A poignant visit to a military cemetery
The photograph of the smiling, blond-haired young man was always in the same spot on the mantel each time that I visited my great-grandmother’s house.
His name was Steve. He was my Baba’s son, my grandmother’s brother and my father’s uncle.
A bomber pilot, Steve died during World War II. He had been killed on May 23 — the same day as my birthday. Beyond that, I never really knew much about him.
Earlier this year, I began reading the many letters that he had sent home during his military service. Through his words, I discovered a man who loved, laughed, complained, got angry, and missed his family more than he wanted them to know. He was somebody who I wish I had gotten the chance to know.
The letters begin in March of 1942 when, newly enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Steve arrived at a training depot outside Edmonton. He was later sent to High River and Fort Macleod for pilot training, before being shipped overseas to England in May of 1943. The letters detail his transformation from a raw recruit to a highly capable pilot of a Halifax heavy bomber.
Although Steve made friends easily and fit in well with military life, his letters speak to a chronic homesickness. His parents wrote him frequently, but he often complained that their letters were too short.
“I want to hear all the gossip from back home,” he demanded. “Please write me as soon as you read this letter.”
Fond of cigarettes, beer and having a good time, he was also frequently broke. Nearly every letter included a plea for money.
Sometimes he was subtle, sheepishly asking his parents if they could “spare a few dollars.” Other times, he got right to the point: “I am writing to you to borrow some money. Mom, dig out your sock and send what you can.”
Hoping to land a highly competitive pilot training spot, initially Steve did not stand out. His progress reports were mixed. “An average student in every way imaginable,” wrote one instructor. “Cheerful and carefree,” wrote another. “He talks too much, but works hard and should do very well with more practice.”
He achieved his goal and became a pilot, eventually assigned to fly a four-engine Halifax bomber on night raids into enemy territory.
Steve’s words provided me with a wonderful window into the history of my family.
He often mentions two of my aunts — at the time little girls in elementary school. He writes off-colour jokes to his sister Helen — my grandmother. He frequently argues with my formidable great-grandmother — on one memorable occasion trying to convince her rumours that he has secretly married while in England are not true.
The letters end in May of 1944 — when Steve and his crew of seven men disappeared while on a night mission over Le Mans, France. Although I knew how his story ended, I didn’t want the letters to stop.
Le Mans, May 2013
Photo courtesy of Stephen TaylorSteve is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Le Mans. He is one of 97 Commonwealth burials from World War II, eight of which are unidentified. There are also 61 Commonwealth graves from World War I. Nearby, separate fields of honour contain graves and monuments to French, Belgian and German war dead.
In May of this year, my mother and I visited his grave. I had never been in a military cemetery before. I wasn’t prepared for how emotional the experience would be.
The first thing that struck me was how immaculate the grounds are. It’s a very beautiful and peaceful place. The dead rest with dignity.
It is also a devastating place. As I stood by Steve’s grave and surveyed the hundreds of military graves from different nationalities, I was overwhelmed by both the sacrifice and the sense of loss. The cemetery is full of young men who had their entire lives ahead of them. I wept as my mother and I placed flags and wreaths on the graves of Steve and his aircrew.
Can you mourn someone who died decades before you were born? Before I visited Le Mans, I might have said no. But after spending many hours reading the letters he mailed home, Steve became real to me in a way that is difficult to explain. He was no longer a photograph on my great-grandmother’s mantel. He was somebody who loved — and was loved by — people that I knew and loved.
Photo courtesy of Stephen TaylorMy great-grandparents never visited their son’s grave.
For the longest time, I thought this might have been because they could not afford a trip to France. But there were government programs that would have provided travel assistance had they chosen to visit the cemetery.
It wasn’t until I stood in front of Steve’s grave myself that I think I began to understand why they never came.
It simply would have been too painful for them.
I never knew my great-grandfather William. He passed away in 1967, years before I was born. From the stories that I have been told, it sounds like he was a humble, gentle and good-hearted man.
My great-grandmother Pearl was our family’s seemingly indestructible matriarch. She loved her family dearly, but was quick to dispense a brutally stinging wrath if one did something — even unknowingly — that she did not approve of. She passed away in 1996.
It wasn’t until after her death that I realized what a huge presence my great-grandmother had been in my own life. Before my mother and I left the cemetery, we sat on a bench beneath the high trees, uncorked a bottle of wine and drank a toast.
I could almost hear my Baba saying, in her thickly Ukrainian accented English, “You have a nice drink for my Steve.”