We are more than 65 years past the end of the Second World War, and thousands of Canadian soldiers now in their late 80s and 90s are passing away. In June, my father was one of them.
Joe Andrews was a member of the Fourth Canadian Armoured Division Signals Corps. He spent five years overseas, from 1941 to 1946, in England, France, the Netherlands and Germany. But as much as the war itself, it was related events before and after the war that made lasting impressions on him.
My father immigrated to Canada in 1928 from Glasgow, Scotland, and was proud to fight for his new country. His father and his grandfather had fought for Britain in the First World War.
Waiting to be shipped to Europe in 1941, my father became prouder than ever of his new country after an incident in Debert, N.S. His unit had planned a night out on the town, including watching a film at a local cinema. The soldiers piled in and sat down, ready for the show to start, but one of their own, a black soldier, was escorted by cinema staff to the balcony.
His fellow Canadian soldiers would have none of it, coming to his rescue when they realized what was happening. Unless he was allowed to sit with them on the main floor, they said, they would leave the cinema at once. The black soldier joined his buddies again. The film started, and the Canadians went off to fight in Europe as one and all.
During the latter stages of the war, my father was billeted with a Dutch family in Vught, the Netherlands. After the war, my father and the Dutch family maintained their cross-ocean correspondence, and the family visited Canada for vacations with my parents.
In 1995, my father, along with thousands of other Canadians, was invited to the Netherlands for the Welcome Back Veterans program to mark the 50th anniversary celebrations of the end of the war. His friends told him he must come.
Both Mom and Dad travelled overseas. My father wore his ribbons and medals on his navy blazer. It was his first trip back to continental Europe since the war had ended.
We watched his trip unfold on television here in Canada. We saw the massive parades in Apeldoorn with thousands of Dutch men, women and children crowding the parade route, wildly cheering and thanking the Canadian soldiers, now slower and often stooped but still looking smart and proud as they marched or waved from flatbed trucks. They were feted, hosted, toasted and made to feel special in ways most had probably never known or imagined.
Toward the end of the parade, crowds pressed forward onto the street from the sidewalks to the point where the veterans could march only in single file as people shook their hands and urged their children to touch the "liberators."
For my father, it was an experience like no other. He never felt like a war hero all those years since returning to Canada in 1946, but after his visit to Apeldoorn and the gratitude each and every Canadian soldier felt, he knew more than ever the profound difference he and his comrades had made in the war.
One particular experience helped him appreciate those common bonds even more.
Back in 1946, Dad had posed for a photo in a square in Almelo with two Dutch girls. Here was the tall, handsome, 23-year-old Canadian soldier standing between two young Dutch girls. He kept the photo with his war diaries.
Preparing for his visit back to the Netherlands 50 years later, he asked his friend in Holland if there was any way to find out if the two women were still living and where they might be.
His friend had the photo reproduced in the local paper. Both women were alive and again joined my father, this time for the festivities and celebrations in Almelo on May 5, 1995. They posed once more for a photo, hand in hand. One of the women visited Canada the following year and toured Ontario with my parents.
Toward the very end of his life, the war came full circle for my dad. Living in a retirement home after my mother passed away, he became friends with the man across the hall, Henry, who had fought in the German army. Dad and Henry would eat together at lunch or dinner, exchanging war stories. Dad told Henry – as he had told me – how much he admired the toughness and bravery of the German army.
Henry, for whom Remembrance Day at the home was always somewhat awkward, would tell my father, "I'm glad we didn't have to meet during the war, Joe." Sometimes they didn't say a lot at lunch, but they shared a bond.
Out of war came such friendships and fellowship. The war was won for Canada on the battlefield, but lessons in the importance of shared humanity in the cause of freedom, first on the way to Europe, then in the massive and joyful celebration 50 years later in the Netherlands, helped my father appreciate his contribution. At the end of his life, his friend was his former enemy.
Dad never thought himself a hero. He was a proud Canadian who simply fought for his country. "It was the right thing to do," he said. In Apeldoorn, Vught and Almelo, he came to more fully realize the enormity of that contribution by hundreds of thousands of Canadians. He remembered those few brief – but unforgettable – days for the rest of his life.
Ken Andrews lives in London, Ont.