The Second World War left Russell Colombo a haunted man. The one-time tank commander could be distant from his family, would wake late at night shouting and once told his children a graphic anecdote about kicking a German soldier to death.
But more than two decades after his death in 1986, his son uncovered another war story that offered a glimpse of a completely different side to Mr. Colombo's experience at the front.
Steve Colombo, a provincial climate researcher in Northern Ontario, wanted to learn more about his father's wartime experiences and dug a decades-old letter out of a box of his papers. Four pages long and signed only "Frank," the missive had been sent by someone in Munich just a few years after the end of the war.
There were few details to identify the mysterious sender, but hints of a warm friendship with the elder Mr. Colombo. In it, Frank described the penuries of a country still picking itself up after being shattered by conflict and revealed that Mr. Colombo had provided him with the money he needed to start graduate school, where he intended to take a PhD in Slavic languages.
He expressed both gratitude and embarrassment for a care package of food his Canadian correspondent had sent him.
"I beg you, you will have much expenditures and will put also my mind into dissension. I thank you very much of course, I thank you in the name of my little sister, but more I cannot do at the moment," he wrote.
Near the end of the letter, however, was one very surprising revelation: the sender had been a paratrooper in the luftwaffe. Mr. Colombo was determined to track him down.
Mr. Colombo found a university in Munich that offered a Slavic languages program and searched its doctoral theses. He eventually came up with one name: Franz (Frank) Sikora.
Next, he tracked down a book written in the 1970s by the same man and called every academic cited in its bibliography until he found one who had Mr. Sikora's telephone number. When Mr. Colombo called, Mr. Sikora knew immediately who he was.
Now 86, the paratrooper-turned-academic filled in the younger Mr. Colombo on the details of that long-ago friendship. In one of the final battles of the war, Mr. Sikora's unit had fought against the elder Mr. Colombo's tanks in northern Germany. The following day, the Third Reich fell.
The Germans lined up at the end of an abandoned airfield, their weapons stacked in front of them and Mr. Colombo drove up to accept their surrender. Mr. Sikora, who spoke English, interpreted for his commanders. Over the next week or so, the two men worked closely together as the Canadian troops processed the Germans, sharing long conversations about their post-war plans and what they planned to do after leaving the army.
When Mr. Colombo's unit returned to Holland, he wrote down his address in Owen Sound, Ont., on a piece of paper and slipped it to Mr. Sikora under the guise of a handshake.
"They had to keep it a secret – it was a serious offence to fraternize with an enemy soldier," says Mr. Colombo. "Despite that, he felt that it was the right thing to do to befriend this German man and help him out."
The two men exchanged letters for a few years. Although they would eventually lose touch, Mr. Sikora never stopped thinking about Mr. Colombo and even wrote about him in his memoirs.
Steve Colombo returned the favour, writing a book about how finding Mr. Sikora helped him learn more about his father, titled A Letter from Frank.
"To still find out things about my dad that we never knew – it's an incredible gift," he says. "I think in sending Frank that care package, he was sending us a message that we would receive 65 years later. It came full circle."