Eric Bunnell's People: A time for memories

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Another Remembrance Day looms.


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When I was growing up in Vancouver, there still were veterans of the Boer War who attended the annual service downtown at Victory Square.

They have gone, as have veterans of the First World War. There are precious few veterans remaining from the Second World War. And our Korea vets are growing old as well.

But all will live on in our individual memories, as we collectively promise each year.


Not so long ago, the Times-Journal received an email.

“I wonder how I might find an old copy of the Times-Journal that contained an article about a pilot from St Thomas, Donald Macdonald, who was shot down during WW2,” queried Catherine Watts from Toronto.

“My dear mother-in-law, 100 years old, is recalling this friend from the past.”

Marie Watts celebrates her 99th birthday.SUBMITTED PHOTO
Marie Watts celebrates her 99th birthday.SUBMITTED PHOTO jpg, WD

Well, we all have loose ends we’d like to tie up, don’t we.

It has taken a bit of digging. While this newspaper from the day is held by both St. Thomas Public Library and the Elgin County Archives, there’s no index of stories.

The Elgin Military Museum has an extensive collection of binders detailing service of men and women from this community, but no entry for any Donald Macdonald. And an online search of official records, unsuccessful.

Then, a breakthrough! Catherine writes again with a 1973 obituary she has found for the St. Thomas airman’s mother, who had removed to Calgary.

And Donald Macdonald, it turns out, actually was a Donald McDonald. And by stroke of luck, researcher Carol Van Harn included him in Elgin Genealogical Society’s ongoing indexing of births, deaths and marriages in the T-J. Not for any of those reasons but just because his name was there, in print, in 1942.


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On April 8, Pilot Officer Donald A. McDonald was named as one of a cadre of “Gallant Local Men (who) Rise to Defend Our Empire and Freedom” in an advertising feature promoting a new motion picture at the Capitol Theatre about the RCAF in wartime, Captains of the Clouds.

And, then, on June 27, after he was shot down defending a Ceylonese port against a Japanese air raid. He had claimed an enemy bomber when he, himself, was targeted, heavy damage to his plane covering him in oil.

“I passed over the harbour with all the ack-ack fire blazing away, and managed to make a forced landing in an open field,” the airman is quoted.

“I clambered out of the machine and made my way to a local hotel for a bath.”

Pre the war, he was friend of young Laura Marie Fowler and Catherine shares a picture of her mother-in-law and McDonald and a third, possibly taken as they larked in Port Stanley. “Marie loved to go dancing there,” Catherine says, although she also notes her mother-in-law says she couldn’t get the hang of tap dancing after Donald convinced her to join a local theatre group

But Marie met and married Christopher Watts, a British aircraft engineer stationed in St. Thomas. After the war, they moved to Montreal where he was posted. They eventually returned to St. Thomas, where they lived a happy, long marriage of 71 years until Chris’s death in 2012.

“The French-English strife became unpleasant, to say the least. So, they returned to St. Thomas and bought Marie’s childhood home at 93 Alma St. They completely renovated the house without help from a contractor or builder.


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“Chris and Marie were amazing gardeners. One day, Marie found a lead soldier while digging. It probably belonged to one of her younger brothers ….”

The lead soldier found in Marie Watt’s St. Thomas garden.SUBMITTED PHOTO
The lead soldier found in Marie Watt’s St. Thomas garden.SUBMITTED PHOTO jpg, WD

An older brother, Wilfred, also an airman, died in the war and is buried overseas. Two other brothers also served.

Donald also lived a long family life until his death in Fergus, Ont., in 2005.

Today, Marie lives quietly in St. Thomas. She hasn’t been well, of late, and son Ron, Catherine’s husband, and a brother from Ottawa have been taking turns staying with her.

And the 1942 article she recalled is waiting for when she feels better.


Another way to remember

Question: True or false? Military combat engineers are responsible for protecting the troops either by using fortifications or by designing new technology and weaponry.

Answer: True! Military engineers also construct and repair bases, airfields, roads, bridges, and hospitals as well as clearing routes, harbours and ports.

And I’m embarrassed. Even though I live in the hometown of 31 Combat Engineer Regiment (The Elgins), I got it wrong. I didn’t realize the huge extent of the job.

But that’s just the point of a new Remembrance quiz developed by the St. Thomas Public Library.

“How much do you really know about the wars that involved Canada,” the library asks.

“Let’s take a moment to remember what so many young people gave up so we could enjoy the rights and freedoms we have today.”

The quiz isn’t St. Thomas and Elgin specific, but it is a broad introduction to Canadian military history.


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This year is the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and as it, especially, and the First World War before fade in memory, the library has developed reading lists for children, young adult and adult readers to better understand the history of where we are today.

And, hopefully, to guide us into the future.

Explains the library as it suggests books about the Second World War: “We examine history to learn how to shape our future.”

The wide-ranging lists which tell of men, women and children include two local entries of note.

St. Thomas educator and military historian Wayne Neal’s 2003 tribute, Five Boys from Myrtle Street, is about five pals from a St. Thomas neighbourhood who became airmen comrades-at-arms in the Second World War. Not all returned.

Wayne’s book later became a play staged by students at Central Elgin Collegiate Institute.

Pamela Walsh’s 2002 book, Southwold Remembers … The War Years, details a small rural community’s sacrifice sending 546 residents overseas in the First and Second world wars, and the Korean War.

The lists even recommend appropriate readings for children as young as six, who are offered award-winning A Poppy is To Remember, a 2004 illustrated book by Heather Patterson.

It is a gentle introduction. From an online review:

“An excellent book with paintings depicting a little of war but in a gentle way.

“The book explains what Remembrance Day is about and why people wear poppies in November in a simple format with only one or two sentences per page.


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“However, at the back of the book, the author describes in more detail the wars that Canada participated in and the events that surrounded them.”

The library’s website is

Remembrance Day at St. Joe’s

As are just about all others, the annual Remembrance Day service at St. Joseph’s Catholic high school is very different this year.

Because of COVID-19, various elements of the service are being pre-recorded and it will be posted online. But also because public participation in so many other services has been restricted, St. Joe’s is sharing the school’s student observances via YouTube.

It’s been a bit of a juggle, says history teacher Greg Reynaert, who is convening. The school is divided into two student cohorts who trade days for in-class and online learning.

But important.

“We really focus a lot on Remembrance Day here at St. Joe’s and especially the inclusion of the students in the service — military cadets, reservists, bagpiper, trumpet player, the students in Mrs. Ursic’s class that write original poems, etc.

“It really is awesome to see.”

The poems from English teacher Marianne Ursic’s students are published annually in the Times-Journal, as well.

“So getting everything organized has been keeping us busy, but the kids have been great and are really excited about it,” Greg says.

“When it is all done, we will upload it to YouTube and then everyone can watch it. It is nice, too, because all of the people that usually come to our service (parents, relatives, etc.) that can’t come this year will be able to see it online.”


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A hot turkey sandwich

Susan McConnell and I met pretty much before we were born. Easy enough to do when, even though we both are just 39, we first had lunch together 41 years ago. The new math, don’t you know.

It was November 1979 at the old Clarke’s Restaurant in Aylmer, where Susan was ace editor of the local weekly and I, new town correspondent for this newspaper. And pretty much each fall, we returned to Aylmer and Clarke’s for an anniversary meal, until the resto (always pronounced, rightly or wrongly, as Clarkees) closed a couple of years ago. We decamped to Johnny’s across the street, where my hot turkey sandwich was every bit as good.

Sadly, though, not this year. Not with the COVID-19 craziness which has overtaken the town with anti-mask madness. I don’t know the connection, but Aylmer now has a higher rate of novel coronavirus infection than even Toronto.

Protesters claim God-given rights, although I always thought rights in this country are those recognized by a society which sees we’re all in this lifeboat called Canada, pulling together.

The protesters, I think, have jumped overboard. Which is their right, I suppose.

But threatening to swamp the rest of us, certainly isn’t.

Thankfully, the forecast for Friday calls for balmy weather. And Susan hasn’t yet put away her verandah for the year.

It won’t be as good as at Johnny’s but I think a hot turkey sandwich on the porch still will taste mighty fine!

Stay well.

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