Profiles in Courage
We asked for stories honouring Canada’s war vets and you delivered! Here’s a sample of the inspiring tales we received
In honour of Remembrance Day, here’s a selection of inspiring stories that pay tribute to our brave men and women in uniform.
LETTERS FROM THE FRONT A glimpse into life on the front lines
“When an air raid occurs, you’ve got to tumble off your bed (three planks of wood), grab your steel helmet and spend hours in the dug-out until the fun is over. Sometimes, it lasts about two hours, so it’s no joke. But it’s an amazing sight, watching the searchlights probing the skies, hearing the drone of the planes, the terrific burst of the anti-aircraft guns, and the still noisier bombs from the ‘Jerry’ planes.”
Every Remembrance Day during the two minutes of silence, while the haunting strains of the “Last Post” play, I visualize my uncle, Norman Parker, manning anti-aircraft guns in the Western Desert Campaign in North Africa during World War II.
My impressions come from a small bundle of letters from relatives and friends of my parents that I found among my late mother’s possessions. The letters bear three-penny postage stamps and an indelible blue ink rubber stamp reading, “Passed By Censor.”
I believe my mother kept these particular samples as they offer congratulations on my birth on November 4, 1941:
“I’m very glad to hear about the new arrival in the family. It certainly is a very nice name you have chosen for her. I am looking forward to seeing her very much, and I hope it will not be very long before I am back,” wrote Uncle Norman.
These letters offer a sanitized glimpse of a soldier’s life at the front. The idea was to retain confidentiality and to downplay the terrors of the war to shield loved ones at home.
The first letter from the pile is dated October 2, 1941, and reads,
“A line or two from Egypt. I’ve been here for about two months now. And though I’ve searched about for what novelists often describe as ‘that lure of the desert’ or ‘the romance of the desert,’ I’ve found nothing but sand, sand and more sand.”
Another letter offers the following description:
“The only place that I have found with a bit of colour is where we are camped at now. It is really quite pretty here, as there are
masses of all sorts of wildflowers, the prettiest of which are real poppies, and they are blood red, and certainly a sight for sore eyes in the desert.”
Other letters refer to the living conditions:
“We’ve been having intermittent sandstorms; the sand, which is fine and powdery, is whipped up by the wind, accompanied by a whining noise, and you can’t see three feet ahead. Everything becomes covered by desert, your food, blankets, etc. But you get used to it.”
The letters also mention the names of battles that took place in the Western Desert Campaign including Bardia, Sollum, Halfaya and Sidi Rezegh, without going into any details except to add:
“We had a good share of the action,“or “We were on the run, and inevitably, “We didn’t get much sleep or a decent wash.”
One letter gives an account of an air raid:
“Once I saw a plane caught in the searchlight, as a resort to getting out, dive right down the beam, and the bullets from its machine guns going right down into the light. When the shells or bombs come your way, they whistle.”
From the sketches in the letters, days off offered a sense of relief. “A decent meal, bath and show, and believe me, one needs it here.”
Leave comprised visits to places such as Cairo and Alexandria.
“I have been very fortunate in being able to see quite a fair bit of the cities in this country as I was stationed outside Cairo for just over a month. I have been out to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx and to most of the mosques, and it was really very interesting. Cairo has a huge population.”
Another account gave his impressions of Alexandria:
“Alexandria is a blending of the new with the old, the East with the West. It’s an oriental city, white buildings, square-topped, dust, heat and thousands of uniforms. I never want to see another uniform after this war.“
Norman was spared and returned home safely to become an enormous influence on my life. As a young child, he was my fairy godfather showering me with treats or a coveted half crown on each visit.
As a teen, he became my mentor, encouraging me to study hard and rewarding me with a camera on completing high school. On my wedding day, he drove me to the church and said, “You make a beautiful bride.” He delivered the toast to the bride and groom, ending with a line from “Ode to the West Wind“by Percy Bysshe Shelley: “If winter comes can spring be far behind?”
Considering the difficulties he overcame fighting in World War II, I didn’t anticipate anything as challenging ahead of me.
He was my role model my entire life. He was highly principled, fiercely patriotic and believed in doing his duty, which made him a hero in my eyes. He was not only a perfect gentleman but also a gentle man. I can’t imagine what my life would have been without his guidance and nurturing.
Each Remembrance Day, as I fondly recall all he did for his country and me, I am overcome with melancholy as I despair at all the lost lives and empty places in other families. We can never forget the sacrifices of these men.
Gunner Norman Parker.
Penny’s uncle Norman (right) during the Second World War.