Nearly two years ago I was invited to get involved in a writing project focused on my hometown. More specifically, about a generation of kids who lived in Norfolk County and died in World War II. The task looked academic in nature, and I was drawn to it, as much for the opportunity to write as well as to learn about the sacrifices these young adults made.
I did not realize what I had signed up for. The penny did not drop until I cracked open my first case.
Norfolk County is a picturesque spread of land that rests on the northern shore of Lake Erie. From the air, its most distinguishing characteristic is the long spit of land that creeps eastward into the center of the Great Lake. That’s Long Point. The next recognizable feature is Big Creek which is fed by countless streams and brooks, and runs from north to south through the heart of Norfolk, and spills into the bay created by Long Point.
The land is primarily agricultural and its sandy loam has been the productive real estate for a century’s worth of tobacco, fruit and vegetables. By 1939, Norfolk had a population of more than 35,000. Most lived in the countryside. Some 6,000 of these residents took it upon themselves to join the million-plus Canadians who went to war in support of Great Britain and its allies.
159 soldiers, sailors and aircrew never came home.
In the greater scheme of things, the casualty rate doesn’t seem shaking. Less than three percent. Covid-19 has been just as lethal. Joseph Stalin was once quoted as saying, “when one person is killed it’s a tragedy. When a million die, it’s just a statistic.”
A small group of Norfolk citizens decided to push back on this detachment. Why? The names of the 159 are engraved on a brass plaque in Simcoe, the county seat. Once a year there’s a ceremony to celebrate and honour the dead, but beyond that, those youthful volunteers are lost in the fog of time and current events.
To that end, this motivated group decided to write the short life stories of the young fighters. They enlisted researchers, including secondary school students, retirees and part-timers. The Norfolk County Public Library gave structure to the project, and a generous benefactor provided seed money to deliver an astounding book about this lost generation of kids.
The source of detail on the men, their families and service record was retrieved from Ancestry.Ca, local newspapers, as well as from personal accounts provided by living family members.
What was not well understood at the outset of this project would be the effect it had on us doing the research and writing. As a seasoned Baby Boomer, I have taken a lot for granted in my upbringing, and I bet most of my peers, their children, and grandchildren have not a clue about the grave developments that gave us 1933-1945. Sure, we’ve seen the movies, and read a few books. A tiny fraction, a scintilla of us, may ever have seen a military cemetery up close. And the raw, territorial aggression of three malevolent dictatorships that spawned the war is unfathomable by today’s standards.
Eighty years ago the scene was different, and Norfolk’s young adults, mostly in their late teens or early twenties–college-aged by today’s measure– safely protected by the Atlantic Ocean, left their homes, and committed to fight a fight three thousand miles away.
I was lucky to receive thirty boys to write up. We wanted the stories to bring to life their upbringing, their family background, their hobbies, schooling, girlfriends, wives, and in some cases, children. In the telling we found family photos, portraits, service records, military journals and diaries, medical reports, post mortems, letters from home, letters from defense departments, character references, heartfelt pleas from parents, and yes, burial details. As one worker commented, “I had to stop every once in a while, just to process it.”
The end result of this revealing expedition is the publishing of an incredible book ‘Norfolk Remembers World War II’ that gives an honourable recognition of just who these 159 kids were. And in many cases, what they could have been had they not been struck down in the cause of freedom.
As Remembrance Day occurs, I will give more heed to what these heroes did for us, and as the book wished, I will remember them throughout the year.
Thanks for reading and sharing. I hope you will keep a lookout for Norfolk Remembers World War II which will be available later this year.
14 thoughts on “They Earned Remembrance”
Reblogged this on KitKennard.com BLOG and commented:
Phil is one of my teenage role models … expect the inspiration for writing this is buried in that experience:
My words for a recitation, if called upon: for Remembrance Day, November 11
Every war shames the human race and is yet another monument to human ignorance, greed and folly.
On this day, when we honour those who have fought for our country and our freedom, it’s hard to find the words to express just what they have given each and every one of us.
It’s about respecting our past and looking hopefully forward and more than anything, thanking those who have served. For those who did and do serve in armed conflict, only they truly know the depths of cruelty, depravity and suffering that war brings.
Remembrance Day isn’t just about war and those we’ve lost, but about ideals and what we stand for and protect against fascists, dictators, theocrats, kleptocrats and monarchies that would like to see the undermining and, better yet, the outright failure of democracy and universal human rights as governing models.
In the words of Winston Churchill…
“Our past is the key to our future, which I firmly trust and believe will be no less fertile and glorious. Let no one underrate our energies, our potentialities and our abiding power for good.”
C. A. (Kit) Kennard, November 2019
Phil, Thank you for a wonderful introduction to those dark days of the past and for bringing to life the 159 poor souls who never came back. I was an inbetweener who served in 1955-56 between Korea and Vietnam I can somewhat poorly relate if only because I wore the same uniform, took the same training, stood the same guard duty and bitched about the “chow”. In 2 days the local Boy Scouts Troop will be at my door as they are every year leaving me a brown bag of cookies and a personal card of thanks for serving. Their act always brings me back as does the Nov. 11 date which would have been the 114th birthday of my mother, rest her soul. Strangely I have no recollection of her ever commenting on the coincidental date. I do remember that she always hated celebrating her birthday. I wonder why. Best Regards to Jane. Allan Gross
Allan, I can only say thank you for your service, whether you were boots on enemy ground or not. You showed up, which counts, chow notwithstanding. As for your Mom, she raised a good son!
You are old school Phil. When you take on a project you do your best. I’m sure you were told as a young boy , as I was , that if you are going to do something do a right or don’t bother starting. I bet you feel honoured to have been a part of this project. Congratulations.
Thanks Brian! I learned more than I bargained for. As well, I earned some new friends, and also revived some friendships from my youth, yourself included. The foray into Norfolk County has been richly rewarding. All the best to you and your family who live free, thanks to those many kids who answered the call so long ago!
What a wonderful way to honor the young boys who fought so bravely for our freedom. I am sure it was very emotional for you to research and write about but also very rewarding. Learning about those lost lives and potential is something that we all should know more about so that they are not forgotten. I can’t even imagine what it was like for the friends, familes and moms to lose their sons knowing they’d never be coming home. Thank you Phil for your dedication and bringing to life their stories.
Thank you Terry! We owe those kids and their parents a huge debt for their sacrifice and our freedoms. Their legacy is our treasure. Thanks for writing. PS: the Ocean Jasper crystal resides on our living room coffee table spreading good vibes!
A very good read Phil. We certainly owe a lot to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.. Take care.
Thank you Mark! Thinking about it every day it seems!
An nformative share.
This brought tears to me. The man who I wanted to marry, fought in Vietnam, and came home with only one leg. I never was strong enough to talk to him about his service.
Now it is too late, but I think of him everyday.
I will go back and read the stories again… thank you Phil for sharing your work with me.
Ann, there is much I have taken for granted, and nothing exceeds the gift these young kids made. As you and I both agree, never give up the opportunity to say thank you while you can. Thanks for writing!
Thank you Phil.
Reblogged this on battleoftheatlantic19391945 and commented:
“Monday, February 21, 2022-FAMILY DAY: At the going down of the SUN, and in the MORNING; WE WILL REMEMBER THEM, WE WILL REMEMBER THEM.” “Still stands thine ancient sacrifice, a humble and a contrite heart; Lord God of Hosts be with us yet, LEST WE FORGET, LEST WE FORGET!!!” Poem by Rudyard Kipling. OUR GLORIOUS WAR DEAD …W.W.II/1939-1945….In Mention; and ALL CASUALTIES of The Canadian Armed Forces, during THE SECOND WORLD WAR/1939-1945!!!” “Canada Remembers.” Great Blog-Posting…with a VERY CONCERNED HEADING…They Earned Remembrance…and THEN SOME!!! Our young MEN and WOMEN of OUR CANADIAN GREATEST GENERATION ERA/1939-1945; and Non-Fictionally being, THAT our Canada/2022…does NOT have ANY W.W.I/1914-1918 Veterans left…we do CONCERN W.W.II/1939-1945 AND the Canadian Men/HEROES…Women/HEROINES; our GREATEST GENERATION. So MUCH RESEARCH is the REWARD…Non-Fictional Factor-CAN and WILL be ALIVE CONCERNING THIS MATTER; that it WILL MAKE Canada’s Archival Facilities Jammed Packed such as a Nova Scotia SARDINE CANADA, and THEN SOME!!! WHAT these young Canadian MEN-HEROES and WOMEN-HEROINES…did for KING…George VI, Dominion, AND Canada/1939-1945…is JUST SOME TIMES; TOO HARD TO HANDLE…though in ALL REALITY; even as myself, if WE REMEMBER in CANADA…THAT WE HAVE TO SIT DOWN FOR a LITTLE WHILE, and in FULL NON-FICTIONAL COMPREHENSION….TAKE a GRIP…ON WHAT THESE Canadian MEN-HEROES…WOMEN-HEROINES…ACCOMPLISHED for US Canadians, the Occupied by German Nazi Power…European Countries,