In June of 1948, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King officially opened the doors to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, with a mission to treat First World War and Second World War veterans. On Tuesday, the hospital celebrates its 70th anniversary.
“Sunnybrook Hospital symbolizes the sacrifices made by those members of the armed forces whom this hospital aims to serve and seeks to honour,” Mackenzie King said at the time.
Sunnybrook has since expanded to become a general hospital, but it continues to house Canada’s largest veterans care unit, with 475 veterans from the Second World War and the Korean War under its care. The average age of veterans is 94. These are some of their stories.
Name: John Milsom
Military Title: Long Range Coastal Fighter Pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force
Before the war, John Milsom recalls driving his motorcycle up to Baker Field in Toronto’s Yorkdale with his best friend Bruce. It was then a civilian, privately owned airfield and Mr. Milsom was curious about flying.
A few years later, Mr. Milsom went on to fly one of the fastest aircraft in existence at the time, a wooden bomber-aircraft named the Mosquito. He said he trained as a general reconnaissance pilot, and partook in countless missions during World War II as part of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“I went to flying school, got my wings … I took just about every course in between so I was never idle,” Mr. Milsom recalled. His first mission, he said, was part of the North African Campaign in 1941.
He ended his military career with over 600 hours of flying, all carefully documented in his logbook. His last mission was to escort the King of Norway back to safety in Oslo after the war ended in May of 1945, he said. For Mr. Milsom, his service to Canada was about doing “whatever was necessary.”
He also acted as a flying instructor at various points during the war. He once taught at the famous Turnberry golf course in Scotland, where he met his wife Judith, then a meteorologist with the Britain’s Royal Air Force.
“I joined the forces because naturally it was something we felt that we needed to do, it was an adventure,” Ms. Milsom said, describing the wartime as worrying, but intriguing.
The couple were married in England in June of 1945. Ms. Milsom recalls wearing a simple, blush-pink dress. It was a wartime wedding, and “nothing like a wedding gown was available,” she said. “Everything, even clothing, was rationed.”
Still, it was a new adventure for the couple, who moved back to Toronto after the war to start anew. Mr. Milsom went on to study mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto.
“We started from scratch in Canada after the war, but people here in Canada were all very good to us,” Mr. Milsom said. He added he always found good help and accommodation, even today at Sunnybrook Hospital, where he has lived for the last three years.
Name: Jean Vanwart
Military Title: Private with the Canadian Women’s Army Corps
When news of the war broke out, Jean Vanwart (née Coulter) knew she had a duty to help.
“We were all interested in saving the country, and we all wanted to do what we could,” Ms. Vanwart said. Then 22 years old, Ms. Vanwart went to Carleton University in Ottawa to sign up for the Women’s Army Corps, without telling her father.
“He was quite proud of me all this time, he sent my picture to the papers and I was so surprised because I thought he wouldn’t think it was lady-like to join the army,” Ms. Vanwart recalled.
After that, she became part of the driving unit in Ottawa, often travelling between the capital region and Gatineau, Que., as part of her job. “I drove the cutest little Jeep you can imagine,” she said, and added she also steered big trucks and station wagons.
In 1942, Ms. Vanwart was sent overseas to England. She worked as a clerk typist, but recalled she wasn’t satisfied with her position, and instead transferred to be part of the driving unit across the street. This is where she met her husband, Elgin Vanwart, after he was wounded on the battlefield and sent to England for treatment.
She fondly remembers moments when she and Mr. Vanwart would ride around on bikes across England. Once, they rode by a church with its door open. “We went in, and there was a sunbeam straight down to the altar,” Ms. Vanwart said.
“When we came out, [Elgin] said to me ‘When is it going to be?’ And I said, ‘When we go home I guess.’” They returned to Toronto in 1946, and married shortly after.
Mr. Vanwart spent his final years at Sunnybrook alongside Ms. Vanwart, before he died in October of last year.
Ms. Vanwart’s service during World War II is documented in a book titled, Extraordinary Women, Extraordinary Times, by Sherry Pringle. Though, she maintains there was nothing extraordinary about her service.
“We joined up, we did our job and nobody seemed to think anything of it,” Ms. Vanwart said.
Ms. Vanwart now spends most of her time at Sunnybrook painting. She was also a flag-bearer for the Invictus Games, held last September in Toronto. Her only regret, she joked, was never getting the chance to meet Prince Harry.
Name: Ron Beal
Military Title: Private
Ron Beal was part of the military before the Second World War began, and was automatically enlisted in 1939. He was part of the Bugle Band, his wife Marjorie Beal recalled as he sat by her side.
“That was his interest, music and the military,” Ms. Beal said, recalling much of her husband’s life as he is too frail to speak. The war brought along difficult times for Mr. Beal. He was part of the Dieppe Raid, which saw more than 1,900 troops captured by Germany as prisoners of war. Mr. Beal was one of them.
“If you weren’t killed on the beach in Dieppe, you were taken prisoner,” Ms. Beal said, and that added her husband’s time at the prisoner of war camp was disturbing, but he remained hopeful that he would be freed. One day, Mr. Beal and the rest of prisoners awoke to no guards on the premises.
“All of a sudden, American jeeps came up and [they were] loaded with loaves of white bread,” Ms. Beal recalled. “They said ‘Boys, for you the war is over, come and get some bread.’” The bread, Mr. Beal had told her, tasted just like cake.
Mr. Beal was then treated in a hospital in England for three months before returning to Canada. Later, he discovered that he had developed what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder from the war.
Upon his return, he met Ms. Beal in Toronto, and they were married shortly after.
“I liked him right away, and he never felt sorry for himself, he never dwelt on anything,” Ms. Beal said. “He was just so grateful to be home.”
Mr. Beal has lived in Sunnybrook for the last seven years. He has received care for his PTSD from psychologists at the hospital, and he often partakes in activities such as flower arranging or crocheting – a skill he picked up in the German PoW camp.
“[Crocheting] was the best therapy he could’ve used for himself,” Ms. Beal said, and added he practised it for years after the war, making blankets, shawls and scarves for his family members.
“Our life has been a very wonderful life. We’ve travelled extensively, we camped, we’ve been to so many places, a few cruises for a little bit of luxury,” Ms. Beal said. “We’ve had a life that I could say, ‘no regrets,’”
Ms. Beal said her and husband always made sure to have two things: faith in God and a good attitude.
“A good attitude – that pulls you through, and I believe that with all my heart,” she said.