‘You’re lucky to be alive’
The happy photo was taken before the dark times they would spend apart.
Her dress and corsage.
The smiles stretched across their faces for an eternity.
Dorothy and Stan Lee, two kids from Simcoe, their whole lives ahead of them. Just married and so happy.
“He just adored her and she adored him,” their daughter, Susan, said.
The photo was taken at their wedding in 1942, before Stan was shipped off in 1944 to serve as an airframe mechanic on airfields across France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Britain during the Second World War.
“She was a wonderful woman,” Stan said, looking back almost seven decades at the photo of his bride.
Stan, at 26, was an older, wiser recruit than many young men who went to war. He trained with the Royal Canadian Air Force and was sent to hot spots to patch up wounded planes.
He was also a father to an infant daughter, Carole, one of thousands of Canadians who took up the torch to serve their country, leaving behind young wives and children to wait and hope for their safe return.
He and Dorothy committed themselves to staying connected, even though they would be an ocean apart. They began a letter-writing ritual over the next two years in which they would exchange hundreds of notes of love and devotion.
Dorothy alone sent Stan 467 letters. He commemorated all of them in his journal.
“Dear Diary,” he wrote on Dec. 8, 1945. “received seven letters from my wife.” Another time, he noted: “received parcel from wife and one each from both my mothers.”
The family would be apart until Stan was shipped home in February 1946, one of the later returnees from a ravaged, but liberated Europe.
And then, Stan vowed to move forward, put the war years behind him and make a life at home.
Stan is sitting in his wheelchair in a sunny room at St. Joseph's Health Care London's Parkwood Institute, looking out the windows on a blustery November day.
He's 101 and closing in on 102 next month. He's been at Parkwood since June 2017 and is the oldest of 112 veterans living there. In recent weeks, he's been battling a chest infection that has produced a persistent, rattling cough.
His hands are large and rough, the product of long, hard work as a plumber. His deep blue eyes have watched a century go by.
Since 2001, he's lived without his beloved Dorothy, who died at age 81.
They both grew up in Simcoe. He was the child of a single mom who worked at the local hospital. He left school after Grade 8 and was working at 15 to help support the two of them.
Dorothy was, as Susan said, “a career woman before it was popular to be a career woman,” working as an accountant at Sears.
When he's asked about his war years, Stan says he was “lucky.” His wife and daughter stayed with her parents while he saw and heard first-hand the battles to win back Europe from Nazi occupation.
“I think we did a pretty darn good job of it,” he said of the Allied effort.
“You never know what it's like until you're there . . . You're lucky to be alive, that's all I can say.”
More than one million Canadians and Newfoundlanders served in the military during the Second World War. More than 45,000 were killed and another 55,000 wounded.
Today, as the country prepares to honour wartime sacrifice on Remembrance Day, only about 41,000 of those veterans remain, their average age about 93, government figures show.
Lee, in the oldest vanguard of surviving veterans, is understandably now a man of few words. But there’s a much richer version of his time spent overseas, contained in the journal entries he made part of his regular routine.
Stan left Canada in January 1944 to a new, lonely life in the towns and cities where his squadron was based. He kept his journal entries short and focused on what was in front of him.
Many times, he would write about the cold, the weather, the meals.
There was plenty that he never wrote down or sent in his letters to Dorothy. After the war, he told his son-in-law about Luftwaffe fighter planes strafing his airfield.
The scariest thing he had to do was to fly with the pilots after the planes were fixed. He remembers flying over Cologne in Germany.
There were moments that were too big not to be noted in his writing, captured in remarkable brevity given the turbulence of the times.
“At ten thirty pm on Tuesday, May 1, (1945) it was announced on the radio that Hitler was dead.” Stan wrote.
Two days later: “Saw Queen Wilhelmina and Princess Juliana arrival at home by plane,” he noted about the Dutch royal family.
Then on May 5: “Germans gave up in Holland, northwest Germany, Denmark.”
The war in Europe ended three days later.
It would be almost 10 months more before Stan would go home. The diary records the steps he took on that journey.
In June 1945, he marked down: “Had our picture taken today of the whole squadron.”
“Dear Diary,” he wrote on June 15, 1945. “Received four letters from wife. Got clearance papers.”
Then, the next day, “At noon today our aircraft left for England.”
Stan wrote about his travels to the towns and cities where he was stationed. In July 1945, in London, England — “a lovely place” — he saw St. Paul’s Cathedral, a landmark that survived German bombing, made famous by images of its huge dome shrouded in smoke from the air attacks.
Then, it was on to Glasgow, “a very tough city," as Stan put it.
By September 1945, he wrote: “Boyle and I (are) the only ones left. The rest gone to Shipton.”
He also noted people who were going home, but that wouldn’t happen for Stan until Feb. 15, 1946. “Arrived on Queen Lizzie at five thirty this morning, she pulled out at ten thirty.”
“The meals on the boat have been very good,” Stan wrote. “Only have two meals a day.” Stan was on his way home.
The thing that weighed on Stan stemmed from the single moment he was waiting for.
He was home. Dorothy was there. So was Carole. She was two.
“The first time he saw my sister, she was frightened of him,” Susan said. “He was so upset by it. He said he would spend the rest of his life trying to get her to love him.”
Family became his purpose. “You soon forget about the war after it’s over,” Stan said.
He and Dorothy started the job of being a family. Both worked, and after dinner and in their spare time, they built a two-storey home where they would raise their daughters.
Susan said the couple were “very devoted to each other their whole life.”
“They did laundry together, they did dishes together, they made meals together. If she was weeding the garden, he was weeding the garden with her.”
On weekends and during the two weeks off they had in the summer, they’d pick tobacco together. Dorothy dragged the girls to every baseball game Stan played and coached.
He was focused on moving forward. “My dad never spoke about the war when we were growing up. He didn’t join a Legion (branch). He didn’t have any medals . . . He just wanted to forget it. He just wanted to move on with his life," Susan said.
All he would tell them was a story as benign as could be told: When he was stationed in England, the Canadians were given kippers for breakfast every morning and they hated them.
“Finally, the Canadians turned their plates over and told them they had to give them something other than kippers . . . the next morning ,they got bacon and eggs.”
Stan’s cough is deep and rattling. He’s been talking for about an hour. He needs a break.
Most veterans at Parkwood, their care needs great, are from the Second World War and Korean War. They’re a link to a time that is a fading memory for many Canadians.
Stan holds onto some memories, but has let go of many others.
He agrees the war was both an adventure and a precarious time for the world and his family.
“I wouldn’t want to go through another one,” he said.
Lee’s journal recalls a cold, eventful week in spring 1945, with the Dutch royals flying home from exile, German surrender in Holland, Denmark and northwest Germany, and radio reports of Adolf Hitler’s death.
Stan Lee’s daily journal offers an intimate glimpse of his life as a Royal Canadian Air Force airframe mechanic in Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands during the Second World War.