Remembrance of Things Past
I keep the old black-and-white photo on my desk for a reason. I have a number of pictures of my father but I chose this one because whenever I look at it, I think about so many things. My dad, Lt. John Horsburgh, is in the centre of the photo; on the left is Sgt. Clifford Hebner and on the right is CSM Cormack. Studying the photo, I wonder why the jeep is partially hidden in the haystack or why Sgt. Hebner has a dent in his helmet? I also notice how CSM Cormack appears to be sleeping with a pipe in his mouth while holding a rifle with a bayonet at the end of it. Most of all though, I wonder what these three individuals are thinking about. To me the picture conveys so much more than simply portraying my dad and two Royal Canadian engineering corp comrades sitting on a trunk behind a haystack.
Taken in early August 1944, the image shows them in relaxed poses that I sense must belie what they had just been through: D-Day with its horrendous death toll, destruction and utter chaos; the breakout from Juno Beach with the fierce fighting, unimaginable bombing and shelling; and examples of bravery and evil that showcased the best and worst of war. On the back of the picture my dad wrote: “The day after the start of the big push for Falaise.”
Earlier in July, Clifford Hebner had won the Military Medal for outstanding leadership under fire south of Caen. Caen was also the location where my father won the Military Cross on July 18, 1944, as a result of his actions in conducting a thorough reconnaissance of the River Orne while under fire from the Germans. The reconnaissance facilitated the building of a bridge, which enabled more than 100 tanks to cross the Orne in the next 24 hours en route to Falaise.
On the back of the picture, written in brackets beside Sgt. Hebner’s name, is “since killed.” While my dad lived to see the end of the war, Sgt. Hebner died less than two months after this picture was taken. Tragically, he was killed in Belgium on October 5, 1944, while trying to defuse a German land mine. He is buried in a cemetery near Antwerp, Belgium. He was only 32 years old and was married, but as far as I can determine, he did not have any children.
I couldn’t help but want to know more about Sgt. Hebner. If I was able to locate a member or members of his family, I figured they might appreciate having a copy of this photo. I wondered if anyone from Sgt. Hebner’s family has had the opportunity to honour his sacrifice by visiting his grave in Belgium?
As I thought about the picture some more, I also wondered how Sgt Hebner’s death affected my dad. I suspect that military censorship was such that my dad was limited in what he could say about his comrade’s death. I am sure the words “since killed” did not even begin to convey the sense of loss and sadness my father must have felt when he gazed at this picture and wrote his comments on the back.
Sadly, while my father dodged death in northwest Europe, he was killed seven years later in a float plane crash while serving his province as the senior hydraulics engineer in 1952.
Sgt. Hebner, my father and CSM Cormack were examples of men who lived Albert Schweitzer’s dictum that “you who will be truly happy are those who will have sought for and found a way to serve.”