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Hundreds of child soldiers fought in Winter War
Pori bombing turned one child into an adult
By Katja Kuokkanen
Nearly 500 volunteer soldiers, who were members of the boys groups of the Finnish Suojeluskunta, or Civil Guard went to the front lines of the Winter War. The youth organisations of the Civil Guard had boys aged 10 to 17.
Statistics Finland reports that 281 soldiers aged 15 to 19 died at the front. If the home front is included, the total number of young soldiers was around 13,000.
“Now we know how terrible an issue child soldiers are in African wars. At that time the issue was largely ignored, even though they ended up taking part in combat”, says war historian, Professor Martti Turtola.
Lieutenant Veli Salmi asked his 12-year-old son Ilpo a question in October 1939, when Ilpo was 12.
“Would you go with me to the front?”
Officers who were commanders during the Winter War were able to get their sons as messengers even on the front line.
But Ilpo Salmi did not go. He stayed behind alone in Pori, where he lived at the time. This was partly because his relationship with his father’s new wife was somewhat cool, and largely because the boy had work to do.
“I just stayed there, and I was a ‘Soldier Boy’ in the Civil Guard, and a messenger for the central food depot. At first I delivered call-up orders. They were often to fathers of families.”
When they received the messages, the boy felt that the people looked very serious, and did not have much to say.
Ilpo’s father and grandfather were in the Civil guard. For this reason, Salmi followed the tradition and served as a Civil Guard Soldier Boy during the Winter War. There were nearly 11,000 youngsters like him, aged 10 to 17, and nearly 500 of them were at the front lines.
“We were child soldiers, but I had received an extremely patriotic upbringing. For that reason, a few bombs of the winter War were enough to turn this child into an adult.”
Shortly before being deployed at the front, Ilpo’s father called from Ilmajoki to the Civil Guard building in Pori, where he knew that the boy would be.
“Go home and take the Mauser and the Nagant revolver from the wall of the gun room and bring them here”, his father asked.
Ilpo travelled by train to Ilmajoki. The carriage was full of people, and a foreign woman wondered how a small boy could have three pistols in his backpack.
“I took the guns because my father asked me to. The whole Winter War was just a process of drifting from one situation to another.”
Ilpo’s mother had died in 1936. For all practical purposes, Ilpo Salmi had lived alone since then, while his family moved frequently because of the nature of his father’s work.
“My father abandoned me at the age of 10. I was living alone in Naantali at the time. Once he spent the night with me, and I got a chance to sleep behind his back. It was magnificent.”
His father’s political fanaticism had alienated Salmi already in the 1930s, before the Winter War.
The boy had felt bad when people sang in all seriousness that it is “right for the young to die”.
“My father was a far right-wing member of the Patriotic People’s movement (IKL). I wondered about that enthusiasm my whole childhood.”
Vihtori Kosola the founder of the Lapua Movement and the right-wing radical IKL party, had visited their home. His mother served cabbage rolls.
“After that, father said to mother that you have shaken the hand of Finland’s next fuehrer.”
Once the Pori railway station and its rail yard were bombed. There were anti-aircraft emplacements between the station and the centre of the city, above which the Soviet planes flew in circles and dropped their loads from an altitude of about two kilometres.
“The air pressure knocked me off the steps of the station’s bomb shelter onto the ground. Someone asked why I wasn’t going into the shelter. It went so fast that I didn’t have a chance to feel frightened.”
After the bombings, Salmi went to Kuortane in South Ostrobothnia to visit his stepmother. In March 1940 the telephone rang.
“People at that time hoped that the vicar walking down the street would not come in. He would usually have bad news. He didn’t visit us; the news came by telephone.”
Ilpo’s father had been killed by a Russian sniper two weeks before the end of the war.
The front had stopped in Ilomantsi, until the Russians started to push through. The attackers were students at an officers’ school in Leningrad.
“Father got out of the trench, because he spoke Russian. He started to shout to the young boys, who were lying on the ice, urging them to surrender. The Finns were picking them off there on the ice one by one.”
At the same time a sniper had climbed a tree and shot Lieutenant Salmi and his Second Lieutenant.
The Lieutenant got a hero’s funeral in Kuortane. Salmi’s father died of a chest wound, so the coffin was open in the freezing weather. Some coffins had a “do not open” sign on them, and the lid was nailed shut.
“Then people knew that there was mangled flesh that was not good to look at.”
Salmi went back to Pori alone. There was a window in the door of the hallway, which Salmi had not covered up.
“An angry caretaker came and threatened me with military court if I didn’t put a blackout curtain on the door immediately. I didn’t even notice the window.”
The Winter War ended on March 13th, but Salmi’s war continued. In the Continuation War the boy was taken by military train to Santahamina in Helsinki, and from there to anti-aircraft duty in Kotka.
“It was a difficult fate to end up being alone as a child. Being young during a time of war brought variety to life, and I have always been an outsider.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 8.12.2009
KATJA KUOKKANEN / Helsingin Sanomat