I’ve interviewed Canadian soldiers who bravely fought at Vimy Ridge, who gave Franco hell in the Spanish Civil War, and who earned fame as ace fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain. Indeed, I’ve written about many a war hero over the years, but never about my own family.
My dad, Alex, was a corporal in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Cold War, working on Sabre Jets. He came from a large, poor Ukrainian family in Fort Garry, Manitoba and was the baby of the family. During the Second World War five of his older brothers fought Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. Four survived and of them, two were wounded.
My uncle Nick fought with the Winnipeg Grenadiers, defending Hong Kong against Japanese invaders. Ill-equipped and his unit outnumbered, he ended up a prisoner of war in Yokohama for 44 months, eating mice, snakes and whatever else he could catch to survive. As he was being marched away, he heard the rat-a-tat of machine guns, and explosion of grenades, as the Japanese killed those too wounded to walk. Forced into slave labour, on two cups of gluey rice per day, Nick was injured working on a drag line and a camp doctor did surgery on his leg, leaving the one leg a couple inches shorter than the other. Several years after the war, his wound began to seep and doctors in Winnipeg re-opened it to find, to their horror, a thick wad of putrid gauze enmeshed in his muscle.
My dad’s twin brothers, Fred and Martin, joined the Canadian Army on March 27, 1943, and were sent to Europe.
Martin joined Operation Timberwolf and fought in Italy, where on April 16, 1944 an exploding hunk of shrapnel ripped into his thigh. After recovering, he was sent back into action and on Sept. 29, 1944 he was killed, at age 21, in a rain of mortal shells while fighting in the village of Fiumicino.
My dad’s family didn’t have a telephone, and my grandmother didn’t speak English, so he had to go to a far-away neighbor to take the call. He was 11 when he broke the news to his mom that Martin had been killed. “I can remember doing that, and not being too happy walking down the railroad track,” he recalled.
In 1971 Manitoba’s government named a lake in Martin’s honor — Zytaruk Lake — in Whiteshell Provincial Park. Grandma received the Memorial Cross.
Fred still lives in Winnipeg. He doesn’t like to talk about his time in France, where he was shot through his arm while rowing a boat across a river and, not long after that, was hit in the head with shrapnel.
Uncle Bill also served in the Canadian military but was not sent overseas. Uncle John had joined the Tank Corps and did his part to help liberate Nijmegen and Arnhem in Holland. He always said he was most afraid of so-called “friendly fire,” from the Americans.
During the Cold War, my dad was stationed in Germany and visited Martin’s grave in Italy. He also experienced a touching tribute, upon walking into a pub in Holland.
“I had the Canadian uniform on,” he recalled. “The music suddenly stopped, and the orchestra began playing Red River Valley.”
He met my mom Eileen during his military service. She spent much of her childhood in English bomb shelters during the Battle of Britain. Nearby homes were bombed, and a Messerschmitt pilot strafed a schoolyard.
Her dad Tom — after whom I’m named — served in the Royal Air Force. My mom’s family lived in a small village and word soon spread that her dad had been killed in action but it turned out the victim was another poor soldier with the same first and last name.
“I wouldn’t wish that on my grandkids or any of them,” she told me.
So here I am, 49-years-old, never having had to go to war, and praying like hell my twin sons and their yet unborn kids will never have to, either.
It’s not luck, but sacrifice, that has kept us out of harm’s way.
And that, we should never, ever forget.