11 Powerful True Stories of Canadian Veterans to Read for Remembrance Day
On Nov. 11, remember the bravery of those who have served the True North Strong and Free with these harrowing veteran stories.
Letters From the Front
“When an air raid occurs, you’ve got to tumble off your bed (three planks of wood), grab your steel helmet and spend hours in the dug-out until the fun is over. Sometimes, it lasts about two hours, so it’s no joke. But it’s an amazing sight, watching the searchlights probing the skies, hearing the drone of the planes, the terrific burst of the anti-aircraft guns, and the still noisier bombs from the ‘Jerry’ planes.”
Every Remembrance Day during the two minutes of silence, while the haunting strains of the “Last Post” play, I visualize my uncle, Norman Parker, manning anti-aircraft guns in the Western Desert Campaign in North Africa during World War II.
My impressions come from a small bundle of letters from relatives and friends of my parents that I found among my late mother’s possessions. The letters bear three-penny postage stamps and an indelible blue ink rubber stamp reading, “Passed By Censor.”
I believe my mother kept these particular samples as they offer congratulations on my birth on November 4, 1941:
“I’m very glad to hear about the new arrival in the family. It certainly is a very nice name you have chosen for her. I am looking forward to seeing her very much, and I hope it will not be very long before I am back,” wrote Uncle Norman.
These letters offer a sanitized glimpse of a soldier’s life at the front. The idea was to retain confidentiality and to downplay the terrors of the war to shield loved ones at home.
The first letter from the pile is dated October 2, 1941, and reads:
“A line or two from Egypt. I’ve been here for about two months now. And though I’ve searched about for what novelists often describe as ‘that lure of the desert’ or ‘the romance of the desert,’ I’ve found nothing but sand, sand and more sand.”
Another letter offers the following description:
“The only place that I have found with a bit of colour is where we are camped at now. It is really quite pretty here, as there are masses of all sorts of wildflowers, the prettiest of which are real poppies, and they are blood red, and certainly a sight for sore eyes in the desert.”
Other letters refer to the living conditions:
“We’ve been having intermittent sandstorms; the sand, which is fine and powdery, is whipped up by the wind, accompanied by a whining noise, and you can’t see three feet ahead. Everything becomes covered by desert, your food, blankets, etc. But you get used to it.”
The letters also mention the names of battles that took place in the Western Desert Campaign including Bardia, Sollum, Halfaya and Sidi Rezegh, without going into any details except to add:
“We had a good share of the action,“ or “We were on the run, and inevitably, “We didn’t get much sleep or a decent wash.”
One letter gives an account of an air raid:
“Once I saw a plane caught in the searchlight, as a resort to getting out, dive right down the beam, and the bullets from its machine guns going right down into the light. When the shells or bombs come your way, they whistle.”
From the sketches in the letters, days off offered a sense of relief. “A decent meal, bath and show, and believe me, one needs it here.”
Leave comprised visits to places such as Cairo and Alexandria.
“I have been very fortunate in being able to see quite a fair bit of the cities in this country as I was stationed outside Cairo for just over a month. I have been out to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx and to most of the mosques, and it was really very interesting. Cairo has a huge population.”
Another account gave his impressions of Alexandria:
“Alexandria is a blending of the new with the old, the East with the West. It’s an oriental city, white buildings, square-topped, dust, heat and thousands of uniforms. I never want to see another uniform after this war.“
Norman was spared and returned home safely to become an enormous influence on my life. As a young child, he was my fairy godfather showering me with treats or a coveted half crown on each visit.
As a teen, he became my mentor, encouraging me to study hard and rewarding me with a camera on completing high school. On my wedding day, he drove me to the church and said, “You make a beautiful bride.” He delivered the toast to the bride and groom, ending with a line from “Ode to the West Wind“ by Percy Bysshe Shelley: “If winter comes can spring be far behind?”
Considering the difficulties he overcame fighting in World War II, I didn’t anticipate anything as challenging ahead of me.
He was my role model my entire life. He was highly principled, fiercely patriotic and believed in doing his duty, which made him a hero in my eyes. He was not only a perfect gentleman but also a gentle man. I can’t imagine what my life would have been without his guidance and nurturing.
Each Remembrance Day, as I fondly recall all he did for his country and me, I am overcome with melancholy as I despair at all the lost lives and empty places in other families. We can never forget the sacrifices of these men.
—Penny Heneke, Burlington, Ont.
Don’t miss this third-generation Canadian’s Remembrance Day reflections.
Fly Away Home
My dad, Charlie Patterson, was born in 1919 and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940 at the age of 21. He was sent to Galt Aircraft School for training and graduated in 1942. He was shipped to England, where he was stationed at Topcliffe, Yorkshire. Assigned to the Dunlop Rubber Co., he was a very good mechanic and worked on many bomber aircraft, including Lancasters and Spitfires. He returned home in 1945. I’m so proud to be the daughter of a veteran.
—Rose Cole, Cambridge, Ont.
A Well-Deserved Honour
Born July 2, 1939, and hoping to escape a working class future, I enlisted in the army at age 18. Not yet understanding the army philosophy of “never volunteer,” I volunteered for everything, including advanced combat training and an overseas posting. Within a year, I was posted to Singapore and saw combat in the jungles of Malaya, during the Malayan Emergency and once in Borneo, at the start of the Borneo Confrontation. I was later posted to South China and based in Kowloon and Hong Kong with tours of duty in the New Territories for patrolling the Chinese border. For those tours of duty, I proudly wear the General Service Medal (GSM Malaya), General Service Medal (GSM Borneo), and the South Asia Service Medal (SASM).
Following completion of the seven-year active commitment, and relocation, I joined the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, where I served until the age of 60. During my service with the Canadian Armed Forces, I received a Queen’s Commission, and on completion of my service held the rank of captain, in training systems command. For my service with the Canadian Armed Forces, I received the Canadian Decoration (CD) and later the rosette addition.
While proud of previous military awards, I was even more proud, and surprised, when, 50 years after the event, and living a quiet retired life in Keswick, Ont., I received a phone call from the Malaysian consulate. I was advised that the current King of Malaysia had ordered a special medal to be cast to show his country’s deep appreciation for the service and deeds performed by certain foreign military personnel, which resulted in Malaysia’s independence. My name appeared on that list. A few days later, a small leather box arrived containing the Pingat Jasa Malaysia (PJM) medal from Malaysia, a small brass plaque and a letter of gratitude for services rendered.
I now live in the retirement community of Elliot Lake, Ont., with my memories from a life of service to my country.
—Reg Couldridge, Elliot Lake, Ont.
The Singing Cowboy
Ninety-four years ago was born a man of very high standing in the eyes of many, especially mine. My father, Edgar Chevrier, was born in Rourget, Ont., on May 1, 1924. At the age of 18, he joined the Algonquin Regiment of the Canadian Army where he became a sergeant, and eventually a master sergeant.
During the war, he was stationed in Holland, France and Germany. He never talked much about the war—four years is a long time to spend in a dark place. When he wrote home, though, there was never a word of discouragement, only cheerfulness. As well as serving in the army, Dad was also an entertainer in the Canadian Army Show. He performed in a band called the Arkansas Travellers and played guitar. He entertained at many events and his younger brother Bert accompanied him. A much-requested song was “The Little Shirt My Mother Made for Me,” which their younger sister Aileen would dance to.
Sadly, during this period of time, his younger brother Bert was killed in action.
After the war, Dad became a heavy duty diesel mechanic and worked at Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. He loved sports and was involved in hockey as a trainer for the Soo Falls Dorans juvenile hockey team and was an assistant coach for the Soo Canadians. He also played softball.
He continued to entertain, singing and playing with Don Ramsay’s Ramblers. He was also known as “Algoma’s Singing Cowboy.”
Dad passed away in 1971 at the age of 47.
—Gloria Aikens, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
Winds of War
War was imminent when Ken Foote (my dad) was finishing high school in West Vancouver in 1939, so instead of carving out a civilian career for himself, he decided to join the army. After basic training, he was posted to Yorke Island, up the west coast of British Columbia, at the entrance to Johnstone Strait, where a gun emplacement and fort were being set up as part of the West Coast defences. Endurance, military skills and resourcefulness were learned there, and close friendships formed. Eventually, Ken was sent to Esquimalt, B.C., where he took the officers’ training course, and was then posted to Vancouver, where he was involved with radio operations. While there, he met Mary Wood (my mom), a Saskatchewan farm girl who had joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. They got engaged in December 1943.
The British Army was in dire need of replacements, and so Ken and a number of others were slated to go there. First, he was sent to Shilo, Man., for more artillery training.
Sweethearts Ken and Mary were wed in June 1944, and in August he was posted to the front via England. Ken also served in France and Belgium, before being sent to Arnheim, Holland, where the noted offensive was in progress.
His group was stationed in a church cemetery of all places and, during skirmishes one day, Ken was edging around the corner of the church at the same time as a German soldier came around the next corner. In the exchange of gunfire that ensued, Ken was hit in the abdomen by two bullets, one exiting near his spine. The outlook was grim, but an army doctor operated on him in the church base- ment, removing the remaining bullet and stabilizing him enough so that he could be transferred back to England for further medical procedures. He was eventually evacuated home on a hospital ship.
After his recovery, Ken and Mary made their home in Kamloops, B.C., where he worked at the local radio station. Eventually, he and Mary settled back on the coast, where Ken careered with the UIC (now part of Service Canada). They adopted six children over the course of 13 years.
Ken served in the reserve army for some time after the war, along with many fine veterans who were also good friends. Upon retirement, he and Mary enjoyed travelling, which included a trip back to Holland and the areas where Ken had seen action.
Ken passed away in 1996 and Mary, in 2007. They are really missed by our family.
Remembrance Day is almost here once again, a time to remember those who sacrificed so much for the freedom we enjoy today. Many never came back, and those who did are becoming fewer each year—they all are truly special people. We must never forget.
—Jean Humphreys, Kamloops, B.C.
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My uncle, George Clifford Armstrong, was born in Denzil, Sask., in 1914. He enlisted in January 1942 and saw active duty in France, Germany, Belgium and Holland as a signalman. He returned home in 1945.
In 1980, he was one of the many soldiers who received tulip bulbs and a lovely thank you letter from a family in Holland for his part in the liberation of the Netherlands. George was active in the Vancouver Legion until his death in 2002.
—Lucille Chisholm, Delta, B.C.
This is what I recall most about the days preceding Remembrance Day when I was a child at home: My dad, Joseph Koenig, would always bring out a little blue suitcase, which contained a box of mementoes from his time in the army during World War II. He’d also bring out his medals, which were displayed in the glass front of a handmade wooden box. After bringing out his medals, he’d begin polishing them. When I got older, I was allowed to help him. He would make sure they were pinned nice and straight on his Legion uniform. This was done with lots of help from my mom, who would wear her Ladies’ Auxiliary uniform for Remembrance Day.
It wasn’t until Dad moved into a long-term care home that we found out exactly what else was kept in his special box. It also contained a large envelope with all the postcards he’d sent home to Mom, and to each of my brothers and sisters—what a keepsake! Reading those cards brought a tear to my eye. The box also contained a bracelet, scarves and all of his shoulder patches. Also enclosed were a Canadian Army training pamphlet, a schedule for the military bus service, a soldier’s guide to Sicily as well as a soldier’s service pay book.
I wasn’t born until 1949, so I didn’t experience the war, but as an adult, I’ve had time to think about what it must have been like for my mom as well as my dad. It had to be difficult for Dad to head overseas to fight for his country, leaving his wife and three kids at home to fend for themselves. I can’t even fathom what it was like to spend five years away from home.
It had to be tough on Mom, too, being left to raise the kids at home—she must have wondered sometimes if Dad would make it back. I bet Dad had the very same thoughts in the back of his mind.
We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who made the sacrifice to give us freedom—as well as to the wives and children who stayed at home, trying to make ends meet. I am so proud of my Dad and Mom.
On Remembrance Day, when we thank veterans for their service, we should also spare a thought for those who remained behind.
—Frank Koenig, Morinville, Alta.
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My father, Stanley A. Solomon, joined the army in September 1914. He fought at Vimy Ridge and the Second Battle of Ypres during WWI, as well as the Battle of the Bulge during WWII.
Trying to ask my father questions about his war years was very difficult, as he would get quite upset and walk away with tears in his eyes. Although we never learned very much about his experiences, he did tell us about being in the trenches, and how he and his fellow soldiers would wait for darkness then crawl into a nearby farmer’s field to suck the juice from frozen turnips to quench their thirst. He also told us that during battle, whenever they’d storm a hill, the first and third soldiers over the top were usually killed; I assumed that the second and fourth men survived because the enemy had to reload their guns.
After he came home from WWI, Dad married my mom and bought a small farm in the Fraser Valley, B.C., where they raised five children—far from easy during the Depression. Finding it difficult to get work, Dad enlisted again and was stationed in Alberta until 1942, the year my mother died. After his WWII service overseas, he was stationed in Vancouver until the end of the war. He then went to live in Penticton, B.C., where he worked in the armoury until it was closed down. Dad died at the age of 82. At 90 years old, I am his only surviving child. I am so grateful that he was one of the few who came home from both wars.
—Lily P. Gisborne, Lady Smith, B.C.
Call of Duty
I was born in St. Catharines, Ont., on July 5, 1925. My dad was a World War 1 veteran but didn’t speak much about the war except when attending reunions.
I remember the day that the Second World War was declared. I had been at the local swimming pool, and on the way home, the newspaper boy around the corner was hollering, “Extra! Extra!“—the war was on.
I decided to join the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) and remember well the first day of training and receiving my uniform: blue dress, navy blue sweater and cap.
I also remember marching in the parade square—I was behind a girl who didn’t know her left from her right and at times marched with both arms out! But we all did our best to keep in marching formation.
As a member of the WRCNS, I was trained as a switchboard operator, taking external calls and directing them to the proper naval offices.
I served at several Navy Reserve Divisions. I first went to HMCS Star in Hamilton and then to HMCS Conestoga near Galt, Ont. (now part of Cambridge), for training. I was then sent to HMCS Peregrine in Halifax and after that to HMCS Discovery in Vancouver for a six-month stay. After that, I was granted leave, but soon enough was on the move again, this time to Montreal for a five-month deployment. I was then sent to Shelburne, N.S., and finally to HMCS Stadacona in Halifax.
Even though we were literally helping to keep the lines of communication open, we didn’t hear much about what was actually happening overseas because, as they said, “Loose lips sink ships.“
We were all so glad when the war ended. I was sent back to HMCS Peregrine and from there was discharged in 1946.
I think what we did was pretty important—all the services performed important jobs in the war effort.
—Helen Betsy Mitchinson, Chatham, Ont.
My father, Bernard “Bernie” MacDonald Holmes, was born in 1924 in Benito, Man. He and his 10 siblings were raised by their parents, Dan and Vera, on a farm in the Thunderhill district. Bernie joined the army at 19 and went overseas in 1943, becoming a member of the 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment, also known as the Canadian Kangaroos.
Bernie was a tank driver. The tanks he and his mates operated had their internal guns removed in order to carry more men—approximately 11 soldiers could be transported safely without those guns. He was stationed in France and then Holland, where he experienced the celebrations on May 5, 1945—Liberation Day for the grateful people of the Nether- lands—and on May 8, VE-Day, which marked the end of the war in Europe. As there were many thousands of men and women serving overseas, Bernie had to wait his turn to come home. It took nine months before he was shipped back to Canada, during which time he took a job in a library in London.
He and my mother, Madeline Puffer, were married in May 1947, and they, along with my three siblings and me, lived on a small farm in Manitoba for many years. The family moved to central Alberta in 1970, where I still reside, as does my brother, Keven.
Sadly, Dad passed away on February 12, 2004.
—Daylene Shaw, Rocky Mountain House, Alta.
My father, David Sinclair Wilkinson, was born in Montreal on June 27, 1916, and was a member of the 17th Duke of York Royal Canadian Hussars Army Reserves. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Airforce (RCAF) on June 6, 1942, and was posted to the auxiliary training facility at No. 5 Manning Depot, where he followed the required military training for newly enlisted members.
After completing the air force training requirements of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), including Initial Training School (ITS) and Service Flying Training (SFTS), he was promoted to Leading Air- craftsman (LAC). This was followed by Bombing and Gunnery Training (BGS), from which he graduated as Air Bomber, and Air Observer Training (AOS), from which he graduated and was commissioned as Pilot Officer on June 11, 1943.
Later that month, Dad was sent overseas to team up with Britian’s Royal Air Force (RAF). He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant on November 1, 1943, and to Flying Officer on December 11, 1943. Be- tween October 27, 1943, and October 25, 1944, he completed 30 sorties as an air bomber, which included attacks on many tactical targets in the occupied countries of France and Holland, and others on strongly defended German targets, such as Leipzig, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Essen and Berlin.
In the words of his superior, “His work as Air Bomber in Squadron 460 was of the highest order and his consistent skill and aptitude for his job were in no small part instrumental in his crew’s fine record of precision bombing. His determination to press home all attacks despite any opposition encountered has been outstanding. On long trips over enemy territory his calmness and courage gained the admiration and the confidence of all the crew. In reward for his outstanding gallantry and most praiseworthy services, I recommend the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.“
Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on February 5, 1945, he was invested with the award by King George VI on June 27, 1945. He married the love of his life, Ruby, a member of the RAF’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), on June 9, 1945, in London, England. He retired from the RCAF on July 30, 1946, upon his return to Canada, and Ruby arrived here a month later. Dad passed away on August 22, 1981.
—David Wilkinson, Ottawa