Remembering Canada’s hometown heroes

Parks Canada's Hometown Heroes program is part of the lead-in to Canada's 150th anniversary celebrations

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hometown heroesSAINT JOHN, NB July 19, 2015/ Troy Media/ – “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

We’re accustomed to hearing these words of remembrance from Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen in the sharp air of Nov. 11. Thanks to a national initiative by Parks Canada, the spirit of year-round remembrance that Binyon wrote about is being revived this summer, as families gather to remember Canada’s Hometown Heroes.

The Hometown Heroes program is part of the lead-in to Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations. Parks Canada staff plan to hold ceremonies at several national historic sites this summer to honour local veterans.

The ceremony held recently in Saint John, N.B., was a testament to how much we, as a nation, have to remember.

Canadians have earned a reputation for serving at “the sharp end” in international conflicts for more than 100 years. New Brunswickers have often been on the front lines of those engagements. The veterans honoured by Parks Canada exemplified that.

Capt. E. Rae Jones, who commanded “D” Company, 1st Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment during the Battle at Audregnies, is regarded as the first Canadian killed in active service during the First World War. His death occurred so early in that bitter conflict that his enemies led the British survivors in a military funeral, complete with three volleys of rifle fire, in honour of his bravery.

Pilot Officer Duncan Hewitt was the first Canadian to die in the Second World War’s Battle of Britain, lost in an attempt to shoot down an enemy bomber off the coast of England.

Nursing Sister Anna Irene Stamers was murdered with 233 other nurses, doctors and patients when the First World War German submarine U-86 torpedoed the Canadian hospital ship HMHS Llandovery Castle. This atrocity violated the international laws of war and the standing orders of the German navy. The submarine’s captain tried to cover it up by ramming the lifeboats and machine-gunning survivors. The nursing sisters were lost when their lifeboat sank.

Able Seaman Bob Squires was luckier. As a young man, working in the shipyards of Saint John, he helped convert the Australian passenger liner Jervis Bay into an armed merchant cruiser assigned to protect Second World War convoys of men and munitions bound for Europe. Later, Squires was serving on HMS Jervis Bay when the convoy it was guarding was attacked by the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. The cruiser’s captain, Edward Fergen, ordered the convoy to scatter and ran straight at the Admiral Scheer, holding its fire for nearly an hour and allowing 32 convoy ships to escape. When the Jervis Bay went down, Squires was one of the only survivors.

The ceremony was held outdoors, in a spacious Parks Canada tent. As these biographies were read aloud by sometimes tearful parks service staff, one could sense a change in the audience. The hush grew deeper and more reflective; and as the families of each soldier, sailor, nursing sister or airman stepped forward to receive a memorial plaque and a rose, the applause rose louder and prouder.

And then, the living veterans were honoured: two tall and dignified men, both 95, each a memorial to terrible circumstances and remarkable feats of courage.

Gunner Charles Rae was a D-Day veteran who fought from the beaches of Normandy into Nazi Germany. He was recently named a knight in the French National Order of the Legion of Honour for his contribution to the liberation of France.

Arthur Pottle served with the Canadian-American First Special Service Force, better known as the Devil’s Brigade. Pottle and 47 surviving veterans of the force were recently awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal of Honour in Washington, D.C..

The applause for each of these hometown heroes was thunderous, while the traditional moment of silence observed afterwards seemed especially poignant against the background sounds of a sunny summer day.

It wasn’t the sort of remembrance service we, as Canadians, are used to; it was more personal, focusing on individuals rather that Canada’s collective effort. That was the point, and it worked.

I think Binyon would have been proud.

Eric Marks is a former opinion page editor. He lives in Saint John.

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