A family at war

Catherine Anderson told a lie on her 17th birthday and she’s never regretted it.

Catherine Edwards holds up a photo of herself from her time as a young women serving in the Canadian air force in Sydney, Nova Scotia during WWII. She joined the forces when she was 17 by lying about her age.

That day on March 15, 1943, Catherine hopped on a bus that took her to the Canadian armed forces recruiting station in Hamilton, Ont. There she told the officer in charge she was 18, the legal age for enlistment.

She even doctored her birth certificate by adding a year to her birth date.

“I first tried to use a typewriter but the ribbon was too dark and the type was the wrong font. So in the end I did it by hand,” said Catherine, 84.

“I don’t think I could ever be a cheque forger.”

Worry about how her family would react to news of her joining the war effort by illegally enlisting, she was anxious on the bus ride home.

But her father, who served during the First World War and was a merchant marine during the second, barely batted an eye.

After all, brothers Jim, Dan and John joined up in 1942. And her four other siblings found other ways of serving the country—working in the factories that supplied Canada’s war effort, writing letters and assisting any way they could.

Even her mother Jenny, caring for two young children, worked at a St. Catherines flying school where young airmen learned how to fly.

Serving Canada in times of war was a family tradition.

“I joined up because my brothers did. And I was a bit of a tomboy so why shouldn’t I,” said Catherine, a New Westminster resident.

Today, Catherine is the last remaining member of her family. And because of that she feels it important to tell the stories of her family’s war service—especially around Remembrance Day.

“My mother never got to lay a wreath for her boys and father on Remembrance Day. Maybe this will make up for it a little bit. I’m doing it for them,” she said.

Here are the stories of one family’s sacrifices.

• • • •

Catherine’s father James, a member of the Canadian Calvary during the First World War, served the entire duration of the war from 1914 to 1918.

“He was part of the first contingent to go over so he signed up as soon as the war started,” said Catherine.

On active duty he was exposed to mustard gas and had respiratory problems his entire life as a result. She knows little else of his duty in Europe, except that he saw his share of action.

“He never liked to talk about it to us,” she said.

Because of his war injury, he was turned away when he tried to enlist in the army at the start of the Second World War.

Undaunted, he enlisted in the American merchant navy and served on freighters transporting war supplies from North America to England.

James survived two separate torpedo attacks by German U-boats. In both cases the freighters sank but he survived.

“He was just living under a lucky star,” said Catherine.

She barely remembers hearing about his misadventures from her mother, the source of family news.

“There was just so much war that it was an everyday occurrence.”

• • • •

Brothers John and Dan were less fortunate than their father.

John, who also altered his birth certificate and enlisted as a 17-year-old, was one of the first Canadians to serve in Europe as part of the Perth Regiment in Italy.

He was lucky enough to survive a sniper’s bullet but not fortunate enough to be sent home.

The injury was not severe enough.

Not that he wanted to come home. After being treated for his injuries, John rushed back to the front lines.

Shortly after returning to service, John and other members of his unit were hit by a bomb in February 1944. None survived.

“I just remember hearing the news and being shocked by it,” said Catherine.

Brother Dan, a member of the Tank Corps, came ashore on D-Day. They fought for four days entrenching themselves on European soil before his war effort came to an end.

The tank was hit by a shell, causing the onboard ammunition to explode. Badly burnt and wounded by shrapnel, Dan escaped the burning tank and crawled to safety.

He spent four months in English hospitals before being shipped home where he underwent more plastic surgery to his face and hands.

Four years after the war ended, while working at his old job on the Welland Canal, he drowned after slipping and falling from a walkway.

Oldest brother Jim was also a member of the Tank Corps but spent most of the war working at army headquarters in England. He finally went to Europe after the German surrender and came home soon after.

• • • •

War casualties and injuries were nothing new to Catherine.

She heard about them on a daily basis.

She was assigned to the RCAF’s casualty branch where she received teletype wires from England of the Canadian airmen and women missing in action, killed or injured. Then they sent telegrams and letters to the families who had lost a loved one.

It was stressful but bearable, she said.

That changed when she received news of her brothers from her mother, who had received one of those telegrams.

“After that it changed. When John was killed and Dan wounded, the letters and wires we sent became more real. You thought more about the airmen who had been shot down and their families.”

The letters, telegrams and photos from the war years that Catherine still keeps are reminders of her lost brothers. They also tell the story of one family’s sacrifice for their country at war.

Recently she told her stories for the book We Were Freedom, which she helped launch last week in Ottawa. Now other Canadians can learn about what one family gave, said Catherine.

“I was very proud of my family for what we did. It’s important to share that.”




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