By Roger Pike
Someone asked me the other day if I knew any real heroes of world conflicts that have impacted the lives of Newfoundlanders.
I paused momentarily before offering up the names of both by grandfather and father who were veterans of the First and Second World wars. But were they heroes?
They wouldn’t look at themselves as heroes. Veterans hardly do. They simply acknowledge their service in a somber, reflective way and move on with the conversation. At least that’s what my dad did. Perhaps that’s the way it should be, although now I wish I would have quizzed him more. But there are heroes nevertheless.
Those who are recipients of the Victoria Cross come to mind. The VC, as it was called, was instituted in 1856 but was made retroactive to 1854 to cover the period of the Crimean War. The VC was awarded for outstanding deeds of gallantry in the presence of the enemy, although there have been exceptions. In 1866 there was a Private OHea who was awarded the Victoria Cross for suppressing a fire in a railway car containing live ammunition.
The first investiture of the VC took place June 26, 1857 in Hyde Park in London, where 62 recipients were presented to Queen Victoria. There have been approximately 1,351 VCs awarded worldwide, with 94 going to Canadians. The majority were awarded during the First Great War.
The most recent recipient of the Victoria Cross was Corporal Byrna Budd, a British paratrooper killed in Afghanistan in August 2006. The youngest living recipient is Johnson Behary, a British Soldier who served in Iraq. While Tommy Ricketts is thought to be the youngest to ever receive a Victoria Cross, he is not the only Newfoundlander to have been a recipient. John Bernard Croak of Little Bay served with Canadian Forces in the First Great War and was killed in August 1918 at the age of 26. His medals are on display at the War Museum in Halifax.
There are so many great stories of heroes, such as James Guinchard, a foot soldier from St. Malo in France who fought in the Crimean War. The story goes that he was to receive a VC for his bravery in saving the lives if British officers and men. Authorities could not find him to award his medal and pension for life. It appears he disappeared after he was let out of the hospital after being seriously wounded and was kidnapped by a ship’s crew looking for men to sail to fish in the New World (Newfoundland).
James Guinchard escaped at Port Aux Choix and traveled west to Daniel’s Harbour. A family there took him in, fed him and helped restore his health. Only when he died did the Governor of Newfoundland discover his presence. The governor sent a representative to Daniel’s Harbour and confirmed it was Guinchard, the Victoria Cross recipient. He had married and had a big family, some of whom still reside in Daniel’s Harbour.
I’m told that one of the family members still has the bullet that was taken from his body at the Crimean War. Guinchard never left Daniel’s Harbour. He rests in the cemetery there today, a reminder that true heroes do exist.
The Royal Canadian Legion’s annual poppy campaign is underway. The poppy has acted as a symbol of remembrance since 1921 when it was first used by the Great War Veterans Association. Now is the time to remember the sacrifices made not only by the Victoria Cross recipients but by all veterans.
Last year at this time I wrote of the testimony my grandfather made at the war crimes trial surrounding his capture and torture as a prisoner of war in Germany. His torture impacted our family in many ways.
As I reflect on that great sacrifice my heart also goes out to the family of Jamie Murphy, a Newfoundland soldier who was among the first to die in the war in Afghanistan and the many other Newfoundlanders who paid the final price for freedom over there.
It’s hard to believe we are a country at war. Life goes on as we fight the swine flu and look for the winner of this year’s World Series. It’s as if this was in Afghanistan was only made for television. But it is for real. Just ask the families of those having sons of daughters over seas.
As I said earlier, veterans don’t see themselves as heroes. They never do. They leave that up for us to decide and while there are no Victoria Cross medals in our family home, I look proudly at the photos taken by my father in France with fellow soldiers like Eugene Curran of Windsor and Art Simmons from St. Johns to realize theirs was a special time. It was a time we will probably never fully understand or appreciate. But each year at this time I try.
Take just a moment to reflect on what sacrifices have been made by so many. Wear your symbol with pride and please ‘Forget Me Not.’