Remembrance Day 2023: Stephenson's war stories preserved in memoir
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
Remembrance Day was originally known as “Armistice Day”, and was first observed across the nations of the British Commonwealth in 1919 as a way of showing respect to all those who had fought in a war that, for a few short years, was known as “The War to End All Wars”.
There was a need for an annual acknowledgment of the monumental effort and sacrifice put forth during this world-wide war, and that need was recognized by King George V, who codified a new ritual by declaring that, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there would be, at the hour when the Armistice came into force, for the brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all normal activities, with the intention of affording an opportunity for the universal expression of perfect stillness in the thoughts of everyone as they concentrated on a reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.
The world soon learned that the reverberations of violence are a powerful force, and a war intended to be the end of war became the prelude to another. The second war to encompass the globe came with its own efforts, and its own sacrifices. Men and women across Canada gave their all in the effort to win World War II, and Remembrance Day became their day as well. It eventually expanded into a chance to honour all of the men and women who served Canada in times of war, times of conflict, and times of peace.
Huron County has given much of itself to war efforts over the past century, and our area is dotted with cenotaphs and memorials honouring our veterans and fallen soldiers. During the First World War, in 1916, the 161st Huron Battalion left the familiar amber of autumn fields and travelled to Halifax in preparation for the journey overseas. They arrived in Liverpool, England on Nov. 11, 1916, eventually ending up in the trenches of France. Some returned, and some did not. During World War II, not only was Clinton a top secret RADAR base, but the Goderich Airport was converted into British Commonwealth Flight Training School No. 12 and Port Albert hosted the Royal Air Force No. 31 Air Navigation School. Places like Goderich, Port Albert and Kingston were selected to train pilots due to their proximity to the Great Lakes, as they gave would-be pilots valuable experience in conditions approximating those they would encounter overseas.
My grandfather, Gordon Stephenson, enlisted to fight in World War II when he was 19 years old. He wanted to be a pilot - during basic training they told him he was going to be a navigator. He became a pilot anyway, and an excellent pilot at that. He, like many other young men who proved themselves adept pilots, went on to become an instructor, training many other young men in the art of flying before heading to the front himself. He was one of five young Canadians who were the first to be posted in Kingston as instructors, along with Don McCallum, Jack Clark, Ridley Doolittle and Wilf Madden.
I know these men’s names, and many other details of my grandfather’s time in the war, because he wrote a memoir about it, decades later. The book is called The War Years, and it is a handsome, slender volume containing stories offering a rare glimpse at a part of my family’s history that I would otherwise have never known. I was lucky to spend many years with my grandfather before he died in 2008, but in all that time he rarely spoke about that part of his life. The War Years is the space he made to preserve those stories, outside of his day-to-day life. It carries not only his story, but the stories of all those who impressed upon his memory during the war.
It is a remarkable book, as first-person accounts of war so often are. The War Years shows my grandfather as a younger man in circumstances that are, to me, unfathomable. Often, in his writing, he chose to highlight the odd bits of humour he gleaned in his wartime experiences, but those moments of mirth inevitably collide with the horrors of war. An amusing anecdote about spending weeks at a hospital with an ear infection ends with Gordon learning that Wilf Madden, at 23 years old, had been killed suddenly in a mid-air collision while trying to convince his student to parachute to safety.
In September of 1942, Gordon attended the wedding of Don McCallum, and it was there that he first laid eyes on a young woman named Constance “Connie” Houseman - their meeting was brief, but memorable, and he decided then and there that he would marry her, once the fighting had finally finished. The war took Gordon all over Europe, but he never stopped planning their future together. The War Years has photos of Connie and Gordon together, standing at the very edge of the beginning of their life together, not knowing where things would lead.
In the near future, I’m going to go visit that lovely lady, Connie, from the photographs and, even though a few years have passed, she’s just as formidable in real life as she is in print. She can really see my grandfather in my father, and the two of them in me, in a way that is beyond the capability of most people. Sometimes, her memories of the war years feel closer to her than yesterday does - on other days she can see the years between these wars with an almost perfect clarity. Connie has become a navigator, one who moves freely through the skies of time. I am excited to see her again, and to hear what she has to say.
My grandfather’s recollections of the war were kept sharp over the years by the field notes he kept - brief, deeply sensory expressions of intense moments, recorded shortly after they occurred - his memories are anchored in the smell of oil, the surreal sight of fields of red poppies, the sound of plane engines of both friend and foe. He also kept detailed notes of the memorable food he ate throughout the war, both good and bad.
His stories are peppered with vibrant details - it is a book of secret steak dinners, perilous night flights, stolen apples and lost friends. Gordon was shot down and landed safely - men he loved and trusted were not so lucky. His field note entries on days when a fellow pilot was lost were short ones, but his brevity belied a deep sense of loss. One of the reasons he wrote The War Years was to keep the memory of those lost brothers alive, even after he, himself was gone.
We say “Lest We Forget,” but we run the risk of losing these stories to the relentless erasure of time. There have been so many books written in the world about the wars we’ve waged - but all those tomes together tell only the smallest fraction of the tales that could be told. Each man and woman who put themselves into the war had their own stories to tell and every November, there are fewer first-hand witnesses to tell those stories. Most people are not lucky enough to have a book like The War Years. It is our duty to carry these memories for those who can no longer carry them, to learn the names of the ones who did not come back, and to listen to those who have stories to tell. That is the meaning of remembrance.