November 8, 2013 by T. Gregory Argall
“They died for our freedom” is a phrase that, sadly, has taken on an almost cliché-like sense around November 11. Remembrance Day. Veteran’s Day. Armistice Day. This day has many names in many places but they’re all rooted in the same thing. As we get further and further away in time from the origins of the day, our post-twentieth century, ADD society needs quick catch-phrase labels for everything to remind us what to think.
“They died for our freedom” is one of the rare calendar tag-lines that actually does capture the meaning and essence of the message. Because it is so spot-on, nail-on-the-head accurate, it gets repeated often. As is often the case with things that get repeated often, it gets repeated too much, repeated to the point where it simply becomes background noise and no one is listening anymore.
“Lest We Forget” has also been rendered impotent through repetition. “Lest” is a word that has fallen out of common use and only ever gets spoken now in reference to November 11.
My grandfather didn’t fight in the war. He was not a soldier. During World War II he was a civilian employee of the Marconi Corporation, assigned as the Radio Operator on board the Empress of Canada a luxury ocean liner. His civilian job was apparently deemed essential to the war effort because while the Empress of Canada continued to operate as a private luxury liner, it was occasionally co-opted by the armed forces (along with the other ships in the Empress fleet) for troop movements or transporting POWs or both.
The Empress of Canada became legendary for eluding Nazi U-Boats. Long after all the other ships in the Empress fleet had been attacked and sunk, the Empress of Canada was still completing missions for the Allies. But winning streaks end and the Empress of Canada finally met her fate off the coast of Africa. Nazi submarines first sunk her military escort then turned their attention to the Empress.
The last man off the sinking boat was my grandfather. He knew that if he didn’t transmit a distress call along with their position, then there would be no rescue, ever. It was his job. He didn’t work for the Empress Cruise Lines, he worked for Marconi. He was just another sub-contractor relegated to the bowels of the ship. When the attack came, he was suddenly the most important person on board. He was the only one who could work the equipment need in order to get help.
Not everyone survived the attack. Soldiers died. Sailors died. Civilian passengers died. Prisoners of war died. Some drowned. Some were killed by the sharks that quickly swarmed around the area.
My grandfather was among the survivors but he saw friends die, he saw strangers die, he saw corpses devoured by nature’s minions. Eventually a rescue ship arrived and the survivors were plucked one by one from the ocean’s frigid grip.
I’ve often been told the story of how, on board the ship that answer his SOS, my grandfather was dressing after a shower when a young naval officer asked him, “What’s an old man like you doing in this war?” The last time he’d looked in a mirror, days earlier on board the Empress of Canada he had seen a full head of dark hair. In response to the sailor’s question he now looked in a mirror and saw that his hair had turned completely grey.
I don’t know how true that aspect of the story is. There have been studies that suggest that being frightened is not enough to change a person’s hair colour. I don’t know for sure. I like to think that part of the story is, in fact, true because it was at that point that my grandfather realised he wanted to stop sailing and go home to his wife, son and daughter.
After the war, he lived a long and productive life, until he was taken by Parkinson’s Disease. He died before I was born but I’ve been told I would have liked him because we’re so similar. Sometimes I’ll say something, phrased a certain way, or I’ll make an off-the-cuff joke and my Mom will just stop and look at me for a moment and I know she’s seeing her father,
For me, Remembrance Day means Jack Newberg, the grandfather I never met.
Everyone who has ever fought in a war, been caught near a war or been affected by a war, has only had one goal at the time. — To get home again to their families. Regardless of how they got there and what they were thinking and dreaming as they marched in, their entire focus became simply about getting home again.
That, alone, is enough, because it’s something worth fighting for.
Lest we forget. They died for our freedom. They fought for love. They were loyal. They wanted to get home.
We can’t reduce this day to a single, simple catch-phrase. Catch-phrases mean nothing without the stories behind them. Talk to a veteran. Hear their stories and pass those stories on. Tell them to your friends. Tell them to your children. Years from now, tell them to your grandchildren.
As long as the stories live on, we will never forget. We will learn.