Special to The Beacon Herald
Eight years old and listening to the radio back in 1939, I heard the announcer saying: “Only 21 years since World War One and now war is starting up all over again.” I especially remember the Russian war against Finland because our teacher in Grade 3 had just come back from visiting her family who lived in Helsinki, Finland. Later, the Russians became our friends against Hitler. The scary point came on June 22, 1940, when France surrendered to Nazi Germany. After a radio news broadest, I was so frightened, I started to cry. My mother comforted me saying, “Don’t worry, Bruce. If Germany tried to invade Canada, the Americans would step in and stop them.”
With this consolation I took my toy Hawker Hurricane and flew in my imagination over England and shot down every Messerschmidt the Germans flew over England.
In 1941, I still remember the Perth Regiment soldiers. I was on Downie Street, astonished to see them marching before their departure to England and wondered why some of the women were weeping. Our Perth Regiment became an attack regiment in Italy, which helps to explain why 25 per cent of those young men never came back to Stratford; the national average was five and a half percent.
Next came the shattering news on Dec. 7 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. I can still hear my grandmother say, “With America on our side, we will win the war.” Next came the celebrated victory of the Americans in the Japanese attack against Midway Island. As kids, we now had our toy rifles and would play our war games against the enemy. Of course, we always won. Those were the days when Brunswick Street had kids in every other house. With cold weather and the snowy streets now hard packed by the slowly moving cars, with our sticks and puck, we could play road hockey. Never dreamed we’d see the day when mechanized plows would scrap away snow to expose the asphalt streets. In my day, sidewalks were still sacred and were cleared by horse and plow. Now even that is forever gone.
Come November 1942, the Americans invaded Algeria, where the Free French fought for seven days and then reversed to join the Allies. As a faithful Boy Scout, I marched with a thousand other Cub Scouts to the cenotaph on the Nov. 11 in 1943.
Every day, I would read in the Stratford Beacon Herald the battles described and rejoiced with others as the Allies slowly drove the Nazis back. The high point was, of course, the invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944. plus all the other news about Russia’s successes and the air raids over Germany.
My most memorable event was when George Johnston came home in 1944. He was a tail gunner in a Halifax bomber that had been shot down over Germany and, for a while, was a prisoner-of-war. My best friend was Jim Johnston, his younger brother. Voila! In a prisoner of war exchange, he was released. I can still remember that unforgettable Sunday when George, our Brunswick Street hero, was home on a leave of absence. He drew a happy neighbourhood crowd.
Eventually, came V-E day — May 8, 1945 — when all of Stratford was downtown shoulder to shoulder, screaming with joy. Mayer Waldo Monteith organized our formal celebration five days later on Sunday — 6,000 people packed the Allman arena! The combined church choirs of Stratford sang the Hallelujah Chorus. Years later, I would meet Erika Heppe. She grew up in Southern Germany. She married John Johnston from Kitchener, who became a Canadian Presbyterian minister. Quite the revelation! Turns out they were just as glad as we were to see the war over and Hitler gone forever.
August 1945 saw the celebrations that came with the end of the Second World War due to the atomic bomb. Our city celebrated. One of the events was a swimming race in the Avon River, with crowds gathered by the shore. I joined in on that one and came in second. My prize was 10 cents, which I promptly spent on a butterscotch sundae at the Jumbo Ice Cream parlour up on Ontario Street. Once again that evening, we were crowded around city hall, where I had my first taste of trying to learn how to do the barn dance. For a while, I was sufficiently patriotic to belong to the Sea Cadets.
Added celebrations came on Labour Day, when the Rotary Club sponsored the soap-box derby. Another opportunity for everybody to rejoice and release those pent-up feelings. In my racing category, I came in second and won $15. Foo Pauli came in first. His father ran a meat store at 37 Ontario St. I think the Rotary successes back in 1945 can be explained in part by a crowd who still wanted to celebrate those six years of pent-up emotions. Labour Day was once again a spillover for the need to rejoice about the end of war. Well, that’s the way I perceived it. Looking back over those days eventually led me to write an autobiography. Stratford seventy-five years ago is still as fresh in my memories as yesterday.
Bruce Woods is the Stratford author who wrote Between Two Women: A Stratford Story.