5 And A Beagle

"Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans." John Lennon

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Time to Remember... 

A re-posting of one from a few years ago......

A few years ago, one of #3's schoolmates, Jack, was fortunate to be chosen to represent the province of BC as a delegate of youth traveling with WWII veterans on a pilgrimage to Ortona Italy. Prior to the journey, Jack was to research the life of a Canadian soldier that would have fought in the infamous Battle of Ortona.

Below is an excerpt from Jack's report . . . .

ORTONA, Italy - We stand here together at the grave of John Harper MacLeod. We are students, teachers, writers, leaders, soldiers and historians and we are on a pilgrimage of remembrance. But there are many graves here at the Moro River War Cemetery and each one as worthy as another. So why are we standing at this grave, the grave of John Harper MacLeod?

The answer to this question lies, in part, with me because I chose Private MacLeod with a single idea in mind -- that I would find the youngest soldier I could and write about him.

You see, I could never imagine what it would be like to be in a war but, being 17, I could almost imagine what it would be like to be 19. And, before arriving here, I found the name in the Canadian Virtual War Memorial of a teenager who was killed in action on Dec. 26th during his 19th and last year of life.

His name was John Harper MacLeod and he was from Cobble Hill, Vancouver Island, the son of Alexander and Alexandra MacLeod. He was a private with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, service number M101975. So with these three leads in hand -- his home town, his parentage and his regiment, I began to look for the details that would bring his story to life. I naively thought, in this age of information, that the hunt would be easy -- type in MacLeod and out comes A, B, and C. Well, I was wrong. Hours on the Internet revealed little. I realized I would have to do things the old-fashioned way - - in person.

So I went to the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Regimental Headquarters in Vancouver where I spoke with Corporal Chris Thompson and archivist Lloyd Hunter but they could only confirm what I already knew -- that Private MacLeod did indeed serve with their regiment from Oct. 10 until Dec. 26, 1943 when he was killed somewhere on the streets of Ortona.

Dismayed but not deterred, I began to contact Seaforth veterans who might have known him, but nobody did. They told me, instead, what they knew about Ortona and where they had been in the days between Christmas and the New Year in 1943.

"Was he at the dinner?" I was asked by one but I didn't know.

My vice-principal, Chris Campbell, suggested I contact Mark Zuehlke, author of the book Ortona, who theorized that MacLeod might have been killed at Dead Horse Square in Ortona where the Seaforths were engaged on Boxing Day. He suggested I talk to another MacLeod - - Ken Macleod, no relation to my MacLeod but a teacher and historian who knew a great deal about Ortona and the Seaforths.

So armed with Zuehlke's introduction, I contacted Ken MacLeod who gave me a new list of veterans to call -- Sergeant Bill Worton, Lieutenant-Colonel Syd Thomson, Ozzie Rivers, Laurie Cross and Bill Hughes.

But no one remembered John Harper MacLeod. It was Worton, however, who told me that a soldier with the number M101975 would most likely have been a reinforcement sent in by another regiment. This was confirmed by Thomson. It seemed that I had the wrong regiment.

Meanwhile I was following leads at the community level. I discovered that Cobble Hill was a tiny hamlet in the Cowichan Valley, midway between Nanaimo and Victoria. And with a name like MacLeod I knew John Harper was Scottish so I began calling all the Presbyterian Churches in Cobble Hill and the surrounding areas.

I was looking for church records on the MacLeod family -- the baptisms, marriages and deaths in a pre-Internet world. Everyone I called was interested in the story and willing to help but still, there was nothing. So I expanded my search, calling all the churches in the Cowichan Valley regardless of their denomination or distance, speaking with more archivists and church secretaries. But still, nothing.

I called Priscilla Lowe, curator of the Cowichan Valley Museum in Duncan, and she called many old families and veterans from the Cobble Hill area in hopes that something might turn up. But still, nothing.

I spoke with Virginia Bonner, a long-time resident of Cobble Hill and author of two books on local history, and she, enthused, began to help me look for leads and clues on John Harper MacLeod.

"Maybe he changed his name," she said. When I asked why he would do that she informed me that there had been a lot of German families in the Cowichan Valley at that time and many of them had changed their names, apparently preferring Scottish names to English ones.

"Could he have been from one of those families?" she speculated. "Was he really a MacLeod?"

But I didn't know. Was it possible that I had both the wrong regiment and the wrong name? I began to worry.

My mother and I finally went to Cobble Hill where we attended a Cowichan Valley Historical Society meeting at the invitation of Lowe. I explained my quest to the 30 some people there but while several intriguing theories were put forward, nobody actually remembered the MacLeod family.

I called two legion halls the next day and spoke with two local veterans, Roy Bobolo, an Italian-Canadian who fought in the Netherlands, and Peter Owen, a retired Cobble Hill school principal who had served with the British. But still I had nothing.

I went to the local newspaper office on the advice of Duncan publisher Tom Paterson, and persuaded the editor of The Cowichan Valley Citizen, Brian Wilford, to run an article on the story but still, there was nothing.

I read through four months of microfiche of the 1943-44 Victoria Daily Colonist with the help of several librarians, and still I found nothing.

I went to the oldest graveyard in Cobble Hill and looked at every tombstone, hoping I would find the names of Alexander and Alexandra MacLeod among them but there was nothing.

But what seemed most disturbing was that the name John Harper MacLeod was not written on the small cenotaph in Cobble Hill nor on the larger one in nearby Duncan. There was simply a void of information about a young private who died 61 years ago this Boxing Day.

There was, it seemed, nothing.

But somehow he had become important to me. He was the almost unknown soldier -- the one whose name is known but little else; the one who slips through the annals of history and is forgotten by all those he fought for.

And I realized I wouldn't forget him and if I lived 1,000 years I wouldn't forget what he did. He gave his youth, he gave his innocence, and eventually he gave his life so that I could enjoy mine. You see, there was a point when I could have stopped and chosen another soldier on which to write and fulfilled the assignment far more easily but I couldn't because John Harper MacLeod had gained a deep foothold in my heart and he would not leave.

It was almost as if he said to me, "Don't forget about me too."

Did he have brothers and sisters? Were his parents strict or easy? Was there enough money or none? Did he want to be a lawyer or a farmer? Did he have a lot of friends or just one or two? Was he good in school? Did he have a girlfriend?

Maybe he wasn't from Cobble Hill at all, I concluded. Maybe he lied about his age and where he came from because he wanted to get into the army without his parents stopping him.

But this I did know and this I do know. I know that he died, a 72nd Seaforth Highlander of Canada on Dec. 26, 1943 and I know he lies in this grave in front of me now.

And I'm glad he died on Boxing Day for it means his last meal, if he got to have it, would have been Christmas dinner with his company in a half-demolished Italian church but at least it is likely he would have had a good last meal.

I know also that he was just a kid, two years older than I am today, if he really was 19. So while I don't really know who he was, at the same time I sense I do, as clearly as I know my own friends and family.

That's because John Harper MacLeod has become all the young men that I know, my friends and both of my brothers. Young men, who are not unlike who our veterans were some 60 years ago. He is an amalgam of all our personalities put together. He has my friend Mike's stoicism, my friend Patrick's charm, my friend Derek's creativity and my friend Jeremy's loyalty. He has my brother Charlie's will to win, my brother Thomas's optimism and he might even have some of me in him too. That is why I could not choose another to write about or talk about here today because to abandon him would be to abandon my friends, my brothers and myself.

Then something happened, something remarkable. Two days before my departure from North Vancouver to Ortona, someone called me from Cobble Hill. It was Peter Owen, the British veteran and retired school principal. He had asked around and two people had come forward, an elderly woman and a retired farmer -- both of them long time Cobble Hill residents and they had the same story.

There had, they said, been a farm on Aros Road in the 1930s, just off Telegraph Road, where a family named MacLeod had lived. The owners of this farm were German but they had changed their name to MacLeod -- just as local historian Virginia Bonner had speculated.

According to the story, the farmer had died before the war but he was survived by his wife and two sons. And one son, they told Owen, joined the Canadian army and the other joined the German army and during the course of the war, both of them were killed. The property was sold and later subdivided and their mother moved away.

"God knows where," said Owen. "She could have gone anywhere."

John Harper MacLeod, I can tell you this. I went to Cobble Hill and I spent time there. Barry's Garage is still the centre of town. There's still a corner store next to Barry's Garage and there's a cold beer and wine store and a barber shop across the street. There's a coffee shop too, but it's closed on Saturdays because the owner teaches piano.

And there's a place up the road that sells pottery with Cobble Hill stamped on the back of everything they make. So I bought this little pot there, John, and before I left Cobble Hill, I took some earth from the ground next to the cenotaph and this I have brought with me here from Cobble Hill.

I missed a bit of school trying to track you down and you eluded me. But you missed a lot of life for me, Private MacLeod and I thank you.

And so I promise you, that if the family from Cobble Hill was indeed yours, that if it was your brother who died for Germany and you for Canada, then I am sorry for what you went through and I cannot imagine what it would have been like for you and your brother.

But if it is true and you are John Harper MacLeod of Cobble Hill, then your name belongs on the cenotaph at Cobble Hill and there are many there who will want it written and I am one of them and so too, I suspect, is everyone here today.

Take time on this Remembrance Day to think about the sacrifices that have been made by so many men and women.


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