Second World War veteran Harold Thorp thumbs open a pocket-sized diary, and lightly blows apart its delicate pages.
He’s looking for a particular passage and when he finds it he beams a victorious smile. It was a Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 1945, in Burma. That was the day he began to lose his hearing.
It was an armories dump, he explains while reading from the passage, and the explosions were incredible. Still, as a young man, he couldn’t resist getting closer.
He couldn’t hear properly for days, and while it mostly returned in the weeks to come, the blasts are most likely what led to him losing his hearing later in 1960. Today, in his 90s, he has only 50 per cent hearing in one ear, none in the other. He tells this story while sitting around a table at the Br. 4 Canadian Legion, downtown on Mary Street.
“I don’t think I’ll ever see anything quite like this again,” the tiny diary reads. Everyone around the table knows the weight of that young man’s statement. They include fellow veterans Werner Hockin and Nick Kosowan, both 92. The two were in Normandy together, but didn’t meet until the latter moved to Chilliwack after the war.
They are good friends now, and Werner helps Nick answer questions about his time in the war.
They are all joined together by the Legion, which was part of the purpose of the organization in the first place. They’ll celebrate the Legion’s 90th anniversary this weekend, with a trio of events to honour the sacrifices of those who lost their lives in the war, but also to celebrate the work Legion members have done in Chilliwack over nine decades.
And contrary to popular belief, it’s not difficult to join the ranks of the Legion. Today, only about a third of the members are veterans. Others are people who simply wish to serve veterans, whether through active volunteering or just helping fill the coffers through drink and food purchases at the Legion clubhouse.
Current President Elaine Dahl’s father was Second World War veteran, Flying Officer Thomas Chiverton. His service is one of the reasons she chooses to be involved.
“We are just hoping that more people care,” she says. “If it weren’t for our veterans, other people would not have the opportunities that they do. Our veterans made this country free.”
It’s very easy to be a member, she adds, and the local rate is $55 a year.
Money raised helps veterans, but also goes toward the many good causes the Legion supports, including cadet programs. Nationwide, Legionnaires donate back $6.5 million to communities.
While the number of Second World War veterans is dwindling — there are just a handful left in Chilliwack — there are new veterans, veterans from lesser-discussed combats, and veterans who didn’t see active duty.
Many veterans are more than willing to share their stories, photographs, and feelings about their time overseas. Werner, Nick and Harold spread their photographs across a table, admiring the images of their younger selves.
“Tell the story about how they didn’t send you home,” someone says to Werner.
“When the war ended in May of 45 I thought ‘oh boy, my repat is up,’” he says. “But they said no, you’re going to Hamburg, Germany for the occupation.”
He stayed there until the following April, working on aircraft engines on a base, mostly Spitfires, he adds. With no wife or children to go home to, he was low on the list of soldiers to send back. And when he finally got on a ship to go home, he wasn’t alone.
“There were what, 10,000 on board,” he says, nodding to Nick for agreement. “You could hardly walk.”
He sways back and forth to mimic the motion of the boat. The trip took five days, and when he got home, he says it was the best feeling.
“But I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
But he married and had children, and went on to deliver oil to homes in Chilliwack.
For Nick, a good memory is being named a ‘batman’ for a short while. The entire group laughs at the name, and Nick smiles. His job was to polish buttons and generally take care of a higher officer. He also came home and married.
Another veteran can be found behind the bar three days a week at the legion. George Smith, 84, says the legion runs on volunteer power, and they need more.
“We have a good crew here and this is one of the best legions in B.C.,” he says. “If it weren’t for them (the volunteers) we wouldn’t be here. They work themselves to the bone.”
The Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 4 Chilliwack received its charter on March 21, 1927. To celebrate the past 90 years, there will be a public candlelight service at the Cenotaph behind the museum at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 17.
A special invite-only gala is being held on March 18 for guests and members, at Evergreen Hall.
And on Sunday, March 19, the entire community is invited to join in a pancake breakfast from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., downstairs at the Legion.