As Eleanore Schroeder and her son Daryl placed a poppy on a wreath at the Remembrance Day service in Gretna last Sunday, she kissed her fingertips and gently placed them on one of the black and white photos lined up on the stage.
It was the service photo of her brother-in-law, Private Ernest Schroeder.
The young man was serving with the 1st Canadian Battalion, and was killed in action while parachuting over France.
He was decorated with several service medals.
He was only 20 years old.
Eleanore says she and his younger brother Alfred were dating at the time.
She recalls how Ernest took her aside one day, and said he had a secret to share, and she couldn’t tell a soul.
“He told me he had enlisted, and I couldn’t tell anyone, not even Alfred, until he was overseas. He didn’t think they’d understand and he didn’t want them to stop him.”
Ernest died on August 1, 1944. “It was on my birthday,” she says. “When we found out later that he’d been killed… that was an incredibly sad day. He and Alfred were very close.”
Two of her own brothers had also gone to war.
“I remember when they asked my father how he felt about them going, and he said, ‘Well, boys, Canada has been wonderful to me. I could raise you in a good environment. It’s going to be hard on me…but this is Canada.”
Eventually, the two boys returned home safe, but not necessarily sound, she says.
“They called it battle fatigue then, but I guess it’s called PTSD now. There was no help for men like them. They weren’t the same when they came back. My one brother was a farmer and he’d be out on the tractor, and if he heard a plane fly over, he’d jump down and hide under the tractor.”
Her son Daryl says the legacy of his uncle has been a part of the family’s life for years.
“Part of my bucket list was to go to France and see the war cemetery where he’s buried. I went with my sister, my nephew and his girlfriend last April, and it was amazing.”
The highlight of the trip was parachuting over France, and landing on the same spot his uncle Ernest had landed all those years ago.
“I wanted to have that connection, and it was incredibly meaningful.”
Daryl says he was overwhelmed when he arrived at the Ranville War Cemetery.
“Words and pictures don’t do it justice. You have to see it for yourself. I thought we’d be there maybe an hour, but we were there for four hours the first time, and maybe a couple of hours the second time,” he says.
“Just looking at all the stones, seeing the numbers, especially all the stones that have “unknown but known to God” inscribed on them. It was very sobering.”
They came upon the bridge in Belgium that acted as kind of a turning point for soldiers during the war.
“People crossed it but they never came back. They built a bridge there, and it’s huge. Every night, 365 days a year, they play the last post. How amazing that all these years later, they’re still honouring those soldiers every single day.”
Daryl says it really was the trip of a lifetime.
“Just seeing everything, like the Pegasus bridge where the gliders came down on D-Day where he landed. We got to walk the same ground Ernest walked. Just amazing. Until then, we only had the one photo of my uncle, but at the museum, we found a photo of him with his battalion. That put a lump in my throat.”
Daryl’s father Alfred passed away last spring, before he could hear all about the journey to France.
“Dad never served. He wanted to join, but the war ended. But he lost his brother. And back then, you just accepted things and moved on. What happened, happened. But later, we started remembering and going back to all these places and memories. And it hit me….”
Voice cracking with emotion, he continues… “We had a hero in the family.”