A generation’s remarkable sacrifices

Those who fought in and lived through the Second World War laid the foundation for the vibrant, inclusive country we enjoy today

remembrance day second world warRED DEER, Alta. Nov. 10, 2016/Troy Media? – Too rarely do we thank our parents ­– or for that matter, the whole generation that included our parents.

The Canadian baby boomers’ upbringing was strange alchemy: part Cold War paranoia, part unbridled optimism, and a mess of traditional and emerging values all brewed in one cauldron. Blame our parents. Thank our parents.

We were moulded by the hands, minds and demons of those who survived the Second World War, a time of devastating upheaval. Their perspectives on life were first formed during the Great Depression, then cast in the forge of war.

In all, 1.1 million Canadian men and women served in the war effort from 1939 to 1945. Of those who returned (and 45,000 did not), many were wounded, physically and emotionally.

Today we talk more openly about the devastating impact of post-traumatic stress disorder, and how to address it.

But two generations ago, discussions about mental health were most often unwelcome. Certainly the knowledge and resources available today were non-existent then.

So what did fathers haunted by their war experiences do? Many withdrew. Others drank. Still others were abusive toward family members — wives and children. Many were remote, violent, morose and sought solace — or oblivion — in a bottle.

One American report claims that these men, often so taciturn about their experiences, suffered horribly. A Bay Citizen and New America Media report from 2010 claimed that in California, the suicide rate for Second World War veterans was nearly four times that for their peers who did not serve. This generation that stood so strong to preserve world peace has paid an extraordinary price for more than 70 years.

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Their children knew, certainly, that their fathers were haunted; we could never understand how deeply or why.

My father-in-law, Warren Keefe, served as a Lancaster mid-gunner, flying night missions over the heart of Germany during the Second World War. He had lived a relatively carefree life to that point. He was athletic, bright, handsome and peaceful by nature.

After the war, he was always haunted by a quirk of fate.

That strange twist allowed him to survive the war, but to him it never seemed like grace. It was something for which he forever felt guilty, even if he knew that was irrational.

His last bombing mission was harrowing. Spotlighted by enemy gunners over Germany, the pilot was forced to take evasive action. He dropped the plane out of the cone of light in a sudden dive. The move saved the plane and the crew, but it burst Warren’s left ear drum. When they arrived back at their base, he was grounded because of the damage to his ear.

Soon after, his crew, with a replacement mid-gunner, left on another mission. They never returned. Warren was sent home.

Warren died earlier this year, just short of his 95th birthday. He defied all the odds to live a long life. He survived Nazi flak. He survived depression. He survived an unhappy career that he endured to provide for his family. He survived cancer. He learned to live alone after his wife died of cancer, just as she retired. He learned to live without sight and with faulty hearing as he aged.

But he never truly understood how much his children and their whole generation owed him and his peers.

It should not be lost on those few of Warren’s generation who remain that they shaped the baby boomers and the world we have prospered in.

Overcoming monumental tragedy and defeating unspeakable evil, our parents chose with optimism to have big families, and to raise those children with a new, forward-thinking perspective even as they wrestled with their own demons. By comparison with their upbringing, we were remarkably pampered — by our parents, the inclusive education system they established, and the society and economy they laid the foundations for.

The 20-year post-war baby boom in Canada resulted in 8.2 million births, an average of 412,000 new Canadians a year. The average family had 3.7 children (families of the 21st century average 1.7 children). By 2011, according to Statistics Canada, there were 9.6 million Canadians in the baby boom cohort (including immigrants born in the same period).

So by 1965, baby boom children comprised almost half this country’s population.

And even as this new century dawned, baby boomers represented almost a third of the Canadian population.

We helped our parents out of their darkness by our very presence. Then we were encouraged to thrive because of the extraordinary sacrifices they made.

Lest we forget, thank you.

John Stewart is Editorial Vice President with Troy Media Digital Solutions Ltd. and Editor-in-Chief of Troy Media. John is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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