There aren’t many left

Regional commentary by Joe McWilliams

It’s getting harder to find veterans of foreign conflicts that we haven’t already interviewed. That is probably a good thing.

In the 1990s, when I started doing this job, there were a lot of Second World War veterans. A whole generation of people, it seemed, had been involved in that conflict in one way or another. Since then, not so much. A small conflict here and there for Canadian forces, but nothing large-scale.

One thing that has always impressed me is the big spread the South Peace News does of veterans’ photos. It appears every year at this time. Slave Lake doesn’t have such an archive, or doesn’t seem to. It’s a struggle around here to find photos, or stories about veterans. There haven’t been that many of them, for one thing. Archival records don’t fall into place by themselves. It takes a consistent effort over time, probably some money and of course a safe way to store such records.

But look who’s talking. Our own archive system at the Lakeside Leader is full of holes like a chunk of Swiss cheese. When you go leafing through those old papers, you find everything but the thing you are looking for. For example, I knew that through the 1990s I had done at least one interview of a veteran each year in late October or early November. I remember many of them. Leo Boisvert served as an aircraft mechanic, for example, during WWII. Elmer Johnson of Widewater was another veteran I interviewed. Frank Knahs of Smith had been in the engineering corps in the Korean War, crawling around no-man’s land at night, defusing bombs and the like. He didn’t like to talk about it much. ‘He lost a lot of his buddies’ his wife Alice told me.

Fred Bittman was another Korean War vet I interviewed.

And let’s not forget Archibald ‘Shorty’ Jackson, who served in both World Wars, getting wounded a couple of times. But the story I was looking for last week was that of Edmond ‘Edmo’ Gagne of Slave Lake. He was actually involved in the Normandy invasion in June of 1944. He told me about it in an interview, which appeared in these pages sometime in the 1990s. But could I find it? I could not.

I didn’t find the story I’d written, but it turns out Gagne was one of a group of Métis veterans who took part in a ceremony in Normandy at Juno Beach in 2009. According to an article published at metisveterans.ca, he was part of the ‘second wave’ on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He survived the experience, but carried a piece of shrapnel in his skull for the rest of his life.

And how about Harry Kurowski of Widewater? He had the bad luck of being in Poland when Hitler and Stalin decided to carve it up and then the Germans rolled over the whole thing and attacked the Soviet Union. Harry’s story was probably the most bizarre and dramatic of any of the veterans I interviewed over those years. How he survived a Soviet prison camp, frostbite, starvation, escape….it boggles the mind. Thousands didn’t, but he got out of the country and joined the Free Polish Army. He ended up as a tailgunner in a Wellington bomber and survived a crash after the plane got hit. Harry had been a member of the Royal Canadian Legion for 48 years in 1994 at the time of the interview.

There aren’t many of these people left. Veterans Affairs Canada estimated 48,000 Second World War veterans were living in 2018, and their average age was 93.

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