Do you know these 6 N.B. soldiers? Why a history group wants photos for an Italian cemetery

Jimmy Hilgen said during Operation Husky in 1943, there was a rumour that the soldiers who landed in Sicily were called D-Day Dodgers because it was a seemingly easier war effort. 'It wasn't fun at all,' Hilgen said. 'It was pure horror what these guys witnessed.' (Supplied by Tjarco Schuurman - image credit)
Jimmy Hilgen said during Operation Husky in 1943, there was a rumour that the soldiers who landed in Sicily were called D-Day Dodgers because it was a seemingly easier war effort. 'It wasn't fun at all,' Hilgen said. 'It was pure horror what these guys witnessed.' (Supplied by Tjarco Schuurman - image credit)

Last year in Sicily, some cemetery gardeners went to work and found themselves on the verge of tears.

They had worked at Italy's Agira Canadian War Cemetery for 25 years, but had never seen such a sight: one day, more than 300 headstones were suddenly decorated with pictures of the soldiers buried there.

Many of them were part of Operation Husky, one of Sicily's biggest campaigns during the Second World War.

And most of them were Canadians.

Jimmy Hilgen, a man from the Netherlands who was largely responsible for the photo display, says it's the power of photography that brings that kind of emotion out.

Putting faces to names makes the work personal, especially since many of the soldiers were so young when they died.

"That's really sometimes heartbreaking," he said. "It's really touching, if you know that these guys had a whole life ahead of them."

Of the 490 soldiers buried there, 350 had photos for a memorial service in 2021. Now, ahead of another service planned at Agira for next summer, Hilgen is searching for photos of the remaining soldiers, including six who were from New Brunswick.

Raechel Huizinga/CBC
Raechel Huizinga/CBC

Hilgen, a police sergeant in what he calls his "regular life," was on holiday with his wife in Italy in 2019, when he was reading a book called Operation Husky by Canadian author Mark Zuehlke.

It  tells the story of the first Canadian Infantry Division, which landed in Sicily in the summer of 1943. The Allied Forces invaded the island, which Hilgen said Winston Churchill called the "soft underbelly" of Europe, to take it from Nazi Germany and Italy's fascist government.

Entranced, Hilgen visited some of the beaches where the Canadian soldiers landed. Soon he found himself at Agira, the war cemetery in the heart of Sicily.

Supplied by Tjarco Schuurman
Supplied by Tjarco Schuurman

He was stunned by its beauty. The graveyard sits on a hill that slopes down to a lake, and in the distance is Mount Etna, one of the world's most active volcanoes, which looks over the cemetery itself.

A Dutch police officer and a Fredericton jewelry-maker

Wanting to know who was buried in the Italian cemetery, Hilgen started a Facebook group called Faces of Agira. With the help of his friend and fellow Dutchman Tjarco Schuurman, they started to collect photos of the men buried there, and eventually created a non-profit foundation called the D-Day Dodgers.

Staying home during the pandemic gave him time to search for the photos, using websites like Find A Grave and Ancestry.

Supplied by Tjarco Schuurman
Supplied by Tjarco Schuurman

Soon enough, his work and social media activity was getting attention across the sea. Veteran and documentary-maker Roger Chabot invited Hilgen and Schuurman to attend the 2021 Agira memorial service, where they placed the photos they'd already found.

But in Fredericton, a woman named Tamara Kelly was looking for information about her grandfather, who drove ambulances in Italy during the Second World War. While researching, she saw one of Hilgen's posts, and after deciding to help him find a photo he was looking for, she was hooked.

"I basically offered to do all the soldiers that didn't have photos from Atlantic Canada," she said.

Supplied by Tjarco Schuurman.
Supplied by Tjarco Schuurman.

Kelly likens what she does to detective work.

By day she runs a jewelry business, but she's also now responsible for the Atlantic division of Faces of Agira.

She spends her free time tracking down photos and, like Hilgen, uses social media and standard ancestry-tracing websites, in addition to combing through old newspapers.

The same day she spoke with CBC News, she'd already tracked one photo down. She'd found a family member of one of the New Brunswick soldiers on Ancestry.com, and after some chatting, she got the picture.

Kelly described that moment — the one where she finally gets a photo after chasing, researching, networking — as emotional.

"I feel like I'm actually doing something good," she said.