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.