world war II veteran service remembrance day

Remembering the Veterans who didn’t serve on the Frontlines

“We should endeavour to educate our younger people to know what it has meant and what has gone.”

Those are the words my grandfather, Norman MacPhee, shared with a reporter more than three decades ago. He passed away when I was in elementary school, but a few years ago I discovered the audio of his interview about World War II, Remembrance Day, and the importance of honouring those events.

My grandfather was like a lot of other soldiers whose stories we often hear. Being “young and wanting to get into the action,” my grandfather volunteered for both the Navy and the Airforce in 1940; he says he was happy to join “whichever one called first.”

My grandfather was also like a lot of other soldiers whose stories we don’t often hear. He didn’t see combat.

“Everybody who volunteered to go into the service didn’t see action,” he says with slight laugh on the recording. “Some of us saw very little in that respect.”

He was called up by the Airforce, but spent nearly three years “knocking around Canada and Newfoundland” because he was already an electrician. “Having a skill, the younger boys coming out of schools and that, they could train them for air crew no problem, but those of us that had trades, they required that also.”

“Most of us were itching to get over there,” he shares, perhaps a tad wistfully. “In Newfoundland I was fortunate. Besides my trade and running a section down there, I was with search and rescue. We flew a lot. We flew as gunners on submarine patrol. They dropped lots of depth charges; not always sure there was a submarine there, but assumed there was. They think they sunk a few of them.”

“We lived in the bush for one time from the day after New Year’s to St. Patrick’s Day. Some of our aircraft were down, we had to put new engines in them and whatnot. So there was some excitement.”

His desire to serve overseas did not fade over time. When the Airforce no longer needed pilots, he was content to be an air gunner.

“It was almost 1945 by then, so I volunteered for the Pacific theatre of war, which never came to pass,” he says.

Listening to his interview and remembering the few times I spoke with him about his time in the service, I feel like he was somewhat disappointed, maybe even almost embarrassed, that he never served overseas like so many of his friends. It’s not that I think he wished to have witnessed what they did, but rather felt a type of survivor’s guilt that he couldn’t help carry that burden with them.

I wonder if it was harder right after the war, when people might have had a better understanding of the enormity of the war effort and the various roles played, or if became more pronounced years later, as generations who didn’t experience it first-hand started to see all soldiers as having lived the same story. Perhaps it is part of the reason so many veterans, and active service personnel, shy away from the word hero.

Yet every person who steps up to volunteer is equal. There will always be those soldiers, who in times of war or in times of peace, are not on the front lines. I am as thankful for their service as I am for those who perished in the line of duty. Today, I remember those men and women, and my grandfather, for their willingness to serve, and being humble enough to do whatever needs to be done to keep others from harm, even if it means staying out of the spotlight.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more She Said columns.

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