“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
That 14-word passage, from the Gospel according to John, is heard often, particularly when we mark Remembrance Day.
It must be especially heartfelt by those aging men and women who went to war, returned to their loved ones, then attended memorial ceremonies November after November.
Though I’ve been writing all my life, I can’t reminisce about the horror of serving on battlefields, aboard warships, or flying over foreign lands.
I’m from a lucky generation that didn’t need to go to war.
I was born one year, three months and eight days before the Second World War began and was a seven-year-old when it ended. I had just turned 12 when the Korean War broke out and had barely reached 15 when it was over.
But childhood memories of war do remain.
If it’s okay to identify favourite warships, mine were the corvettes, frigates, minesweepers and subchasers that came into Pictou Harbour when we were spending our summers at the family cottage in the Rustico area of Pictou Landing, on the point overlooking the harbour’s entrance.
The Canadian Navy made valuable use of the harbour for various reasons during the war years and, as they sailed in or out, a small kid from New Glasgow used to run down to the bank and holler loudly, “anchor here.” More often than not, those ships did anchor in front of our eyes after coming in past the lighthouse.
When I got a little older, I heard the adults telling the story about the night war broke out and a German lumber boat was tied up at the pier in the Landing. When news of battle reached those aboard, the ship made such a fast exit that it dragged some of the wharf with it.
After all these years, I don’t think I ever heard if that story was factual or was one that expanded in telling and retelling. Anyway, it was always interesting to hear.
Then there’d be the mornings when the older folks gathered around to talk about the German submarines that were chased out of the harbour overnight.
Those things remain in my summertime thoughts three-quarters of a century after the war ended.
There were also wintertime experiences.
Like the air raid sirens that sounded many nights, when my mother would turn out the lights and rush my younger sister and me into the bathroom, and wait for the warning sounds to go away.
There were the newscasts on the radio, too. Our dad would tell us to be quiet so he could hear the latest wartime news from Europe. When the war ended, I thought it would mean there would be no more newscasts to keep us quiet. Strange thoughts for someone who would spend a lifetime in the news business.
Pretty innocent stuff, eh?
Well, it wasn’t innocent in our dad’s generation. Also a New Glasgow native, Graham Townsend was born on New Year’s Eve in 1898. That made him 15 when “the war to end all wars” started in 1914.
Too young to serve?
On the record, yes. Off the record, nothing was going to keep him from enlisting and going off to war, not if he could help it.
He tried to enlist in New Glasgow, but being the son of a prominent veterinarian, he couldn’t deny being too young. So he took off for Halifax, where he said he was 16, and signed up.
He enlisted in the 36th Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery. Instead of being in school in New Glasgow, learning English and mathematics, he spent a few weeks at the Royal Military College, becoming a second lieutenant, taking courses in aeronautics, navigation, artillery observation, bombing and light machine gun engagement of air targets.
He was quickly posted across the ocean and became a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. He was almost immediately piloting a bomber in night bombing raids—still only 15.
On one night mission, he was returning from raids when he flew into heavy fog near Dover and crashed. It was just a hop, step and jump from the infamous White Cliffs of Dover. He woke up in a British hospital.
Within a few weeks, he was back in the air, continuing bombing raids until the war ended.
Dad was not unlike many veterans of that great war, keeping his bad memories within his heart and soul—memories of young Canadians all around him who lost their lives “over there.”
He had lost most of the normal teenage routines, but he came home.
He had taken so many photos during his wartime service, he had two scrapbooks filled with Canadian servicemen and wrecked aircraft. He never talked about the stories behind the photos.
But there became an interesting family discovery when Dad died in 1965.
As we went through his belongings, I found an old camera in his dresser, buried under clothes, perhaps purposely hidden and forgotten.
I went downtown to Waldren’s Studio, where John Skinner took me into the darkroom to open the camera. To our surprise, there was an old film in it. An even bigger surprise, the negatives were clear enough to see images of damaged planes.
While Dad and I had very different wartime experiences, we shared one thing together—attending Remembrance Day services at the cenotaph on the west side.
He was a proud veteran. I knew that without being told. I could see it in his eyes during those annual ceremonies. I said nothing; he said nothing. But we both knew the other’s thoughts.
Through my years at home, before he died at 66, silently, without words, he taught me the meaning of war.
He taught me, in his way, that there truly is “no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Those words must never be forgotten.