Intentionally Swept Under the Rug- The Forgotten and Extremely Tragic Valcartier Grenade Incident
It was a rainy afternoon in July 1974 when the Royal Canadian Army Cadets of D Company filed into a classroom at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier [“Val-cart-yay”], Quebec. The Cadets, all boys aged 13 to 18, were glad for the chance to sit down and relax, having just undergone a rigorous inspection of their barracks and hours of marching drill in the rain. They were about to receive a lecture on explosives safety, delivered by guest presenter Captain Jean-Claude Giroux [“Zhee-roo”]. To help with his lecture, Captain Giroux had brought along some visual aids: dummies of various explosive ordnance including land mines, rocket projectiles, and hand grenades. All were painted bright colours to indicate that they were inert and safe. But as the lecture began and the visual aids were passed around the room, Captain Giroux noticed something odd: among the brightly-coloured dummies was one item – an M-61 fragmentation hand grenade – painted olive green, just like a live munition. However, he thought little of it, for the dummies had been handled by dependable weapons technicians who would have ensured that everything was safe. But then, at 2:17 PM, an explosion ripped through the packed classroom, shattering the windows and splattering the walls with blood. When the smoke cleared six Cadets lay dead and 54 were wounded. The Valcartier Grenade incident of July 30, 1974 was the worst tragedy in the history of the Army Cadets, yet within days it would be all but forgotten, swept under the rug by a military establishment unprepared to deal with the psychological fallout. But while the Army and the nation quickly moved on, for the survivors the aftereffects of that terrible day would linger for far longer.
Formed in 1861, the Royal Canadian Army Cadets are Canada’s oldest youth organization. Funded and administered by the Canadian Department of National Defense, the Cadets serve much the same function as the Boy Scouts, teaching practical skills in leadership, teamwork, and self-reliance but in a more overtly military setting, with greater emphasis on command, drill, cleanliness, uniform maintenance, weapons training, and other aspects of military life. However, the organization is not directly affiliated with the armed forces, and participation carries no obligation of later military service. Every year, 250 Cadets are selected every year to undergo advanced Non-Commissioned Officer or NCO training as part of the Cadet Leader Program. This program is intended to train and prepare the cadets to return to their home units as the next generation of leaders. For those posted to Valcartier in the 1970s, activities included leadership courses, drill, athletics, canoeing, orienteering, survival bushcraft, cultural excursions to Quebec City, and weapons safety and handling. Though the Cadets would not be handling any weapons heavier than a regular service rifle, given that they were training on an active army base it was reasonably assumed they might at some point come across unexploded ordnance. Consequently, in the summer of 1974 Captain Jean-Claude Giroux, commanding officer of the Ammunition Section at CFB Valcartier, organized a series of safety lectures to make sure the Cadets could identify the most common types of explosive weapons and knew what to do should they find one – namely, not touch it and report it to a superior officer.
The lectures took place throughout the month of July, with the final lecture for D Company scheduled for the afternoon of July 30. Cadet-Officer Gerry Fostaty, 18 at the time, was in an adjacent room typing up a report when the explosion occurred. He later described the scene in his 2011 memoir As You Were:
“The noise sounded like a thunderclap without the rolling echo afterward, almost as if we were at the centre of it. The sound took me by surprise and shook the whole building – no, the whole company – with a shock wave. I could hear glass shatter as a window blew out, and there was a moment when everything went silent. Then, as if on cue, there were cries, and people began screaming and streaming out of the barrack through the side door – at least one person went through a window.
…Lieutenant Katzko [was] in the hallway, bent over clutching at his stomach as though he was hugging himself. He was moving slowly with uneven, wavering steps, and a few people bumped him as they passed on either side of us. Their hands, faces and clothing were spattered with blood. Some had torn clothing and their eyes were filled with terror.
I leapt up the three steps into the room and looked around, getting my eyes adjusted to the dim light and the smoke. I was completely unprepared for what I saw. Through the dense, acrid smoke, I could make out a large black burn hole in the floor, and people laying all around. Some were moving, others were not…blood was spattered and smeared on the walls…one cadet stared at me as I moved toward him. I could see through the rip in his pants that he had a leg injury, but I didn’t think it would keep him from walking with assistance. As I bent over to help him up, I saw the cadet just behind him, about a metre away. I felt my stomach jump. His face was gone. There was no way I could have said who he was, because the front of his head was a mass of red pulp.”
The next hour flew past in a chaotic blur as Fostaty and others on the scene – mostly fellow cadets – scrambled to evacuate the building and administer first aid. It being only four years since the October Crisis of 1970, many feared that the explosion had been due to a terrorist attack. As ambulances rushed away the dead and severely wounded, those with only minor injuries were loaded onto trucks and driven to the base movie theatre, where they watched a swords-and-sandals epic while medics tended to their wounds. As D Company headquarters would have to be sealed off for investigation, the survivors were temporarily lodged in the base chapel, where they spent a long, uneasy night. Meanwhile, Fostaty and other Officer Cadets were taken to the base hospital to carry out the identification of the dead. In all, six Cadets were killed in the explosion, all 14 or 15 years old: Yves Langlois [“Eve Long-wah”] 15; Pierre Leroux [“Leh-roo”] Eric Lloyd, Othon Mangos, Mario Provencher [“Pro-vaunch-ay”], and Michel Voisard [“Vwah-sar”]. 54 others were wounded, with injuries ranging from minor cuts to hearing and vision loss to paralysis and brain damage.
Yet despite the shocking and tragic nature of the accident, it made barely a ripple in the press. One of the few papers to report the tragedy was the Quebec tabloid Le Journal de Montreal, whose headline described it as the “Massacre at Valcartier.” A few other papers would pick up the story, but only as brief articles buried in the back pages, many with wildly varying numbers for the dead and wounded. This suited the Army just fine, for it was ill-equipped to deal with such a tragedy – especially one involving so many children. So rather than confronting the incident, the Army chose instead to forget it. While a brief memorial service for the dead was held a week later, otherwise training and activities carried on as before. The Cadets were never debriefed on the accident, nor were they provided with counselling or mental health services. In fact, all the Cadets – even those who had been present at the blast – were instructed not to discuss the incident with anyone. And in this more innocent age, they all obeyed. Such was the desire to move on that D Company even had its group photograph re-taken with the dead and wounded absent – as if they had never existed.
Meanwhile, the Army began its investigation into the cause of the explosion. While forensics teams scrutinized the blast site, dozens of witnesses were brought in and interrogated. In move described by many witnesses as strangely sinister, these interrogations were carried out deep in the bowels of Valcartier’s government fallout shelter or “Diefenbunker” – and for more on those, please check out our previous video “That Time Toilets Gave Away a Big Cold War Secret.” In reality, the air-conditioned bunker was chosen to provide both investigators and witnesses relief from the summer heat.
Slowly the investigators pieced together the convoluted chain of events that lead to a live grenade making its way into the classroom.. Nearly a month before the accident, Captain Giroux was asked to deliver a lecture on explosives safety to the Cadets. Giroux duly appointed a subordinate, Warrant Officer Gaetan Campeau [“Gay-tah Camp-oh”], to gather the needed visual aids and deliver the lecture. On the morning of July 15, 1974, Campeau made the rounds of the base, gathering up various pieces of dummy ordnance. Campeau placed these items in the back of a truck and drove to the headquarters of F company, where he proceeded to deliver his first lecture early that afternoon. He then stored the dummies overnight at the base ammunition depot before retrieving them and delivering a lecture to A company the next morning. After this second lecture, Campeau returned the truck to the depot and asked an employee there, Gerard Drolet [“Droh-lay”], to empty the truck and put the dummies back in storage. For reasons that have never been determined, this request was never fulfilled, and the dummies remained in the parked truck for another two days.
On July 18, Corporal Claude Daoust [“Dah-oo”] of the Combat Arms School was sent to the ammunition depot to pick up a batch of 160 M61 hand grenades for use in grenade-throwing practice. Commonly known as the “lemon grenade”, the M61 was introduced in the 1950s to replace the classic M2 “pineapple” grenade of WWII vintage. It featured a number of improvements over the older M2, including a fuze that didn’t spark or smoke, a more stable 164-gram Composition B explosive filling, and an internal coil of notched wire that produced more consistent and lethal fragments than the M2’s ridged body. A highly effective anti-personnel weapon, the M61 could kill and wound soldiers up to 15 metres away.
The grenades were waiting for Corporal Daoust when he arrived, 150 packed in wooden crates of 30 grenades each and the remaining 10 in a cardboard box. Corporal Daoust signed out the weapons and transported them to the Combat Arms School, where he handed them off to the weapons instructor, Sergeant Albert Doucet [“Doo-say”]. During training that morning all but 19 of the grenades were used. All 160 should have been expended, but one grenade failed to explode and had to be safely detonated by an ordnance disposal team. By the time this was completed, no time remained to finish the training session. Sergent Doucet duly packed up the remaining 19 grenades in a wooden box and drove them to the Ammunition Depot, where he met up with Corporal Daoust. As it was nearly noon, Doucet instructed Daoust to place the box of grenades in the back of a nearby truck, intending to deal with them after lunch. Unknown to Doucet and Daoust, this was the exact same truck Warrant Officer Campeau had used two days prior, the dummy ordnance still scattered about the truck bed. For unknown reasons, Drolet proceeded to forget about the grenades until 4 o’clock that afternoon, when Warrant Officer Campeau overheard him mention the crate and ordering him to remove it from the truck. Quickly inspecting the back of the truck, Drolet discovered, to his surprise, that the live grenades had somehow been transferred from their original wooden crate to a cardboard box. As Drolet began carrying this box back to the depot, Campeau arrived and quickly inspected the back of the truck, where he found a single live grenade which had fallen out of the box and lay among the dummies. Campeau performed a more thorough search of the truck but turned up nothing, and after returning the missing grenade to the box asked Drolet if all the grenades were accounted for. Drolet confirmed that they were. But he was mistaken, for another live grenade had fallen out and now lay among the dummies scattered in the back of the truck. Unaware of the discrepancy, Drolet took the box inside only to discover he had forgotten his keys to the storage room. Instead, he locked the box in a cleaning closet inside the guardhouse, where they would be forgotten until several days after the explosion.
The next day, Campeau asked two ammunition depot employees to remove the dummies from the truck because he wanted to use the vehicle the next day. The employees duly gathered up all the dummies – and the one live grenade – and placed them in a cardboard box. That they did not double-check all the items was attributed to the fact that it was raining heavily at the time. They placed the box in one of the depot buildings, where it would remain until July 23. On that day, with Warrant Officer Campeau on vacation, Captain Giroux delivered the safety lecture to C company himself. During the lecture, his assistant, Corporal Jacques Cadieux, noticed an unusual item circulating amongst the Cadets: an olive-green grenade, still in its green fibreboard storage tube. Corporal Cadieux quickly snatched the grenade away from the Cadet who was holding it and returned it to the cardboard box. However, he took no further action, later testifying that while the unusual colour of the grenade had caught his attention, he had taken it from the Cadet because he believed there was already enough dummy ordnance circulating amongst the class.
The next lecture, for D Company, was scheduled for the afternoon of July 30. While all the previous lectures had been conducted outside, due to rain it was instead moved indoors to the D Company barracks. 137 Cadets filed into the room, and at 1:30 PM the lecture began. Captain Giroux began by giving a general overview of the capabilities and inherent dangers of explosives, while his assistant, an ammunition technician, pulled the dummy explosives out of the box and passed them around to the Cadets. Once again, the unusual presence of a green-coloured grenade was noted, but as the items had all ostensibly been handled and inspected by Captain Giroux, the ammo tech assured the Cadets that they were all inert dummies. As the green grenade made its way around the room, several Cadets pulled out the safety pin, only to discover that it was extremely difficult to put back in. This occurred many times before the grenade reached 14-year-old Eric Lloyd, who also proceeded to pull out the pin. This time, however, he also released the spoon, the curved handle that serves as the last safety feature preventing the grenade from arming. Around four seconds later, the grenade detonated in his hands, killing him and neighbour Othon Mangos instantly. The four others would die of their wounds within the hour.
The whole sequence of events was a tragic comedy of errors, filled with dozens of minor errors, oversights, and coincidences – any of which, if avoided, could have single-handedly prevented the tragedy. The Army investigation and the subsequent civilian Coroner’s inquest blamed the incident on Captain Giroux and his subordinates, the Coroner’s report stating:
“Giroux, 30, neglected his duties as instructor by not checking of dummy grenades to ascertain there were no live grenades among them…I [also] do not hesitate to blame the high authorities of the base for their apathy and disinterest which seemed to have lead to a climate of negligence and thoughtlessness.”
Two months later, Giroux was formally charged with criminal negligence and brought before a civil court, only to be judged not guilty in June of 1977. No other formal charges were ever laid regarding the incident. One key piece of the puzzle which was never solved was how the live grenades ended up being moved from their original wooden crate to the cardboard box, allowing two of them to fall out into the bed of the truck. Investigators could only speculate that someone on the base had need of a wooden box, and had appropriated the grenade crate for this purpose.
But whoever or whatever was responsible, the damage was done – both physical and psychological. As the summer came to a close, the Cadets dispersed to their home units across Canada, carrying their unaddressed trauma with them. In As You Were, Gerry Fostaty describes the feeling of alienation many of them felt:
“I held out the childish hope that, eventually, someone would rescue me from that day. I waited for the longest time, but rescue never came. I think the administrative officers at the base were expecting, or hoping, that someone else would take care of it, while the officers at our home units wouldn’t understand what we had gone through. Our families didn’t know either, mistakingly thinking that what had happened, had happened near us not to us. We dispersed throughout the province soon afterward, and we had been conditioned to accept that what had happened was not important, so we believed our residual feelings were abnormal and no one talked about it.”
For more than 4 decades this trauma, suppressed by a Cold War ethos of secrecy and denial, would haunt the Cadets of D Company. It was not until 2017 that Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan formally apologized for the incident and agreed to award up to $310,000 in compensation to each of the survivors and their families for pain, suffering, and medical expenses.
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Fostaty, Gerry, As You Were: the Tragedy at Valcartier, Goose Lane Editions, Frederickton, New Brunswick, 2011
An Investigation Into the 1974 Valcartier Cadets Grenade Incident, Government of Canada, http://www.ombudsman.forces.gc.ca/en/ombudsman-reports-stats-investigations-valcartier/valcartier-report.page#testimonies
Fontaine, Hugo, La Grenade Verte, Les Éditions La Presse, Montreal, 2011
Government Settles With Cadets in Deadly 1974 Grenade Blast in Valcartier, CBC News, March 9, 2017, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/valcartier-grenade-cadets-1.4017327
Morello, Vicenzo, Survivors of Valcartier Grenade Incident Still Struggling to Heal 45 Years Later, CBC News, August 3, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/valcartier-grenade-incident-survivors-1.5235226
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