Private I.J. Gunter, The Military Medal by Charles Comfort. (Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/Canadian War Museum)
When he was a young soldier, Ivan Gunter’s world-weary expression was captured in a portrait by a renowned war artist, and decades later, when he was a steely-eyed veteran with a chest full of ribbons, he appeared in a national-anthem film sequence that played in movie theatres. He went from military heroism during the Second World War to a low-profile life in rural Ontario, where he toiled at blue-collar jobs and raised a family. Thanks to Mr. Gunter and a million other Canadians like him, this country distinguished itself as a critical player on the world stage. Like the Unknown Soldier, whose tomb symbolizes the many who died, Mr. Gunter’s iconic face became a symbol of those who fought and survived.
Ivan John Gunter, oldest child of Richard and Laura Gunter, was born in the hamlet of Coe Hill, Ont., on Dec. 14, 1920. He was always good-natured: In a sixth-grade school photo, he is the only person smiling. Even in childhood he was not one to be deterred by fear – either in himself or others. When a younger brother refused to jump from a rooftop, Ivan pushed him off and broke his arm.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Canada incorporated the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, known informally as the Hasty P’s, made up of volunteers from two Ontario counties. There was much manpower to draw on: The area was rural and its youngsters had adapted to hardscrabble lives. Their sinewy resilience would make them some of the best soldiers in the world.
Private Gunter enlisted on Oct. 6, 1939, and shipped for England, where he and his unit – including a buddy named Farley Mowat – trained for three years. Pte. Gunter and his friend were in Intelligence Division, which ran reconnaissance and courier missions.
On July 10, 1943, the Hasty P’s landed in Sicily, Italy, to invade what Winston Churchill called “the soft underbelly of Europe.” It proved anything but soft. On the morning of July 18, Pte. Gunter’s regiment came up against roadblocks in Grammichele. Immobilized, they came under heavy fire from German and Italian artillery, including both mortars and the dreaded 88 mm cannon that some Allied soldiers swore could shoot around corners.
Pte. Gunter’s motorcycle was hit and destroyed, leaving him in the ditch but unscathed. Looking up at a nearby hill he saw slight puffs of smoke and sprinted back to regimental fire control to tell them the location of the enemy guns. “I could run in those days,” Pte. Gunter said. “I could also read a map.” He was intercepted by a British officer who upbraided him for bypassing reporting channels. Luckily, General Howard Graham – who had commanded the Hasty P’s until 1942 and was now Commander of the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade – was nearby.
“Gunter’s right!” the general snapped. “These guys from the north country know what they’re doing.” Within minutes, Canadian artillery had found Pte. Gunter’s co-ordinates and pulverized the Axis guns. The next day, the spit-and-polish officer apologized to Pte. Gunter. Sixty days later, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery pinned the Military Medal on the young soldier’s chest. The medal puzzled him: “I was just doing what I was supposed to be doing,” he said. He was all of 22.
With Sicily pacified, the regiment crossed to Italy and cut north; but as the autumn of 1943 advanced, the weather got ugly. Canadians think of “sunny Italy,” but Naples is at Toronto’s latitude and winter in both countries can be brutal. In early December, 1943, Pte. Gunter’s regiment came to the steep-walled, heavily defended valley of the Moro River, beyond which lay the Adriatic port of Ortona. At the cost of hundreds dead and wounded, the Hasty P’s and their colleagues punched through the German salient and opened the way to the port.
Ortona has acquired near-mythic status. It is like a Second World War Vimy: a critical victory won wholly by Canucks. In December, 1943, Pte. Gunter’s regiment secured the flanks of the Toronto Seaforth Highlanders and the Loyal Edmonton Regiment as they booted the 9th German Paratroops out of a supposedly impregnable position. “We retire undefeated,” a German officer diarized in Ortona in January, 1944. No one told him that victorious troops do not retire.
At this time a Canadian captain strode down a line of infantry inspecting soldiers’ faces. “Him!” the captain said, indicating Pte. Gunter. The officer was the war artist Charles Comfort; his watercolour of Private I.J. Gunter is archived at the Canadian War Museum. In it, Ivan’s face shines like a blade.
By spring of 1944, the Allies had achieved their southern strategic objectives, forcing Italy’s capitulation and tying up more than a dozen German divisions. June 6 brought the Normandy invasion and Pte. Gunter was reassigned to the Netherlands. In the northern war, fought in fields as cold and desolate as those in Italy, the Hasty P’s again distinguished themselves.
On April 14, 1945, Pte. Gunter and his colleagues came under fire. After several couriers could not pass a crossroads onto which German defenders had zeroed their machine guns, Pte. Gunter volunteered to try. He wore a cloth cap with a metal badge because it was more dashing than a steel helmet. At the crossroads, a 10 mm slug struck the cap badge and ricocheted, cutting a groove in Pte. Gunter’s skull. There was no blood; the bullet had cauterized the wound. That ended Pte. Gunter’s war. In July of that year, he was decorated by King George VI for bravery in the field. “The Germans didn’t hurt him,” his wife said later. “They just shot him in the head.”
In 1946, Pte. Gunter brought his English war bride, Irene Crisp, back to Coe Hill. It was culture shock: from a world metropolis to a hamlet. He worked as a hard-rock miner; felled timber; was the Coe Hill postmaster; and coached kids’ sports. He and Irene had three children, six grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren. She died in 2011, at the age of 88. Mr. Gunter drove a car until his 94th year and at his 95th birthday party sat smiling as toddlers scaled him, hugged him and boiled around his feet. He contracted pneumonia in March of this year and died on May 28. His ashes were set beside those of his wife in the Coe Hill United Church Cemetery on June 2. It was their 72nd wedding anniversary.
With Ivan Gunter’s approval, Bill Atkinson married Mr. Gunter’s niece in 1986.
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