Sis­ters trace father’s wartime foot­prints on Ger­man bat­tle­field

The Drumheller Mail - - FRONT PAGE - Patrick Ko­lafa sub­mit­ted

Two Drumheller area women were taken on a trip over­seas, back into sig­nif­i­cant his­tory and right into the foot­steps of their father where he served dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

77-year-old twins Joy McKee and Joan Sny­der’s father Fred­er­ick Birm­ing­ham served in the Sec­ond World War. They were five months old when he went over­seas and were five years old when he re­turned. While they knew their father served, they had the op­por­tu­nity to see first­hand where he stood on the bat­tle­field, thanks to the His­tory Chan­nel’s War Junk tele­vi­sion show.

“I called it a re­al­ity ad­ven­ture on a mys­te­ri­ous quest,” chuck­les Joan.

In June Joan re­ceived a phone call from Wayne Ab­bott, the host of War Junk. They were skep­ti­cal, es­pe­cially when they were told they were sup­posed to be in Am­s­ter­dam in two days.

“Why the big rush?” said Joan. “I was drag­ging my feet.”

He asked whether they were the daugh­ters of Fred Birm­ing­ham, some­thing that seemed very per­sonal.

“He said ‘through our re- search de­part­ment and in­for­ma­tion we have been given, we have dis­cov­ered an ar­ti­fact that we have traced back to your dad at the time of the Sec­ond World War, and we would like to fly you to Am­s­ter­dam,’” said Joan.

The sis­ters were told the show would pay the air­fare for two peo­ple, prefer­ably Joan and her sis­ter Joy.

“David O’Keefe (his­to­rian) had dad’s war records that had been re­leased from the De­part­ment of De­fense,” said Joy, “so they had the ac­tual printed his­tory of our dad’s war years.”

Fred­er­ick Birm­ing­ham went into ac­tive ser­vice on May 8, 1940. He served all over the Euro­pean the­ater; at the Beaches of Nor­mandy and in Ger­many, Bel­gium and Hol­land. He was ap­pointed sec­ond in com­mand of the Cana­dian Anti-Tank Reg­i­ment of the Royal Cana­dian Ar­tillery. He was well versed with map­ping and also an ex­pert in mil­i­tary law.

“A mil­i­tary man he was al­most born to be, but it wasn’t what he wanted as a fi­nal ca­reer. He wanted to do his ser­vice,” said Joan.

Af­ter a few more phone calls, some emails back and forth, as well as con­sult­ing with fam­ily, they felt com­fort­able enough to take the risk.

“We had about 36 hours to de­cide and they kept phon­ing. Fi­nally the clincher, as far as I was con­cerned, was he said ‘ you will walk in your dad’s foot­steps and stand where your dad stood,’” said Joan. “We have to do this for our dad.’”

Joy was on board with the plans and on June 10 they were on a di­rect flight to Am­s­ter­dam.

They stayed in Ni­jmegen in the Nether­lands. They were fa­mil­iar with this com­mu­nity, as their father had bil­leted there dur­ing the war. They walked on the same streets as their father.

“He got to know some of the Dutch fam­i­lies very well, and even to­day still the Dutch are so grate­ful to the Cana­di­ans,” said Joan.

They also vis­ited the Cana­dian War Ceme­tery in Groes­beek. Ni­jmegen was not their fi­nal des­ti­na­tion how­ever as they clam­ored into a Land Rover and headed to­wards the Re­ich­swald For­est in Ger­many with the hosts and tele­vi­sion crews in tow, as well as a young man.

The young man was named Joey Lah­man, who was the one who un­earthed the ar­ti­fact that was even­tu­ally linked to Birm­ing­ham. An am­a­teur his­to­rian, he spent many days ex­plor­ing the bat­tle­field, which have since been re­claimed by lush forests. “If it hadn’t been for him this never would have hap­pened,” said Joy. “He was just as thrilled and as over­whelmed as we were.”

They even­tu­ally ar­rived in a non­de­script part of the for­est where they fol­lowed the young man into the dense for­est. While the years of growth had re­claimed the for­est, the ground was still scarred from ord­nance and ri­fle shells and other war junk was eas­ily seen. They even climbed into a de­cay­ing Ger­man bunker still on the bat­tle­field 70 years later. They even­tu­ally stopped and Joey pro­duced an item from his back­pack.

“We stood right in the place where our dad stood in that bat­tle,” said Joan. “It was emo­tional but it wasn’t as painful as if we had lost him there.”

While the twins are not able to re­veal the gift they re­ceived un­til the show airs, it was a pow­er­ful ex­pe­ri­ence.

“The hugs and the tears as we ex­changed the gifts, it was like we were part of his fam­ily and he was part of our fam­ily at this time,” said Joan.

Ini­tially, they were told the ar­ti­fact would be do­nated to a museum, but when it was clear how spe­cial it was to the fam­ily and that it was in good hands, they turned it over to the sis­ters.

The sis­ters have writ­ten down their ex­pe­ri­ence of re­ceiv­ing the gift, as well as mem­o­ries of their father. These will ac­com­pany the ar­ti­fact they were given, keep­ing the mem­ory alive in the fam­ily.

In 5 or 10 decades from now…this will still mean some­thing to them as it does to us now,” said Joan. “Words get lost in time, but the printed word can travel with the item to whomever the fam­ily mem­ber is that takes care of it.” For the two it is hard to sum up the ex­pe­ri­ence in words.

“It was very emo­tional. Right from the be­gin­ning, just be­ing where dad had been, never ever dream­ing of go­ing there or be­ing there, and then just out of the blue we were there,” said Joy. “The emo­tion was paramount… it was an over­whelm­ing ad­ven­ture.”

“Over­whelm­ing feel­ing of thank­ful grat­i­tude for this young man Joey, was a good part of our feel­ings,” said Joan. “We shared to­gether in the phys­i­cal pres­ence of our dad at this site. It was like he had not died, he was there with us.”

The episode fea­tur­ing Joy and Joan will air to­mor­row, Novem­ber 10 on His­tory Chan­nel.

Joy McKee, left and Joan Sny­der were guests of the His­tory Chan­nel’s se­ries War Junk and trav­elled to the Nether­lands and Ger­many to learn about their father’s war time ex­pe­ri­ences.

(l-r) His­to­rian David O’keefe of War Junk with Joy McKee and Joan Sny­der with War Junk Host Wayne Ab­bott.

Joey Lehman with his father Ruud. Joey dis­cov­ered the ar­ti­fact that has been traced back to Joan and Joy’s father Fred Birm­ing­ham.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.