Bob Price shares a very personal story about his family's connection to Remembrance Day, and an Uncle who never made it back home.
Captain John Ethelbert Orr is 28 forever.
He was an uncle I only knew through stories told by my mother and her sisters. By all accounts, uncle John was outgoing, fun-loving, and dedicated to his family and country. He was also brave and selfless.
It was the Battle of Scheldt in World War II in October of 1944 when the First Canadian Army led a series of military operations with Polish and British units attached, to open an important shipping route to Antwerp, Belgium. It was also a key battle which would later result in the liberation of the Netherlands. This was a challenging and ultimately deadly fight for Canada’s highly respected troops, who were given the difficult assignment of clearing German forces from both banks of the Scheldt estuary.
The conflict killed or wounded over 6,300 Canadian soldiers including Captain Orr, who would never return to his native Saskatchewan.
My uncle John was eventually laid to rest in a Canadian military cemetery in Bergen op Zoom, Holland near the Belgian border. Holding the graves of 968 Canadian soldiers, the people of Holland recognize this cemetery as Canadian territory.
While I have long held general knowledge of my uncle’s role in World War II, my family’s loss became deeply personal a few years ago when my wife and I made the decision to visit Bergen op Zoom. To say the least, it was a highly emotional and unforgettable experience that underscored the everlasting appreciation the Dutch people have for Canada’s role in their freedom.
This journey began on a warm spring evening at our home in Kamloops. As my wife and I shared a bottle of wine, our conversation somehow turned to my uncle John. After an Internet search, I left a note on the Bergen Op Zoom cemetery website guestbook, requesting a photo of my uncle’s headstone.
Within days, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a response from Bas Van Leeuwen. Mr. Van Leeuwen explained that he was a retired member of the Netherlands Armed Forces and that he was now a chauffeur and would in fact be at Bergen op Zoom for a ceremony involving Canada’s then Governor General Michaelle Jean. This was the start of a lasting friendship, formed indirectly from the ravages of war.
Upon arriving in Amsterdam on the train, we were greeted by Bas and Joke Van Leeuwen who had insisted we stay at their home in the village of t’Harde. Greeted by family and friends, my wife and I instantly felt a special bond with people who have never forgotten the sacrifices made by Canadian soldiers who played such a vital role to free their country from the evil of Hitler.
The next day, we set out on a day long journey that would take us to Bergen op Zoom where I was bursting with pride as we laid a wreath at my uncle’s grave. We also left a framed poem – The Soldier, that my mother had written for her brother that sadly, she never had the opportunity to deliver herself.
From Bergen op Zoom, we then proceeded to the very location where uncle John and so many other Canadian heroes paid the ultimate price, at what is now a grass-covered Scheldt estuary.
Amazingly, while we there, we were approached by an elderly gentleman from Belgium. He wanted to know about my uncle and when he was killed. While explaining what I knew of the day that Captain Orr was taken, tears rolled down the man’s cheek.
“I was here that day,” he said as his voice broke.
He explained that he was 10 years old when Hitler’s forces arrived at his nearby farmhouse and killed his parents and 7-year-old brother. He was able to escape and hid in a haystack for three days and only emerged when he recognized the allied forces approaching. He then recalled the hail of gunfire as Canadian soldiers rushed him to safety as bullets rained down on the Allied troops from both sides of the estuary.
Words will never explain how I felt as the man recalled his unimaginable ordeal. It was as if my Uncle John himself had brought us together to help me better understand the reality of the horror that was WW II.
As we approach Remembrance Day, lest we forget Canada’s soldiers who sacrificed their dreams for our tomorrows. And to all those who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today, the words of John Ethelbert Orr’s sister, Phyllis:
My son, my brother, my nephew, my friend.
You were young and so good to know.
Only a youth in the prime of your life,
War claimed you, and you wanted to go.
“For the good of my country” you said.
“For the good of my fellow man.”
Into the rages of an unknown hell,
You willingly walked and ran.
You died in a bloody battle of fire,
Gave up all your dreams for the cause.
May God in Heaven take care of you now,
While on earth two minutes we pause.
Bob Price is a veteran B.C. broadcaster who anchored the morning news on CHNL radio in Kamloops for the past 30 years. Bob is also a past Webster Award winner whose previous stops included Vancouver and Calgary.
- Last week, Bob Price looked at how tech is trumping tourism in the Central Okanagan.
- Jody Vance touched on the importance of observing and honouring Remembrance Day last year.
- Daniel Marshall helped another family reconnect with their predecessors, as he worked with the Cowichan Tribes on the return of Chief (Charlie) Tsulpi’multw’s ceremonial blanket.