I can well remember the trunk.
There it sat, in my parents’ attic, surrounded by the odds and ends of life that were relegated to that room; it was a large, gray steamer trunk that had been back and forth across the Atlantic many times, before finding itself in our house.
In our family, it was always referred to as “the treasure trunk.” As a child, I was never too sure what was contained in its depths. Furtive glances into it on the odd occasion when it was opened by my parents revealed that the “treasure” was not of the gold silver and jewel variety. In this trunk there was an abundance of old letters, many dusty, brown-edged pictures, several old books and magazines, and innumerable boxes of souvenirs. Generally, the trunk was a repository of all the remnants of my parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives.
Our family moved to Hope in 1966, and the trunk followed us through a succession of moves, until it was finally deposited on the cement basement floor of our home on Hazel Street in 1975. There it stayed, silent, gathering dust, remaining largely unopened, hearing the rhythm and pattern of our lives pass by. In the cellar, the trunk heard my siblings as we left for each other’s wedding, brought home our new-born babies, and finally, attended each of our parent’s funerals.
In 1992, the trunk came to my house, and it was practically a year later before I began to sift through the contents. Slowly, I came to understand how appropriate was the name, “the treasure trunk,” for the letters therein gave me a window on the world of the past, a world that is no longer there.
Perhaps the most moving letters were those written by my father and his mother while he was involved in the Second World War. He joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1941, and in early 1943 had gone overseas to the European theatre of war.
My grandmother’s letters to him are desperate, worrying ones, in which she wished for the day to hasten when she could see her only son again, prepare his favourite meals, and simply relish his presence amongst his close family.
A letter from dad to his family written the day before D-Day, is particularly poignant. Without mentioning the inevitable conflict, he told his family that he was “going in” with their photographs in his breast pocket, and that if he were to die (he was 22 years old), a trust fund was to be set up for his newly-born niece.
Dad’s role the next day was to drive the landing crafts from the ships to the beaches of Normandy while under enemy attack. No one can really say what horrors he experienced, but a letter written by my father in the dark of night after the beachhead had been established reveals much. It says:
“This is to tell you that I managed to get through the first day of the invasion of France without a scratch, but I have only God to thank for getting us out of that hell hole.
“We were carrying in the third wave, reserves for the assault groups who landed just ahead. There were no enemy planes around although there was one shot down in flames – it might have been enemy or allied. The seas were very rough and most of the soldiers were very sick.
“When we got to the beach, or at least one hundred yards off, we saw that the minefield and beach obstacles hadn’t been cleared, so it meant we had to pray to God and try and go through. Jerry mortar fire was very intense and there was a big gun, I think something like a six inch, that was lobbing the odd shell in our vicinity. The odd machine gun was going too. I was too scared to either pee or poo.
“We zigged and zagged around most of the mines, but eventually could go no further because of a mine on either side of us and three mines in front. The bowman and I got into the water up to our waists and the soldiers started to leave. One of them was killed about five feet away from me…it was awful. Another was killed a little nearer the water’s edge and one badly wounded in the craft but he went on. One of my seamen was wounded by shrapnel on the head and shoulder by a mortar exploding two or three feet away. One of our craft was blown up about 10 yards away. One man very seriously wounded – left on the beach with first aid party – the remainder got back somehow or other.
“We were in the middle of that … mine field for 25 minutes. God got us out. My Bible was the only thing that wasn’t ruined. The obstacles … were made of railway lines with the mines on the top. You know it was a horrible sensation in the water with mines about two feet from you and trip wires in the water to set them off, all around your legs.
“No, it was a ghastly business but it had to be done, and I was scared stiff through and through. My men were wonderful. The best in the world and they were magnificent but it was touch and go for a while.”
Upon reading this letter, I was struck at how very scared my father was, but how he went ahead and did what he had to do, like thousands of others on that day. I was also interested to see how he, who always called himself “a recalcitrant Anglican,” acknowledged the Almighty as being the main reason for his eluding death.
During the past few weeks, anyone watching the media could not help but know of the celebrations associated with the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Perhaps this letter, taken from a rather nondescript old “treasure trunk,” helps to put a human face on the sacrificial and personal cost that is war’s toll.