“Cerebral lacerations by projectile” — Remembering the grenade explosion at CFB Valcartier
by Robert Smol
IN 1974 A TOTAL of 41 Canadian Armed Forces personnel (including six army cadets) were killed while on service overseas and here in Canada. Outside of the military community, their sacrifices and the ordeal of their families and friends went largely unnoticed by the Canadian public. In the series 1974: Lest We Forget, Robert Smol tells the story of the little-known events that plagued the CAF 40 years ago.
On a rainy day on July 30, 1974, the lives of 138 members of Company D at CFB Valcartier Cadet Camp were to be changed forever when, during a safety lecture, a group of regular army instructors from the base allowed samples of “dummy” explosives to be distributed among the cadets.
Unknown to everyone present was that a live M-61 grenade had been negligently placed in the same box as the dummy explosives. The inevitable happened when 14-year-old Cadet Eric Lloyd ended up pulling the pin on what he was made to believe was a fake grenade.
The resulting explosion, in the crammed makeshift classroom, killed Lloyd and five other army cadets. Fifty-four other cadets were wounded that day.
But for the military tasked to train and care for the cadets, it seemed that Company D’s 42 per cent casualty rate in one single day was not enough to prompt a modicum of care and compassion.
Painful stories of the survivors, now in their 50s and early 60s, describe a systemic effort at cover-up by a military bureaucracy determined to deflect responsibility away from itself and trying, unsuccessfully, to place blame on the teenaged cadets.
ROUTINE SAFETY LECTURE
Ironically, what took place in the barracks that afternoon was a routine safety lecture — the object of which was to ensure the cadets were aware of the potential dangers posed by any discarded explosives they may find on the base. The person conducting the lecture was Captain Jean-Claude Giroux, who at the time was the officer commanding the Ammunition Section on the base.
“This course was to tell them not to touch anything,” stated Captain Giroux in a Statutory Declaration made to the Sûreté du Québec on August 12, 1974 and released under the Access to Information Act. “My goal was that they react to the sight of any nondescript device.”
Because it was raining that day, the decision was made to hold the lecture indoors in the company barracks. “The bunk beds had been pushed to one end and we were all sitting down cross-legged,” says Colin Caldwell, who was among the 138 cadets crammed into the makeshift classroom.
As Captain Giroux and his assistant, Private Claude Pelletier, were conducting the lecture they allowed the boys to handle some “dummy” explosives that they brought along with them as illustrations.
“The regular force instructors were there to show everyone what not to do if you see any of these explosives — that they should not touch them because this is what they do and they are all dangerous,” says former cadet instructor Paul Wheeler, who currently works as a culinary arts instructor in Saskatchewan. “But they said you could play with these samples that they had because they were dummies.”
What had not come to the attention of the base instructors was the fact that a live M-61 grenade was among their display dummy explosives, which they were allowing the cadets to look at and handle.
Released under Access to Information, a confidential message dated August 2, 1974 from the Base Security Officer to National Defence headquarters states: “Interviews conducted yesterday tend to indicate that the instructor may have had in his hand a green grenade at one time. The cadets interviewed also indicated that the green grenade was passed around the classroom. They do not recall seeing the instructor checking to see if the grenades were safe.”
SMOKE, STILLNESS AND SCREAMING
Fifteen-year-old Peter Van Kampen was sitting behind Eric Lloyd when he pulled the pin on the grenade he was handling between his legs on the floor.
“I just saw black smoke and a ringing in my ears and chaos. After that I could just hear people screaming and yelling. I got up and turned around, and as I was running there was a young man lying on the floor so I grabbed him and dragged him out the door. It was such a loud bang you didn’t hear it,” recalls Colin Caldwell. “What I recall was the incredibly loud ringing in my ear and the room filled with smoke and cinder. People were fleeing the room and I got up and was being pushed from behind.”
While staggering for the exit with the other cadets, Caldwell recalled seeing Eric Lloyd on the floor “still somewhat moving.”
“He was cut open from head to groin.”
Wheeler, who was sitting at the end of the barracks on one of the bunk beds recalled, “We just sat there, stunned, as the smoke started to clear. There were maybe somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 or 30 of the cadets who were obviously injured or dead. Then we just went up and started to see what we could do to help the ones that were still left in the barracks.”
Among the other cadets still able to provide assistance was Van Kampen, who was helping the shocked and wounded out of the barrack until he collapsed from the shrapnel wound in his right leg.
“I had a couple of holes in my leg and I didn’t realize I had been wounded.”
Shortly thereafter cadet staff and base ambulances began appearing on the scene. Among them was Sergeant Gerry Fostaty, an 18-year-old cadet instructor who was working in the orderly room down the hall when the explosion happened.
In his 2011 book As You Were: The Tragedy at Valcartier, Fostaty describes walking into the room and seeing “a large black burn hole in the floor” and where “blood was splattered and smeared all over the walls ... A cadet stood up and went two steps towards me. He was shaking violently and his left arm was covered in blood. He stopped right in front of me and just blankly started at me, so I walked him outside where he could be taken care of.”
Among the cadets killed in the barracks as a result of the grenade explosion were:
- Yves Langlois, age 15
- Pierre Leroux, age 14
- Eric Lloyd, age 14
- Othon Mangos, age 14
- Mario Provencher, age 14
- Michael Voisard, age 14
WHY DON’T THEY GET OUT AND HELP?
According to Van Kampen and Fostaty, the reaction of some of the medical personnel on base appeared to be less than heroic.
In his book, Fostaty recalls the indifferent response of one of the base ambulances that arrived at the scene of the incident.
“A green army ambulance drove up over the uneven ground and bounced to a stop near us … The medic on the passenger side rolled down the window and, over his right shoulder, threw two first-aid kits on the ground beside me. He then rolled up the window and lit up a cigarette. I remember thinking, ‘Why don’t they get out and help?’ There were injured, bleeding, and dying people littering the ground all around the ambulance. Did they think this was a training exercise?”
Evacuated among the wounded to the base hospital, Van Kampen was to wait unattended in a corridor for six hours before he was finally operated on.
“They just dropped us everywhere and anywhere,” he said. “The doctors and nurses had no idea what was going on and they lost track of us. I think they were shocked themselves.”
The place where Van Kampen was left to wait was directly across the makeshift morgue where, whenever the door opened, he could see the bodies of the dead cadets. To make matters worse for his family, the army mistakenly informed his parents that he too was dead.
By the time the base hospital finally got around to operating on Van Kampen’s leg they had run out of anesthetic. In spite of the fact that Valcartier is only 25 kilometres from Quebec City and its civilian hospitals, the base medical personnel went ahead and operated on the teenaged cadet without anesthetic.
“When they tried to remove some of the shrapnel from my knee and around it, they just gave me a piece of wood and told me to bite on it,” remembers Van Kampen.
Meanwhile Caldwell, who was in shock after the incident, was provided with an anti-depressant but, in a miscommunication with the medical staff, ended up overdosing on his meds.
“I was supposed to take a quarter tablet four times a day, but I was taking four,” he says. “I was in a complete daze for the next four days.”
Immediately after the incident the survivors were sequestered on the base, denied any counseling, and forbidden to contact their parents.
“We were separated from the rest of the camp,” recalls Wheeler. “Communications with the outside world were shut off and we were not allowed to make phone calls.”
“No one came to talk to us about it at all,” says Van Kampen. “I just remember they fixed us up, threw us in our room. And all I remember is the next day the officers showed up and rummaged through our clothing, grabbed our clothing and said, “It’s gone — we need it for evidence.”
INTERROGATION IN THE BUNKER
The military inquiry, organized in the days following the incident, has been almost universally described by the surviving cadets as more of an “interrogation,” where the intention of the panel of senior military officers was to try and assign blame for the incident on the cadets. The inquiry was held underground in the nuclear fallout shelter on the base.
“That whole episode of the inquiry was incredibly surreal,” recalls Caldwell. “We were taken to basically a door in the ground that had a couple of armed guards in front of it. You go through an airlock and down below you are seated in front of a table with senior officers who are asking you questions that you may or may not be able to answer.”
At the time of the inquiry Van Kampen had already been released from the base hospital and was at home with his family in Montreal. When the military vehicle showed up to take him back to Valcartier, he and his family were told that he would just be talking with the other boys.
“The next thing you know, we are at this underground bunker and they put us in separate rooms. Then they take us out individually and put us in front of a group of officers who are yelling at us, trying to get us confused, and telling us that we had done it. They wouldn’t listen to a word we said.”
Recalling the aggressively hostile approach of the military inquiry, Wheeler believes that “life would have been a lot easier for the Department of National Defence if it had been something that they could blame on the cadets ... It was just like something out of a movie,” he recalls. “You were fired a question from one person and before you had a chance to answer you were fired a question from another trying to catch you off guard.”
In his book, Fostaty recalled one of the officers at the inquiry actually presenting him with a live grenade. “‘What the hell are you doing with that in here?’ I said, before thinking. It came out of me like a breathy gasp. They pretended not to hear.”
In the end, the military investigations and coroner’s inquiry determined that careless storage procedures on the base resulted in live grenades being mixed with dummies. None of the cadets were found to be at fault. Instead, the coroner’s inquiry assigned responsibility to military authorities for allowing “a climate of negligence and carelessness” to exist in the areas responsible for the storage and distribution of explosives. On March 11, 1975 the Quebec District Coroner found Captain Giroux criminally responsible for the incident.
However, Captain Giroux’s subsequent trial before a civilian court resulted in a verdict of not guilty on June 21, 1977. He was therefore allowed to continue in the Forces and went on to serve for many more years thereafter.
STILL AWAITING COMPENSATION
Forty years later, National Defence refuses to assume any legal liability for what happened. To date, only a few of the cadet instructors and officers who were part of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves at the time of the incident have been able to receive some compensation for their injuries from Veterans Affairs Canada.
Others like Van Kampen are still left to deal with the physical and mental scars of their experiences. When he was operated on at the base hospital in 1974, not all the shrapnel from the grenade was removed. Forty years later, Van Kampen still carries fragments from the grenade in his leg.
“I’ve had x-rays taken and they could still see it in there. And when I go through an airport scanner now it always goes off.”
Not visible to modern technology are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that many of the former cadets and their families have been coping with since.
“I went through this phase, which is common with PTSD, where you stay in one place until you get triggered and then you just run,” recalls Wheeler.
IN THE MILITARY’S CARE AND CONTROL BUT NOT THE MILITARY’S RESPONSIBILITY
The legal dilemma for the teenaged cadets rests in the argument that, though they were under the direct control and supervision of the military, they are still not legally members of the Forces. As a result, the Canadian Armed Forces does not assume any responsibility for injuries occurring while training as cadets.
It is an argument that Jack Harris, NDP defence critic, disputes.
“Regardless of any of these legal questions,” says Harris, “this government has a moral and political obligation to take responsibility for the consequences of what happened to these cadets and I don’t think they could hold up a legal barrier to this.”
After months of lobbying from both the survivors and the official opposition, in May 2014 the minister of National Defence, Rob Nicholson, announced that he had authorized the ombudsman to look into what happened at CFB Valcartier in July 1974. At the time of writing, the investigation is still ongoing.