrified Dad telling us once how out of sheer desperation to keep their children out of the hands of the Germans many parents deliberately maimed their own children. After the war the Finnish government set up life-long supports and funds for the affected families. By the time Dad joined the war effort in the north he had well and truly had enough. The majority of the Finnish soldiers were very young with no idea of what war was about. They witnessed horrific acts against civilians by the Germans. Just one of these was the drowning at sea of local women who had outlived their usefulness in ‘entertaining’ their troops.
Something snapped in Dad. He disobeyed orders which led to disciplinary action and the stripping away of some of his commendations. Exactly what he did is not known by us. All we know is that he was involved in helping to make large wooden storage boxes to hide and bury firearms from the Germans. He was beyond caring about the consequences of his disobedience.
The end of War
By April 1945 all Germans had been expelled from Finland and the Finnish flag raised at the Norwegian border. This marked the end of the Finnish wars. Most of Northern Finland was devastated and would take years to recover. Finland would end the war as the only democracy to survive Stalin’s takeover of Eastern Europe. This can only be attributed to the bravery of the Finnish Army and their commander Marshall Mannerheim.
A voluntary Finnish women’s auxiliary known as the Lotta Svärd mobilised into action during the war. The Lottas freed an equal number of men from homefront duties into the military by taking over their duties. During the Winter War 80,000 served in unarmed missions. They continued to do so throughout the war working as nurse assistants in military hospitals, conducting air surveillance, handling food supplies for evacuees and troops, assisting families of troops serving on the front and many other duties. We met one of the Lottas involved in aerial surveillance here in Adelaide. By then she was a sweet, snow-white haired grandmother who spent her time knitting woolly winter socks for friends and family and balaclavas for her son’s bikie friends.
Finland lost 24,000 men in the Winter War; almost 60,000 men as dead or missing in the Continuation and Lapland Wars. Over 161, 000 were wounded. The infantry was the heaviest hit. Loss of civilian life was small compared to other nations – 900 died in bombings of towns and cities; 2,700 were wounded. Soviet partisans killed 190 civilians in Northern Finland.
The cession of territory meant 430,000 people had to be evacuated and relocated, some for the second time in five years. The entire population of Finland after the war was just 3.7 million. The war in Lapland was a dirty albeit short war. Once over, troops were demobbed. Soldiers returned to civilian life battle scarred, traumatised, shell shocked. Survivor guilt took its toll. As did the horrors of what they had experienced. My father returned home a broken man.
LIFE AFTER THE WAR
Mum and Dad married on the 6th December 1946, Finnish Independence Day. They had three children – my sister Ritva, my brother Erkki and me.
In 1959 Dad flew to Tasmania with his sister-in-law Anja Piispanen. Her husband Taito (Mum’s older brother) had flown ahead. The plan was to check out work prospects and living conditions with a view to moving the family to Australia if everything worked out. Work prospects in Finland were not good at the time and the government was offering assisted passage to immigrants. We followed by ship some 5 months later.
Plans to live and work in Tasmania changed our family’s circumstances drastically when Dad accepted employment with the Church. We moved to Brisbane.
Whilst crossing the Bass Strait to Melbourne Mum became very ill. It was not till over twenty years later when medical equipment and assessments were more sophisticated that her actual diagnosis was confirmed. She had suffered a massive stroke. It was a huge blow to us all. Dad had to start work. Mum was left in hospital in Melbourne until she was well enough to be discharged. Throughout her life she was to have a series of mini strokes.
From Brisbane we moved to Mt Isa where Dad began his ministry as a pastor of the Lutheran Church. Dad’s work took him to Adelaide, Canberra and Sydney. Passionate to serve the Finnish migrants in Australia, he worked hard to establish strong links and partnerships between the Australian and Finnish Lutheran Churches. In Sydney he founded a drop in centre for the homeless which is still active to this day. His abiding love and passion was to serve and support people with alcohol dependency problems in particular. He was also instrumental in setting up a war veteran’s live-in Finnish government funded rehabilitation program in Australia for those too old or disabled to travel to Finland. He himself travelled to Finland four times for war veteran’s rehabilitation.
In his early 60’s dad was diagnosed with an inoperable mesothelioma in the base of one of his lungs. He was exposed to blue asbestos some twenty years prior and was given less than six months to live. The night before his biopsy he had an unusual experience. He woke to what he described as an electric current flowing through his body. Biopsy results showed nothing but scar tissue. The only explanation his treating doctor could give was that ‘it must be a miracle’. Which indeed it was.
After Mum died he plummeted into a deep despair and grief which descended into the shadowlands of dementia. In his mid 80’s he slipped away quietly to be reunited with the angel who sang to him at night to keep the bad dreams away.
© Raili Tanska
Thanks to my sister Ritva for her help with this story.
Disclaimer: Researching and writing this story has been a challenging and emotional journey for me. Any errors and misunderstandings of wartime facts and information are unintentional and all mine.
Finnish ‘sisu’ – loosely translated to mean stoic determination, grit, bravery, guts, resilience, perseverance and hardiness, expressing the historic self-identified Finnish national character. (Wikipedia)
**The Order of the White Rose of Finland was established by Gustaf Mannerheim in his capacity as regent (temporary head of state) on January 28, 1919. The name comes from the nine roses argent in the coat of arms of Finland. The order’s rules and regulations were confirmed on May 16, 1919, and its present rules date from June 1, 1940. The revised scale of ranks was confirmed most recently in 1985. The original decorations were designed by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The swastikas of the collar was replaced by fir crosses in 1963, designed by heraldic artist Gustaf von Numers. The honour can be granted for military as well as civilian merit. The ribbon for all classes is ultramarine. The motto of the Order appears on the medallion and Isänmaan hyväksi, which means: “For [the well-being or benefit or advantage of] the Fatherland”. Wikipedia
Fire and Ice (Winter War – 56 min)
The Unknown Soldier – First battle (English subtitles- 13.51 mins)
Lapland war (3.30min)
Finnish war pictures 1939 – 44 (7 .16 min)
faculty.washington.edu/marianne/war/Finlandswars. (Powerpoint presentation)
(Finnish Government – Disabled war veterans and veterans’ rehabilitation)