An armada sails from England during the Second World War. (Submitted photo)

Father and Son

Reflections, Remembrances and Recollections by Glenn Boychuk

Every family has one somewhere, that old box of photographs and fading documents that chronicle the paths taken by family members in years gone by. In our house we had an old shoe box filled with hundreds of photographs, letters, documents and the like. It is here in those shoe boxes filled with memories where history is discovered.

He was born in the 1890s in England, finished his schooling and soon found employment with the railroad working in the railway yard. In a handwritten letter of recommendation from his supervisor dated November 16, 1912 he is described as follows: “He has worked for me for three years and I have always found him a good worker, trustworthy and honest. I therefore recommend him to the position you have entrusted him to, you may rely upon him with confidence to serve you to the best of his abilities.”

He was then promoted to porter, had met a young lady that he wished would become his sweetheart and wrote to her often when life as he knew it made a different turn than he had planned. The turn of events was the outbreak of World War 1 and a call to arms was sent out throughout the country and colonies.

It was then at that exact moment he chose to enlist and serve with the West Yorks, joining the 3rd Battalion as a rifleman, a far cry from railway porter. After completing his basic training and taking a short furlough home orders came and the unit was sent over the channel and into the fray in France. Often he mailed a letter to the one he wanted to be his sweetheart.

He served his unit and country well, although during this time at the front he became both shell-shocked and a victim of the new weapon called poisonous gas at a place called Vimy. Returning to service he found himself at the right place at the right time during one battle when he saved the life of a high ranking officer who was wounded and lying on the battlefield. Under constant shellfire he went out to save the wounded man by putting him over his back and carrying him across no man’s land and into a safe area, all the while under constant attack.

Many months passed in the stalemate of the front lines where he now found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and was taken as a prisoner of war by the enemy. It was the practice to have prisoners of war doing work such as the building bridges and roadways well behind the enemy’s front lines.

Letters could be sent home using the system set out by the Red Cross in Geneva Switzerland, it was a time-consuming process but letters could reach loved ones who hadn’t heard a word in so many months. Any letter, albeit short, was censored and eventually sent through this system to his parents and sweetheart in England.

I cannot even begin to imagine all that he must have seen and experienced in those four long years of the war. It was a constant struggle each and every day between life and death, combined with the best and the worst that mankind could possibly do on a daily basis.

After the Armistice was signed; he returned home from those long four years and was honourably discharged. A handwritten letter from the King was delivered to him expressing gratitude for his safe return and military service.

Finally; he marries his sweetheart and the new couple immigrate to Canada to start a new life and family. The scars of the past four years would take time to heal, time to fade and disappear.

A scant 21 years after the Armistice was signed the storm clouds of war were gathering with the former foe and war was once again declared. Another call to arms for volunteers to serve was placed throughout the country and colonies.

The old soldier finds he cannot return to service as he did before. It was at that moment that his son chose to enlist. Still in his late teens he volunteered for the Royal Canadian Navy, passing his medical examination knowing that soon he will be leaving his home and parents for basic training somewhere he has never heard of before. He stands tall with his thin frame and was proud to answer his country’s call, not knowing what will be asked of him or why.

With basic naval training now completed and behind him, he is assigned to a ship for further training as a seaman in an ever-expanding navy. Training on both coasts of Canada and gaining all the needed confidence that came with the intense training only bolstered his desire to be a sailor and part of whatever was to come. Crossing the Atlantic on convoy duty was a routine for him; he became part of a lifeline for a country besieged by an enemy. Danger lurked everywhere on the vast expanses of the open Atlantic.

Later he was transferred and assigned as a gunner on a Landing Craft Infantry Large, often referred to as a LCIL. Training took place in the waters off Scotland for some future assault on some shore somewhere. The coastal climate of Scotland was similar to that of his home far away in Canada; he had not been home for over two years.

Training now completed they waited for further orders. They did not have to wait long. They were to head south, becoming part of the greatest combined army, air and naval operation that the world has ever known, preparations for D-Day!

Weather played a big part in the implementation and start of this huge operation, finally with skies, seas and tides at an acceptable level; it was now time to take the fight to the enemy.

In the darkened early morning hours with the majority of the enormous naval assault on the enemy positions completed, the assault onto the beaches of the Normandy coast was about to begin. Imagine sitting at your gunner’s position waiting for the orders to make way toward the beaches, your LCIL loaded with troops and equipment. The great unknown lays a mere two thousand yards ahead, patience, training and prayer must have been the underlying theme.

Heading to the beach with your craft finding itself like everyone else that day under constant attack from a well-entrenched and highly equipped opposing force. From all views from your LCIL you witness the destruction of sister ships, men floating in the water, some alive, some drowned and some killed by either machine gun fire or artillery shell.

The beach is only 300 yards ahead, onward and quickly toward the fast approaching shore, dropping the front ramp, soldiers inside clamoring to depart, the battle about raging. From your gunner’s chair you do your part, you provide supporting cover fire, you zero in on positions that have you in their sights. You have but one job to do and no matter what is happening in and around you and you must do it.

Engines whining at full throttle, the propellers dig deep into the water to pull the LCIL in reverse, the battle around you does not stop once you unload your cargo of soldiers. Men who only minutes ago shared a smoke or found solace in prayer are either fighting their way upon a beach or for many the fight has already ended.

It is one thing to have gone to the beach once, but some of the navy personnel on the landing crafts and LCILs had to do it over and over during that first important day and the days that followed.

Seventy-eight years have passed since that day. The son rarely speaks about that day, and it was something that had to be done. Asking no praise for his part in D-Day, he keeps his memories to himself.

Like father, like son is the obvious question, yet it is also the answer. From that simple handwritten letter of recommendation in 1912; I find this quote most apt: “You may rely upon him with confidence to serve you to the best of his abilities.”

I have omitted their names by my choice, out of respect for the trust placed in me by simply having the privilege to see their documents and photographs. Just a story of a father long passed and his surviving son from a box filled with old photographs and letters.

Lest we forget!

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