Ea­ger to go over­seas, and never to come home again

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - LOCAL - BY BARB SWEET Barb Sweet bar­bara.sweet@thetele­gram.com

I never set foot on the mod­est front porch and can’t re­call if I ever even walked the land, but some­how, I could hear the crunch of the foot­steps as if I was there that day 74 years ago.

The thump of shoes on the steps and the rap on the door. The screams and cries of the sis­ters and kid brother, the res­ig­na­tion of the fa­ther who had lost his wife just six years ear­lier.

I could hear his thick-ac­cented voice — de­spite never hav­ing ac­tu­ally met the man.

Some­one likely ran over the road to Aunt He­len’s and Aunt Cu­bie’s — maybe Un­cle Larry, or Lau­rie, as he was known then.

“Min­is­ter of Na­tional De­fence deeply re­grets to in­form you that F10517 Leroy Charles Ni­chols has been of­fi­cially re­ported killed in ac­tion Nine­teenth Septem­ber 1944 Stop. If any in­for­ma­tion be­comes avail­able, it will be for­warded as re­ceived.”

And with that my Un­cle Leroy be­came fam­ily lore — mourned by sev­eral sis­ters and a brother for all their lives.

Our home, as oth­ers, fea­tured a grainy black-and-white photo of a sol­dier on the wall — who, apart from the male physique, uni­form and mous­tache — looked just like my mother, Martha.

There weren’t a lot of other me­men­toes around while I was grow­ing up; I was one of the younger cousins of the fam­ily who had never met any of my grand­par­ents, all de­ceased by the time I ar­rived, and many things we might have had were de­stroyed by a house fire when I was a tod­dler.

So, the trove of doc­u­ments I sifted through this Novem­ber were new to me. If such pa­pers ex­ist, they weren’t handed down through my im­me­di­ate fam­ily.

I’d seen the scanty snip­pet on the Book of Re­mem­brance, but it was while scrolling through that web­page I came across some in­for­ma­tion about how war records are free on Ances­try.ca.

Ac­cord­ing to Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada’s web­site, se­lected mil­i­tary files of the war dead have been dig­i­tized by Ances­try.ca through a part­ner­ship.

Many peo­ple may al­ready know this and many oth­ers, not. I had not re­ally done a deep dive into it be­fore.

As hap­pens in fam­i­lies as they branch off, me­men­tos, pho­tos and doc­u­ments can be­come lost to the ex­tended fam­ily, un­less they’re shared some­how through ge­neal­ogy web­sites or so­cial me­dia.

Here in New­found­land and Labrador, the con­nec­tion seems strong­est to the First World War and the fa­bled hero­ism and loss, and rightly so.

Back in Nova Sco­tia, when I was grow­ing up, the Sec­ond World War had a huge pres­ence in my fam­ily’s life be­cause it was that much more im­me­di­ate.

My mother, her sis­ters and brother Larry — who even­tu­ally moved to Pouch Cove, N.L., mar­ried, raised a fam­ily and passed on — had been chil­dren of the De­pres­sion and then had lived through that dark time of war. They lost a brother. Hus­bands served over­seas or did duty on the home front if not med­i­cally ac­cepted for duty.

Af­ter their mother died in 1939, they were raised by their im­mi­grant fa­ther and worked at the rail car plant that ran the length of the bot­tom of the town of Tren­ton, in north­east­ern Nova Sco­tia.

He came from Minsk, flee­ing the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion, and an­gli­cized his name to Charles Ni­chols, adding Leroy to his first son’s name. (With Leroy’s pass­ing, the fact he never got to have his own chil­dren was ac­knowl­edged by a sis­ter who named her only son Leroy, and Un­cle Larry, who named one of his sons Leroy.)

I deal with doc­u­ments all the time, and de­pend­ing on the sub­ject mat­ter, they can be mov­ing, re­veal­ing, mun­dane or ex­plo­sive.

But what sur­prised me about sift­ing through th­ese doc­u­ments from so long ago was that con­nec­tion I felt to the mo­ment, the feel­ing of vir­tu­ally walk­ing along­side this rel­a­tive who gave his life to war.

They say my grand­fa­ther was stern, but he must have been shaken that Oct. 2. I welled up just look­ing at the tele­gram, Leroy’s mil­i­tary man­dated will doc­u­ments and the de­tails of his fi­nal pay.

As I said, I never set foot in that wooden A-frame house — a style so typ­i­cal of Nova Sco­tia. By the time I came along it was a va­cant lot with a lone cherry tree, down Maple Street from Un­cle Gra­ham and Aunt Marg’s at the very top of Tren­ton.

But I saw the tele­gram de­liv­erer hand it over. Maybe it wasn’t to grand­fa­ther. Maybe it was to one of the sis­ters. They’re all gone now, so I can’t ask.

The writ­ing on some of the fam­ily doc­u­ments looks like my mother’s pen­man­ship; its fa­mil­iar­ity misted my eyes.

The sib­lings of the de­ceased were all listed — young peo­ple then, three just start­ing mar­ried lives. Aunt Dolly’s hus­band Fred was a sol­dier him­self.

Mom was just 18, Aunt Marg, 20, Aunt Eva, 15, and Un­cle Larry, 12. See­ing that list put me right there as they heard the gut-crunching news.

His story was that of a young man, per­haps a bit rowdy, who joined up and spent a good part of the war in train­ing camps in Canada. A typ­i­cal Eastern Cana­dian kid — he liked hockey, soft­ball and swim­ming.

Pte. Ni­chols joined the Stor­mont, Dun­das and Glen­garry High­landers in 1941, list­ing his age as 19. He for­feited pay on a few oc­ca­sions due to go­ing AWOL, but I sus­pect it wasn’t to avoid duty but per­haps — be­ing a young lad — he’d im­bibed too much with his bud­dies in a Syd­ney, N.S., tav­ern, while be­ing posted at Syd­ney and Fort Petrie.

Or per­haps he’d snuck away to see a girl. I am only just imag­in­ing the na­ture of his in­dis­cre­tions be­cause it’s also stated that he was in­tent on do­ing his duty.

“A few crimes but sta­bil­ity ap­pears to be nor­mal. Ea­ger to be over­seas,” reads an ap­praisal of his phys­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual abil­i­ties in his per­son­nel se­lec­tion record from 1943.

Fi­nally, he got his chance in 1944, em­bark­ing that July.

And then he was gone, just like that, a few months later. Buried tem­po­rar­ily, and then moved to a plot in a proper Cana­dian mil­i­tary ceme­tery in Calais, France.

But they gave good direc­tions to his marker — grave 11, row D, plot 7, close to a school — and one of th­ese days, I’ll go have a visit with him.


The tele­gram re­ceived by the Ni­chols fam­ily in 1944 ad­vis­ing of Pte. Leroy Ni­chols be­ing killed in ac­tion.


Leroy Ni­chols

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