A wreath at the veterans cenotaph

On Wednesday, November 2, Darcy Oliver laid a wreath at the cenotaph in Fort Frances, in memory of his late father, Bert Oliver, who belonged to the 17th Field Regiment, 37th battery in the Second World War. Bert is a war veteran who belonged to the Legion for over 65 years and who always commemorated Remembrance Day by laying a wreath for his fallen comrades.

“Since my dad passed away 11 years ago, I still lay a wreath for my dad. In fact, I was just down there myself to have a wreath laid in his name,” Darcy said.

Bert Oliver was born in England on October 29, 1918, around the time when the first world war was coming to an end. He was 10 years old when he emigrated to Canada. His family originally settled in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

A family member that resided nearby Fort Frances, on the riverbank between Emo and Barwick, had passed away and left a plot of land to Bert’s parents. Bert and his parents stayed with relatives in Fort Frances until they bought a small home for $1,200. Many youthful days were spent in the Rainy River District.

Years down the line, Bert renovated that exactly home to accommodate five of his own children. He worked at the paper mill as a pipe fitter in the maintenance department until he retired at the age 64. Bert passed away at 91 in 2011.

Bert joined the Canadian Army in 1939, at the start of the second world war, and spent five Christmases overseas where he fought bravely for life and love. He marched through the roads of Gibraltar, a heavily fortified British air and naval base, and fought in Holland until it was liberated.

It was during his time stationed in England when he met his wife, Pamela Mary Parsons, who had been volunteering in the Women’s Land Army composed of women recruited to help boost Britain's food production.

“Back then, you know, the war was going on and you'd connect with somebody just by dancing on the dance floor. And when they separated, then you had to write letters between each other. Well, I think they only wrote a couple of letters between the two of them. And then as soon as [my dad] got some leave, then he had to get down to where she lived because she was in Wales; my mother was Welsh,” Darcy said.

After receiving permission from her parents, Bert married Pamela on October 29, 1945—on his exact birthday, immediately one month after the war ended.

About 48,000 war brides, mostly British women having married Canadian servicemen overseas, arrived at an immigration depot on the Halifax harbourfront named Pier 21—including Pamela, who traveled alone to reunite with her new husband. Pier 21 has been called the ‘Gateway to Canada,’ and was the point of departure for nearly 500,000 servicemen and women bound for the Second World War.

Pamela traveled to Fort Frances on the Canadian National Railway which trudged past forests and clear waters from Halifax to across northwestern Canada. “And my mother was only 19 years old. It must have been quite overwhelming because here you are in such a large country as Canada,” Darcy said.

On May 18, 1947, Darcy was born in Fort Frances.

Bert had a best friend who he fought with in the 17th regiment. He immediately visited Fort Frances when he heard about the birth of his best friend’s new baby. “They were joined at the hip. They were buddies all through the war right up until my dad passed away,” Darcy said.

“He was so pleased that my dad and mom had a baby boy, and he congratulated my mom on having a baby boy,” Darcy said. “And my dad said [to his best friend], ‘I named him after you.’”

Darcy Spencer, born on March 5, 1922, resided in a long term care facility in Kenora, Ontario. His namesake, the younger Darcy, visited him twice a year until Spencer passed away at the age 97 on October 2, 2019.

“Every year, twice a year, I go up to Kenora in the spring and normally in the fall,” Darcy said. “He still had his mind and everything else about him. The only thing is he lost use of his legs. He had said, ‘It was all that marching during the army.’”

Darcy and Spencer often chatted about the weather over a cup of coffee in the cafeteria, or while Darcy pushed Spencer’s wheelchair through the halls of the long term care facility.

“You know, a lot of them didn't really talk about the war too much… Him being 96 years old, [Spencer] said to me, ‘I'm the only one left. I'm the last of the Hellraisers.’”

“I guess in the army when you're over there fighting, you never know if it's gonna be your last day,” Darcy said. “So when you're fighting the enemy and dealing with the war, and trying to keep your mind off it, you gotta raise hell.”

Hiding in bomb shelters, living on rations, sudden air raid attacks, fighting planes dropping shrapnel from the sky while the young and old ran for safety—that was what normal life looked like for those who grew up during the war.

Many who experience the horrors of war do everything they can to forget it.

Darcy recalls that his father Bert disliked the time of year around Veterans Day because documentaries of the war would be televised.

“He used to have nightmares,” Darcy said. “Because it was very traumatic over there fighting during the war and seeing everything firsthand. And every movie he said that he’d seen, he said it does not compare to war. Hollywood can’t make a movie about war.”

Saving Private Ryan starring Tom Hanks and Matt Damon is a 1988 American war film directed by Steven Spielberg. The film features prolonged extreme war violence in intense images of dismemberment, hand-to-hand combat, and gun violence.

“It was pretty gory at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan because there was a lot of shooting and bloodshed. My dad and I watched that movie when it came out. He always said, ‘that was never war, you would never act like that in the army.’”

Bert knew from experience that soldiers in the army were extremely disciplined and the movie depictions of imprudence while on the field seemed unrealistic.

Despite everything he had been through, Bert often returned to Holland where he visited cemeteries and attended ceremonies to commemorate his fallen comrades, even bringing his wife Pamela with him for their 50th anniversary. When a Dutch family heard that Bert was a war veteran, they invited him to stay at their house and eventually became good friends.

“I was so proud of my dad,” Darcy said. “Because he never missed Veterans Day he always went down to the Cenotaph and used to lay a wreath for his regiment. And every year he did that at the Cenotaph and he loved the Legion. He belonged to the Legion for 65 years. And he always laid a wreath.”

Monthly sirens warning about extreme weather had just gone off in Fort Frances because it was the first Wednesday of the month. “My mother used to hate that because it brought back memories of the war. When that siren went off, she thought it was an air raid siren,” Darcy said.

“​​It is quite a loss when you lose your parents… It's like my mother used to say, ‘As life goes on, you have to take one step at a time. And keep a stiff upper lip. One step at a time and keep a stiff upper lip and be brave. Be brave in regards to everything you have to do. And love is a very powerful thing.’”

“We really loved our father and we always will. And I'll be there on November 11 at the Cenotaph. Thinking of my dad, he's in my heart, and in my soul, just like my wife is. And we, we lay a wreath for him and his memory and for his regiment.”

Elisa Nguyen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort Frances Times