Dutch friends search for photographs of Canadian soldiers buried in Sicily

·3 min read
The cross at Agira Canadian War Cemetery in Sicily. (Submitted by Tjarco Schuurman - image credit)
The cross at Agira Canadian War Cemetery in Sicily. (Submitted by Tjarco Schuurman - image credit)

A successful Canadian campaign on Sicilian shores during the Second World War is getting attention after two friends began a quest to find photographs of the soldiers who were killed in action.

More than 26,000 Canadians were part of the campaign, Operation Husky.

The Allied troops sailed into the Sicilian shores to fight the Axis forces on July 10, 1943.

And Canadian troops liberated the small hilltop town of Agira on their march over the island.

Of the 562 Canadian soldiers who died, 490 are buried at the Canadian War Cemetery in Agira.

Submitted by Tjarco Schuurman
Submitted by Tjarco Schuurman

Almost 80 years later, two friends from the Netherlands — Jimmy Hilgen and Tjarco Schuurman — created the D-Day Dodgers Foundation. The foundation works to bring attention to soldiers who fought in the lesser-known battles of the Second World War.

Hilgen and Schuurman are on a quest to add photographs to the graves of Canadian soldiers with a project they named Volti di Agira (Faces of Agira).

"In November 21, we placed 350 photos in front of the headstones," Hilgen told CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

He and Schuurman are seeking information that could lead them to photographs of six Edmonton soldiers, part of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, who served in the war and are buried at the Canadian War Cemetery in Agira.

"We're still missing six photos. Some Edmontonians were also deployed to the Saskatchewan regiments or to the Seaforth Highlanders in Vancouver," Hilgen said.

Hilgen called Operation Husky "a chariot of fire" and said "it was the first real Second World War battle that Canadians were involved in".

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Since their initial idea, the pair have collected almost 400 photographs with help from other members of the foundation, and hope to find the remaining images in time for the 80 anniversary of Operation Husky.

"It's like a wild moment," Hilgen said, adding he gets goosebumps when he sees a new photograph.

"It gives you a thrill. It's like, 'Wow, this guy after 79 years, 80 years, gets a face again.'"

PHOTO GALLERY | Canadian War Cemetery in Agira, Sicily:

A police sergeant in his home country, Hilgen grew interested in the story of Operation Husky in 2019 while vacationing.

"It kind of grabbed me and I wanted to know more about it," he said.

Hilgen found relatives of the soldiers online and contacted them for photographs, and collecting a pile, which were later placed in front of the graves.

While in Sicily, Hilgen was put in touch with a researcher in Calgary, who has experience finding family and other relatives of soldiers. The foundation also contacted researchers in Quebec and New Brunswick to help them out.

Submitted by Tjarco Schuurman
Submitted by Tjarco Schuurman

The D-Day Dodgers Foundation is working with local authorities in Sicily to have the photographs displayed permanently.

The photos Hilgen and Schuurman placed on graves in November are still there now.

The foundation is searching for photographs of the following Canadian soldiers, all members of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment:

  • Pte. Bruce Donald Davison.

  • Pte. Dick Gill.

  • Pte. Varley Stevens Hallett.

  • Pte. George Johnston.

  • Pte. James Nelson Rasmussen.

  • Cpl. William Walker.

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