Remembrance Day: The greatest generation vanishing

Remembrance Day: The greatest generation vanishing

John Feeley, 89, a gunner in the Second World War who bailed out of two planes over Europe, spoke to students in Toronto this week. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this,” he says. “Of course, I say that every year — and I am still here.”

Brett Gundlock/National Post

John Feeley, 89, a gunner in the Second World War who bailed out of two planes over Europe, spoke to students in Toronto this week. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this,” he says. “Of course, I say that every year — and I am still here.”

Joe O’Connor, National Post · Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010

Slowly the hands went up, first one, then another and then a third. They asked him about the dogfights, and how many he had been in, and how many “tours of duty” he had done and if he had ever fought in Afghanistan.

“Well,” said the old man with the black pants, polished black shoes, big glasses and two rows of medals pinned across his chest. “We are talking about something that happened a long time ago. We are talking about the Second World War.

“I am much too old to fly in Afghanistan.”

John Feeley was not always old, and he did not always head out to Toronto-area schools each November in his gold-coloured Pontiac, with its trunk full of black and white photographs, to speak to a cafeteria full of Grade 7 students about what his war was like, and to remind them to never forget.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this,” the 89-year-old says. “Of course, I say that every year — and I am still here.”

He worries about that, about still being here and about what might happen to all the old stories after he is gone.

A gunner on a big lumbering bird of an Allied bomber, he survived countless missions over Europe. He bailed out of two planes that crashed and burned and beat the odds to come back alive. But he knows he won’t beat the odds now, knows he can’t live forever.

None of our Second World War veterans will.

More than a million Canadians served in the armed forces between 1939 and 1945. Some refer to them as our greatest generation, a band of brothers and sisters who beat back Hitler’s armies, liberated Europe, helped chase the Japanese from the South Pacific and, in the process, saved the world.

Now they are a vanishing generation, and there is nothing they can do to save themselves. Old age is a most relentless enemy. Canada’s Second World War veterans are dying off at an astonishing clip: 1,700 a week. Only 143,700 remain among the living. Their average age is 87.

Thirty-five years ago they were ubiquitous. They were familiar as parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbours and friends. And they were always there on Nov. 11, standing ramrod straight by a memorial to the fallen to remind us of the names — Dieppe, the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic, Juno Beach, Caen and Falaise and the liberation of the Netherlands — and the sacrifices that were made.

Now, they are among the fallen, while many of the survivors that remain are lost in a haze of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and largely hidden from public view in long-term care facilities.

Sunnybrook Veterans Hospital opened in 1948. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King attended the grand unveiling, and in a speech heard from Vancouver to Halifax dedicated the new 1,600-bed facility in Toronto’s north end to the “sacrifices made by those members of the armed forces whom this hospital aims to serve, and seeks to honour.”

Twenty years later the hospital was opened to the general public. Forty years after that it remains a bustling place. Set back from the day-to-day hum is the 500-bed veterans’ residence. Every room is occupied, only not at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning.

Don Stewart and Jack Hooper have been awake for hours. Don takes his coffee black. Jack prefers his with double cream and double sugar. Jack is strapped into his wheelchair. Jack is 88, and his tears flow easily, especially around Remembrance Day.

“Sometimes I feel as though my bladder is connected to my eyes,” he says, eyes glistening. Jack enlisted in the navy when he was 17, a decision he describes as “crazy … it broke my mother’s heart.” Don is 85. He joined up when he was 16. He had to lie to get in.

The two friends never talk about the war. It is something they would both rather forget. Who wants to spend their days reminiscing about being stuck in a Burmese prisoner camp, like Don was for seven months, or steaming across the North Atlantic in a mine sweeper with enemy U-boats lurking all around, like Jack did when he was barely old enough to shave?

“I don’t want to hear about the war,” says Don. “I saw enough. Some of the guys in here, they are still fighting the war. They fight it every day, but not us.”

No. Not them. They mostly talk about horse racing, hockey games, gambling at the casino, grandchildren and getting down to the Blythewood Social Club, a pub in the basement of the facility, in time to grab a seat and not so late as to miss last call at 4 p.m.

This is life, then, for two old men, long after their brutal war ended, and it is decorated with walkers and canes and wheelchairs and signs warning visitors to the ward to stay away if they have a sore throat, a cough or a runny nose. The average age of a patient here is 88 (one year older than the average for a Second World War veteran), a reality pressed home by a display case near the cafeteria. It lists the names of the 20 residents who passed away in October.

It is a roll call that keeps rolling inexorably on, pushing toward its ultimate conclusion. Nov. 11, though, brings a momentary pause, when the past comes rushing back in a sea of faces belonging to people they knew in a war that happened an eternity ago.

“You never forget a single experience, you remember everything about the war,” Don says. “All the fellows I was in the service with are passed on. I am the last one left. Remembrance Day brings back the memories for me, especially at the 11th hour. It brings tears to my eyes every year. It is a very emotional time.”

Jack and Don are not afraid of being forgotten. They feel the new generation of young people is so smart, with all their new-fangled gadgets, their computers, cell phones and “Google”, that there is no way they can forget.

School groups who visit the hospital ask lots of questions. Classes write the veterans letters decorated with rainbows and poppies and sentiments, such as “thank you for protecting our freedom.”

Many of the students the men meet already seem to have some answers about the war thanks to The Memory Project, The Historica-Dominion Institute’s ongoing effort to gather testimonials and dispatches from Second World War veterans before it is too late.

“In five years’ time there won’t be any of us left,” Don says, and the way he says it, with a firm sense of knowing, helps you to understand that it’s just the way life is. His time is passing, and while he is in no great rush to see it go by, he appears to be at peace.

Peace? There is no such thing for John Feeley. He is a restless soul. He is not ready to slow down and he is damn well not moving into a care facility, not anytime soon. Says the homes help turn a man’s brain to mush. Besides, he is up each morning drinking his hot chocolate, reading his paper and getting ready to get down to work by nine.

His business card reads: “John Feeley Insurance, established 1946.” He owns some commercial real estate, some properties north of the city, and is working tirelessly on a bid to have a monument erected in Toronto dedicated to the 4,200 local boys who never made it back from the war.

And he is in the schools, telling the story. A memory project, a poppy on a lapel, two minutes of silence and a reading from John McCrae on Nov. 11 can never be the equal of a living, breathing, witness to the past.

On a cool and sunny November morning, at a middle school in Toronto’s east end, the old gunner is surrounded by his memories, by photographs of the men he used to know.

John Feeley tells the Grade 7 students the story of Bill McMullen, a kid from Toronto’s east end, a kid maybe not so different from the kids in the room.

Pilot Officer William Stuart McMullen was John’s pilot, his third of the war. The men were on a training flight over England when an engine on their Lancaster bomber caught fire. The order came to bail out, and so out they went, except for Pilot Officer McMullen.

He wrestled with the great, stricken beast, and crash-landed in a farmer’s field to avoid crashing down in the streets of Darlington.

“He sacrificed himself to save a lot of people,” his old gunner says.

John has a photograph of the pilot. He is smiling in the picture. He is young, full of life, full of potential unlived. Passing it to the children, it travels from row to row, moving through a cafeteria that is a cross-section of Canada in the 21st century.

White, brown, black and yellow-skinned children sit knee to knee. They have pigtails and hair ribbons and headscarves — and Iron Maiden T-shirts and jackets made by Adidas, the German sports apparel giant.

It is a different world now, a different Canada from the one John Feeley knew, once upon a time. He likes what he sees. He also knows people are forgetting about the past, and can feel a sense of ingratitude, or perhaps ignorance, around the sacrifices his generation made. It is the same for Jack and Don, unless they walk into a Royal Canadian Legion branch where they get treated “with respect.”

The men are not angry about it. It is what it is. People have busy lives. They have families. They forget. But the ones who lived through the war never will.

After bailing out from his second bomber in the span of six months, John Feeley had a sinking feeling. He had been lucky twice, and was convinced the third time would be lethal. So he sought the counsel of the Catholic priest stationed at his base.

“I told him, ‘Father, if it is OK with you and OK with the air force, I’d just as soon be done with this flying thing,’ ” he says.

“All he said to me was: ‘You’ll have to live with yourself for the rest of your life.’ I had no idea what he meant at first, but when I translated it into something I could understand I knew he was saying don’t be a quitter — you don’t want to have to live with that.

“And that’s why I talk to the kids. I don’t want to be a quitter. I am a survivor.”

Each time he tells his story to a group, he gives new life to the old memories. Maybe only 20 kids in the entire crowd will be truly listening. Maybe only a few of the lines sink in.

But saying the words out loud matters.

On this day, the old air force gunner speaks to the students for a little over an hour. He takes their questions, and accepts their thanks — a book about flying in the Second World War — and leaves them with a simple message, passing a torch from his failing, frail hands, to theirs.

“I am not anticipating that I will be doing this much longer,” John says. “But I hope I have given you some idea of the price that was paid.

“You are young people. You have freedom of speech. You have freedom of action. You would never have wanted to live in a country that had our enemy as its leader.

“And you can take my word for that.”

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