An Un­for­get­table Gift

After seven decades, a brave sol­dier lost to war is fi­nally laid to rest

Our Canada - - Cause For Applause - By Ju­dith Thomas, Saska­toon

No one could have pre­pared me for the shock­ing rev­e­la­tion that I re­ceived on a lovely spring day in early May 2016. The news launched me on a jour­ney of dis­cov­ery, com­mem­o­ra­tion and re­mem­brance. The Ca­su­alty Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Pro­gram of the De­part­ment of Na­tional De­fence (DND) con­tacted me about the dis­cov­ery in Bel­gium of the re­mains of a Cana­dian sol­dier from the Sec­ond World War. He was iden­ti­fied as Pri­vate Ken­neth Don­ald Dun­can­son, my mother’s first cousin.

I im­me­di­ately re­called im­ages of Ken­neth’s home in Dut­ton, Ont., and his name en­graved on the fam­ily tomb­stone with his par­ents, my grand­par­ents and great-grand­par­ents. Through a sec­ond cousin in Dut­ton, I was given Ken­neth’s mil­i­tary medals and photos of him in uni­form in Eng­land. I in­her­ited Ken­neth’s wed­ding photo from my mother. Th­ese are spe­cial re­minders of this man I never met but with whom I have a deep con­nec­tion.

Ken­neth grew up in Dut­ton, where his fa­ther, Dan, was raised. Ken­neth mar­ried Lil­lian Hagerty on Oc­to­ber 14, 1939, at age 24. In early Jan­uary 1940, they opened K. and L. Gro­cery, a small store on Dut­ton’s Main Street. Ken­neth con­tin­ued to work for the Strath­cona Cream­ery un­til he en­listed on Au­gust 24, 1942, five days after the Dieppe Raid. After a year of train­ing in On­tario, he went to Eng­land for fur­ther train­ing. In March 1944, he was as­signed to the Al­go­nquin Reg­i­ment and landed in Nor­mandy on July 22, at Courseulles.

Ken­neth was killed on September 14, 1944, dur­ing an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt by the reg­i­ment to es­tab­lish a bridge­head across the Leopold and Déri­va­tion de la Lys canals at Mo­len­tje, Bel­gium. He was one of eight men whose bod­ies were not re­cov­ered from the bat­tle­field dur­ing the chaos of the with­drawal. The lo­ca­tion of his re­mains was un­known un­til Novem­ber 11, 2014, when a metal de­tec­tor hob­by­ist dis­cov­ered some mil­i­tary ar­ti­facts and hu­man re­mains in a farm field. On April 5, 2016, the Raakvlak ar­chae­o­log­i­cal team from Bruges, as­sisted by the Direc­torate of His­tory and Her­itage, DND, re­cov­ered Ken­neth’s re­mains.

My brother David John­son and I, as next of kin, were in­vited on be­half of the gov­ern­ment of Canada to at­tend the mil­i­tary burial for Ken­neth at the Adegem Cana­dian War Ceme­tery in Bel­gium. My hus­band, Gor­don, ac­com­pa­nied me. Al­lis­ter Cameron, a third cousin of mine, and his wife Carolyn, from Ken­neth’s home­town, joined us in Bel­gium.

Our five-day trip to Bruges was co­or­di­nated by Events and Cer­e­monies Of­fi­cer Paulette Ryan from

Veter­ans Af­fairs. She ar­ranged for our flights from Saska­toon so we could meet her and my brother at the air­port in Toronto on Sun­day, September 11. She ac­com­pa­nied us on our overnight flight to Brus­sels and was our es­cort for the next three days in Bruges. After our ar­rival, we ex­plored this UNESCO World Her­itage Centre on a sunny, warm af­ter­noon, which helped us re­set our bi­o­log­i­cal clocks.

The for­mal part of our jour­ney be­gan on Tues­day, September 13. Our first stop was the arche­o­log­i­cal lab­o­ra­tory, where we met the team that was re­spon- sible for the re­cov­ery of Ken­neth’s re­mains and viewed the ar­ti­facts re­cov­ered. What a sur­pris­ing and ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of mil­i­tary and per­sonal items! Dis­played on one cor­ner of the ta­ble was the im­pres­sive as­sem­blage of per­sonal items: a signet ring with his ini­tials, KDD, an en­graved ID bracelet with Love Lil­lian on the back, a wal­let with his ID card, a Water­man pen and pen­cil set, and many other ar­ti­facts. The gen­eral con­di­tion of the items was sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing they had been buried for 72 years. I felt pro­found com­fort when we were told that

Ken­neth’s boots and his bedroll were to be buried with him.

Our af­ter­noon ex­cur­sion started in the town of Mo­erk­erke. We stood on the street in the town where the troops as­sem­bled be­fore launch­ing the at­tack. De­tails of the bat­tle were ex­plained while we stood by the canal along Al­go­nquin­straat, a street named in hon­our of the reg­i­ment. We had the lux­ury of cross­ing the dou­ble canal by a bridge to reach the bat­tle­ground at Mo­len­tje. On the night of the bat­tle, how­ever, the reg­i­ment had to cross both canals and the land sep­a­rat­ing them us­ing heavy can­vas­sided assault boats that had to be hauled up and down the steep banks un­der en­emy fire.

We had an op­por­tu­nity to meet Luc and Brigitte, the cou­ple who owned the farm where Ken­neth’s re­mains were dis­cov­ered. After a group photo at the Al­go­nquin Memorial com­mem­o­rat­ing the Bat­tle of Mo­len­tje, we re­turned to Bruges for din­ner with the DHH staff and the 14 mem­bers of the reg­i­ment who had trav­elled from North Bay to serve as the burial party.

The one-hour burial ser­vice on Wed­nes­day at the Adegem Cana­dian War Ceme­tery started at 11 a.m., 72 years to the hour and day after Ken­neth died. Padre Frances Sav­ill, chap­lain for the reg­i­ment, of­fi­ci­ated at the ser­vice, and my brother David read the Scrip­ture pas­sages. The Cana­dian flag that draped the cas­ket was cer­e­mo­ni­ously folded and pre­sented to me at the end of the ser­vice. The flag is one of my spe­cial me­men­toes. It was a solemn and emo­tional ser­vice dur­ing which Ken­neth was laid to rest with full mil­i­tary hon­ours by his reg­i­ment. The grat­i­tude of the Bel­gian people to their Cana­dian lib­er­a­tors was ev­i­dent by the many dig­ni­taries, lo­cal cit­i­zens, mem­bers of re­gional pa­tri­otic as­so­ci­a­tions, and the media that came to pay trib­ute to Ken­neth for his ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice.

After most of the guests had left the ceme­tery, a lo­cal his­to­rian in­vited us to a shady bench to view photos of dam­age done to the towns of Mo­erk­erke and Mo­len­tje dur­ing the bat­tle. This was fol­lowed by a lunch at a restau­rant in Eeklo, where we vis­ited with Céderic, the young man who dis­cov­ered Ken­neth’s re­mains, and Iris, who urged the Bel­gian and Cana­dian au­thor­i­ties to take ac­tion on the dis­cov­ery.

After lunch, the fam­ily re­turned to the ceme­tery with Paulette to view the gravesite with the head­stone in place. It was a peace­ful time for quiet con­tem­pla­tion. The Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion had given me the op­por­tu­nity to add a per­sonal in­scrip­tion and a re­li­gious sym­bol to the head­stone. I se­lected a cross to rec­og­nize Ken­neth’s Chris­tian back­ground in the Pres­by­te­rian Church and chose to add You were found and we re­joice! You are not for­got­ten as an in­scrip­tion on the head­stone. It seemed only fit­ting that 12 of his com­rades who died the same day are buried two rows be­hind Ken­neth’s gravesite.

Ken­neth’s story is an un­be­liev­able gift—never imag­ined and never to be for­got­ten.

Mem­bers of Pte. Ken­neth Dun­can­son’s reg­i­ment re­move the flag for pre­sen­ta­tion to his fam­ily. The ser­vice was held on September 14, 2016.

The Al­go­nquin Reg­i­ment Memorial at Mo­len­tje, com­mem­o­rat­ing the Bat­tle of Mo­len­tje.

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