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Former military members in Oak Bay reflect on remembrance

Carlton House veterans recall service, share value of Remembrance Day

Reverence for those who served resonates among the military veterans living at Carlton House of Oak Bay.

Most of the boys they grew up alongside were members of cadets or scouts and joined up, explained Charles Etchell.

“Everyone was itching to get into service and get into war. It was just a different era,” he said.

Etchell finished high school in 1943 and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force immediately, training as a pilot in Manitoba and Calgary. “I was all set to go … and they dropped the bomb and that was the end of my air force career. But I loved flying,” he said.

He’s part of a generation that grew up with men heading off to war – many never to return, others injured physically, emotionally or both upon return.

Etchell remembers a particular Remembrance Day with his father, who lost a leg in the First World War. That year instead of marking the moment of silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in miserable rain in downtown Vancouver, they paused to reflect in a tented service at the University of British Columbia – dry.

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Doug Henderson thinks of his father-in-law – who died in Sicily – on Remembrance Day.

In 2014, a ceremony marked the 70th anniversary of the operation and his younger son and one of his granddaughters attended. During the ceremony, a relative of each of the fallen soldiers stood by their relative’s grave and they did a roll call. “My granddaughter answered for him,” Henderson said. “That’s one of the reasons that Remembrance Day is important to me.”

Henderson, joined the navy in 1955 and served on both coasts and around the world for over 37 years.

“I joined up as the Korean War was sort of over and the ships were starting to come back and the Canadian navy was starting to expand rapidly and that looked like a pretty exciting career, which it turned out to be for me.”

His best job was piloting a destroyer, describing it as great fun – “it was like driving a racing car” – with hefty responsibility.

“You have the responsibility of the ship and ship’s company and everything it does,” he explained.

It was all new, exciting and the travel was incredible, but there was always the work against the potential threat, agreed James (Ray) Webber, who also joined in 1955.

“It was the buildup for the Cold War, so things were moving pretty quickly in those days,” he said. “We were getting aircraft, preparing the squadrons to go to Europe so it was pretty darned exciting.”

Henderson agreed and recalled a particular time when they were among a group of Canadian ships sailing the North Sea and being tailed by a Russian vessel.

“That was scary, in those days our ships had no armour to speak of,” he said.

Another naval veteran, Jim Newby, joined the navy in Edmonton in late 1943.

In particular, he recalls a trip around North America. The war was just ending when he boarded HMCS Charlottetown (1943) and they travelled down the east coast, through the Panama Canal and back up to Victoria. The frigate was scuttled in the waters off Victoria as an artificial reef. “It was a good ship,” he said.

He served on HMCS Ontario until August 1947 when he was discharged at Naden.

The lone woman among the veterans of Carlton House, Marie Gill, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1951. “When I heard they were going to start enrolling women in the air force in the early ’50s I was one of the first in, and I was glad,” she said.

It was a valuable experience with a wonderful new type of job. The world was pretty big when you grew up in small-town Manitoba, she explained.

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In the comfortable meeting room with rain falling outside, Second World War veteran John Hillman sits surrounded by his fellow military veterans of a variety of generations. Hillman, 103, joined the Royal Air Force in 1937 at the age of 17.

“I joined the air force because there were no jobs for youngsters coming out of school in 1937,” he said. After failing to fulfil the pilot requirements, they put him in the tail, and he became a wireless operator.

He recalls being posted to France in August 1939.

“We lost half the squadron when the Germans broke through,” he said. With their aircraft rendered unusable, he and 60 others were told to make their way back to England as best they could

“We were left with approaching the western coast of France where a boat called the Lancaster would pick us up.” They finally arrived nearly four weeks later, one day late as the boat had been bombed and sunk.

They set out to find another way home. He remembers a young flying officer who rode a motorcycle scouting out for where the Germans were, then mapping a course out of France. They eventually got to Brittany where a British destroyer picked them up.

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Hillman served in the RAF until 1949 and was awarded four Second World War medals and saw action in France, Britain, Africa and Italy. He served in Burma from 1944 until Japan officially surrendered the next year.

“I had an angel on each shoulder looking after me,” Hillman said. “I was shot at and bombed for the whole of my service and I never got a scratch. I succumbed to the hideous temperatures and things in Burma eventually.”

Oak Bay residents can offer their moment of silence at the community’s historic cenotaph, or at home via livestream on Nov. 11. The Remembrance Day ceremony starts at 10:55 a.m. in person at, 2800 Beach Dr. and online at