My son has recently taken an interest in wars and the military. I have a 39-volume Time-Life series of books covering the Second World War and he loves to sit and look through the pictures. He often bemoans the fact that he cannot yet read as he would love to be able to learn about what the soldiers are doing and against whom they are fighting. A few weeks ago I pulled an old box from my cupboard and showed him a few of my treasures – medals and other relics from family members who fought in the War. There are service medals and pins along with journals and records of payments.
My grandfather, Lawrence Belford, whom we knew as “Bapa,” was the only veteran to whom I was at all close. I don’t know that anyone was really close to Bapa in a personal way, but I know he loved me and loved to show me off. If there was anything Bapa was proud of in life, other than his three daughters, it would have to be his military service. Had you taken some time to talk to him, it would not have been long before he brought it up. As with most young men of his generation, he spent several years overseas, doing his part for the war effort. He chose to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Though he wanted to be a pilot he was rejected on account of poor eyesight, and instead found himself working as part of the grounds crew for the planes he so wanted to fly. His job was to load and arm the bombs before the planes flew across the channel to fulfill their mission and then to clean and fix the bombers once they returned. When I was young Bapa would often take me to the Legion hall near his home, partly to show me off and partly just to talk. I would eat a bowl of beans and sip on a Coke and he would drink a draft or two and reminisce about the war. He would tell of planes returning from Germany with gaping holes, smashed windows and broken bodies. After the ambulances had left, he would have to climb into those bombers and clean them up, trying to make some semblance of order amongst the chaos so the plane could fly again the next day.
Despite the horror of war I believe Bapa enjoyed his service and remembered the war years fondly. He surely bore some shame that he could not be part of the real fighting and must have felt some guilt when he heard about Canadian soldiers being killed at Dieppe, Normandy and soon all across Western Europe. He was probably almost jealous of the men whose planes never returned. While his base occasionally came under attack, he survived the war and went on to live a long life. The war years were quite good to him.
My other grandfather, George Challies, whom I never met as he died before I was born, was also in the military during World War II. I actually know little about him, but do know that he was an important man, a Supreme Court Judge, and was posted to the command of what I believe was an artillery training camp somewhere in Quebec. My uncle was born during these years and I have, on occasion, glimpsed at a postcard written to my grandmother and inquiring after his baby son’s health. Grandpa finished the war as a Lieutenant Colonel (Lieutenant is pronounced “leftenant” in Canada).
My grandmother’s brother, my great uncle, Harold Wooten, was a Spitfire pilot who was posted to the Mediterranean. I am not entirely sure where he was posted, but I do know that he never returned. He left his base on a routine mission on March 4, 1944 and never returned. He was declared Missing in Action. I still get chills when I remember my grandmother describing the day he died. While they lived in Quebec, thousands of miles from my uncle, they knew something was wrong when his dog, whom he had left behind with his family, began to howl one day. The dog was inconsolable for several days and it came as no great surprise to the family when, several days later, the dreaded telegram arrived. Even in her old age my grandmother missed her brother terribly.
Those three men, and so many others, are my heroes. I remember them not just on November 11, but throughout the year. I remember them every time I pass a veteran’s cemetery or walk past the cenotaph in the center of our town. I have taught my son to be proud of their service and their sacrifices. He determined today that he would tell his friends at school about daddy’s great uncle who died in the War. I hope he does.
While my mother lives a thousand miles away from me, I know that today she has placed a little poppy in the picture of her father that hangs in the hallway of her house. Bapa looks dashing, dressed in his RCAF uniform. He looks proud. The little poppy serves as a reminder of the years he gave to a great cause and it serves as a reminder of the innumerable sacrifices by innumerable made to preserve freedom.