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Obituaries

Charles Laking, 106; One of Last 5 Canadian Veterans of World War I

December 03, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Charles Clarence "Clare" Laking, one of Canada's five surviving World War I veterans and the last who saw action, has died. He was 106.

Laking died Saturday at a Toronto hospital of natural causes associated with aging.

The Ontario farm boy served two years in France as a signaler with the Canadian Field Artillery 27th Battery, stringing and repairing field telephone wire along the trenches. His duties included frontline observation of enemy gun installations and where Canadian shells were landing. He phoned the information to his own troops at the rear, helping gunners direct their shots.

The assignment put him in harm's way repeatedly. A fragment from either a shell or masonry debris once dented his helmet and knocked him out, and he was hospitalized with shrapnel wounds when the armistice took effect Nov. 11, 1918.

Laking's death leaves four remaining Canadian veterans of the Great War -- William Proctor, 106; Lloyd Clemett and John Babcock, both 105; and Dwight Wilson, 104. Canada sent 650,000 troops to fight in World War I, and 68,000 died in the conflict.

Troubled by nighttime memories of exploding shells and wounded buddies, Laking preferred other thoughts, as he said on Canadian Television in 1998: "The best feeling I had ... was passing through the liberated villages and the people coming out and waving and cheering and throwing flowers at us."

Decades after his wartime service, Laking was awarded the French Legion of Honor and the Golden Jubilee Medal.

Laking regularly attended meetings of "old sweats," the nickname for Canadian war veterans. He drove until he was 102, walked a mile a day and kept his season tickets to the Toronto Maple Leafs until he was 100.

The former soldier, always known for his wit, told the Toronto Sun in 2004: "Like that comedian said, 'If I had known I'd live to 100 years of age, I would have been a little more careful in my younger years.' I've lived dangerously all my life."

Born Feb. 21, 1899, on a farm near Campbellville, Ontario, Laking walked three miles to a one-room elementary school and later commuted by train to a business school in Hamilton. At 16, he got a job as a bookkeeper with the Bank of Nova Scotia in Campbellville.

Two years later, he hitched a ride to Guelph, Ontario, and enlisted in defiance of his Methodist minister father.

"I went against my father's wishes," he told the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper a few years ago.

"He was dead against war, and he was getting under my skin. And it was in order -- as much as anything -- to shut him up that I enlisted."

At war's end, Laking worked in lumber businesses in Toronto until 1941 when he took over Danforth Wallboard and Insulation Ltd. He ran the company until his retirement in 1965.

Laking's wife, Helen, died in 1993. He is survived by their son, Keith, and daughter, Sheila Patterson; four grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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