Sunday, May 7, Tom and I went to the annual HMCS TECUMSEH Battle of the Atlantic Ceremony, held at the Military Museum of Calgary. There were eight World War II veterans in attendance at the event. Amazing that they are still with us. Tom and I met one gentleman, Frank Hiziek, a 98-year-old veteran. If the ceremony hadn’t already lasted so long, and had Mr. Hiziek not spent an hour in the unexpected cold and rain before the ceremony was moved indoors, I would have enjoyed speaking with him in depth. He was such a gracious man; I would have loved to hear more of his story.
I’ll admit up front, I’m a sucker for military events. I guess it harks back to my childhood and seeing my father in US Army parades. I feel a thrill of pride and patriotism whenever I hear military music or see a military ceremony. Sunday’s event struck a chord in me.
I think it is vital that nations acknowledge the sacrifices of their men and women in the Armed Forces, living and deceased. Canadians do this right two days of the year that I have seen so far, on Remembrance Day (Veteran’s Day in the US) and on the first Sunday of May when they remember the Battle of the Atlantic.
The Battle of the Atlantic, from 1939 to 1945, was the longest continuous battle of the Second World War. Canada played a key role in the Allied struggle for control of the North Atlantic, as German submarines (U-boats) worked furiously to cripple the convoys shipping crucial supplies from the UK and Canada (and later the US) to Europe. Victory was costly: more than 70,000 Allied seamen, merchant mariners, and airmen lost their lives, including 4,600 Canadians.
In the early years of the war, German U-boats were clearly winning the battle, having developed a deadly strategy of hunting convoys in wolf packs. Groups of submarines would stretch out across suspected convoy routes. When a submarine spotted a convoy, the call went out for the rest of the wolf pack to rendezvous in its path. Once gathered, and under cover of night, the U-boats would strike together — their torpedoes ripping into several ships almost simultaneously.
Many of these attacks took place in an area of the mid-Atlantic that became known as the “Black Pit” — a stretch of ocean beyond the range of Allied aircraft tasked with providing aerial coverage for the convoys.
Canada entered the war in 1939 as a small country with an even smaller navy. From a handful of ships and a few thousand personnel, the Royal Canadian Navy expanded into a major fleet, with more than 400 ships and 90,000 sailors. By war’s end, Canada had the fourth-largest navy in the world.
Many of those who died have no gravesite — their bodies were lost to the Atlantic. Their names are commemorated on the Sailors’ Memorial in Point Pleasant Park in Halifax. Their sacrifice is also honored in special ceremonies held in Canada every year on the first Sunday in May.
Among the military present at the Military Museum event were several groups of Navy cadets, youngsters from age 8 to 16, I think. Five World War II veterans were given the honor of being the Color Guard holding the flags, but the cadets stood guard at the Cenotaph and were the Drum brigade who stacked their drums for the ceremony. Upon hearing the young voices of command call out through the crowd, two officers behind me commented with approval. I turned and said, “That’s the voice of the future.” They agreed, and the gentleman said that he had been that cadet at the age of 13.
The ceremony included two Scripture readings by a Naval Chaplain, and speeches by several dignitaries, among them Lois Mitchel, the Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta, and Vice-Admiral M.F.R. Lloyd, Vice Chief of Defense for Canada.
The most stirring moments came with the reading of Ships Lost at Sea, and the Naval Prayer and Hymn, which all of those in attendance sang with the chaplain. This was followed by a wreath-laying ceremony; Tom laid the wreath for the Government of the United States of America.
At the end, those in attendance sang ‘God Save the Queen’ (which startled me, because I always forget the connection between Canada and England!).
As ever, I realize how much our nation (and Canada) owes to its members of the Armed Forces, and I am beginning to think that every child should be required to be a member of a cadet group for two years in their youth, to acquaint them with the history of the military in the nation and to, I would hope, provide them with an understanding of what it is that those in the Armed Forces offer to a nation. If they are cadets when they are young, then they don’t run the risk of being called into combat as they would if they join the Armed Forces later in life. Still, I think it would benefit our nation to have this training for our young, for the day when they might be called to defend their country. I know that not everyone will agree with me, but perhaps it’s a good idea.
I fear that our nation is awash with people who don’t understand the importance of a strong military, or remember that it is only through the sacrifice of our military that we have the freedoms we enjoy today. I have always felt this way, and often feel like I am in the minority who see the need for a strong, well-trained Armed Forces. I’m not a hawk or a war-monger, but I do believe that a strong military keeps us free.
To those men and women who have served in the Armed Forces, here in Canada and in the United States, I salute you and I thank you.