By Tom Dercola
When the Second World War started in 1939 Canada was in the midst of the Great Depression. The war shocked Canadians out of the Depression and got the economy going. As a nation, Canada gave more per capita than any other country to help end the conflict.
Canadians flocked to enlist. The new troops included veterans of earlier wars, boys still in high school and thousands of unemployed. The recruits came from many regions and from varied backgrounds. Eighteen-year-old Aubrey Cosens, a railway section hand from Ontario, was rejected by the Royal Canadian Air Force but did get into the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Honoured for great bravery
Robert Gray joined the navy as soon as he graduated from the University of British Columbia. John Foote, a 35-year-old minister, joined the chaplain corps. All were typical Canadians, and all distinguished themselves by winning the Victoria Cross.
Children signed up
Almost 700,000 Canadians under the age of 21 served in uniform during the Second World War. Sometimes boys as young as 13 would lie about their ages and try to enlist in the military. Under-age volunteers who looked old enough were often accepted.
If we looked back to Canada in the 1940s, we’d probably see families huddled around their radios listening for war news. Newspaper headlines and the war dead column were read first to see if anyone from the area was listed. News would pass quickly through a community if one of its favourite sons or daughters had been lost.
As a Canadian child, you’d receive pennies for an allowance, if you were lucky. If you gathered up 10 cents, you could go to the movies. Before the Abbott and Costello feature film, you’d see the Movietone News showing vivid footage of fierce fighting overseas.
The songs of Vera Lynn would be the rage. Meals wouldn’t be fancy because meat and sugar were rationed. Soda pop cost six cents, a loaf of bread eight cents. Dad couldn’t get new tires for his car because rubber was needed for the war effort. At school, kids knitted mittens and raised money for the Bundles for Britain campaign.
Household products helped
Canadians did their part on the home front. Recycling was a way of life. Housewives saved bacon fat and bones to provide glycerine for explosives and surrendered their aluminum pots and pans, which were melted down to provide metal for airplanes. Community service groups held scrap drives to collect tin foil and lead. They made bandages and dressings to send overseas.
Food, clothing and other essentials were in very short supply in England, and Canadians parcelled up “care” packages to help the British.
But as a nation we gave so much more. We gave our sons and our daughters, our fathers, our mothers, our men and women to the cause. The names of 44,893 Canadians who never returned are listed in the Second World War Book of Remembrance. Half that number again returned home severely injured, never fully recovering from war’s devastation.
I’d like to speak of two of the young men who never made it home.
One was a young Canadian soldier who wrote in his journal:
“Today a bird sang for me. Today I leaned against the strong trunk of a living tree. Today a little lizard ran across my hand. So I am not alone. When I get back to Canada, I’ll remember this. I will cherish all of life, for all life is really one. I will never again be destroyer, though that is what man is. This is my dream, that we will learn to live in harmony.
He died outside of Ortona, Italy, on a cold December day in 1943.
The other young man I speak of lies in a small cemetery in northern France. Among the graves of 2,782 Canadian war dead rests the body of Pte. Gerard Doré, the youngest Canadian soldier to die in the Battle of Normandy. He was just 16.
I shall not speak about these men as ones who “gave their lives”. As far as anyone knows who was in the forces, no one gave his life. Most of them died reluctantly, clinging to life as long as they could and fighting back the pain. Some of them were cursing when they died and others were mercifully deadened by drugs, both to physical pain and spiritual hopelessness, to die without making too much fuss.
And what can we say of these men and women? Perhaps one veteran said it best: “We were never heroes…we just went over and we did our jobs…and we came back, and some in less than one piece, …and we helped build up this society and put it where it is today.”
Brought honour to Canada
Today there is much to remember. Most important are the people, the men and women who served wherever they were needed. They faced difficult situations bravely and brought honour to themselves, to their loved ones and to their country. They were ordinary Canadians who made extraordinary sacrifices.
To our veterans past and present:
Thank you for this freedom. This freedom allows us to say what we will. Allows us to believe in any God or none at all. Allows us to read anything we choose.
Thank you for this great country.
Thank you, from this grateful country.