Joe: A Remembrance

 I marked Remembrance Day in 2010 by sharing the story of my father’s experiences in the Second World War with my friends on Facebook, in the form of a day-long series of status updates. I shared the whole narrative again in 2011, and I present it here, revised and expanded. Through this story, I remember the generation Canadian men and women who served, their sacrifices and their valour. I believe that we serve the cause of peace by remembering the horror and hardships of war and the courage of the men and women who served.

This is my act of remembrance.


Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Early in 1943, Joe Friedman informed his parents that he was going to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. There was a war on, with opportunities for excitement and glory, and as far as he was concerned the question was not open for debate. However, as he was only 17, Joe needed his parents’ permission to enlist. His mother refused.

Joe did what any headstrong teenager would have done: he lied about his age at the enlistment office. Dorothy Friedman, horrified at the thought of losing her son to the war and in any event never inclined to take challenges to maternal authority lightly, was livid. She was determined to set things right and expose his lie to the Air Force recruiter.

Undaunted, Joe announced that if he could not join the Air Force he would enlist in the merchant navy instead. Having lost more than 100 ships in the North Atlantic convoy in 1943 alone, the most dangerous service was desperate for manpower and would be willing to overlook the fact that Joe was only 17. His mother gave in.

Joe’s enlistment in the RCAF was actually something of a foregone conclusion. Canadian resolve had not weakened after four years of war. The CBC’s Lorne Green – the “voice of doom” – intoned that “there is a job to be done,” while Nelvana of the Northern Lights and Johnny Canuck showed how good old Canadian pluck would ALWAYS defeat Nazi villainy, at least in the comic books.

The Air Force gave a youth from the dirty streets of Montreal’s Mile End district the opportunity to seek adventure and see the world. For a Jewish teenager, it also offered empowerment – a chance to get back at Nazi anti-Semitism. 20,000 Jewish Canadians served in the Second World War, a number exceeding their proportion of the Canadian population and in numbers far outstripping the national average.

In any event, Joe had the examples of his older brothers Melvin and Jack, and his older sister Ruth to emulate. By 1943, all three had enlisted in the RCAF. A photo of all four ran in the Montreal Star with the caption, “The Fighting Friedmans.” By the summer of that year Joe, like his brothers and sisters and hundreds – if not thousands – of young men and women who had attended Montreal’s Baron Byng and Bancroft schools, was in uniform.

The Fighting Friedmans in 1943: Melvin, Ruth, Jack and Joe

It’s remarkable how quickly the RCAF molded teenage toughs like Joe into disciplined airmen. After a few weeks of basic training, Joe was assigned to RCAF Mont-Joli Station as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan for training as an air gunner. He excelled in his training, and by the winter of 1944 was sent overseas to Newfoundland with the rank of corporal to join the bomber crew of an Active Training Unit.

Shortly after his 19th birthday, in the summer of 1944, Joe was shipped to Britain for two months of operational training before finally being posted to a No. 195 Squadron, a composite RAF/RCAF unit based at RAF Wratting Common, as the tail-gunner in an Avro Lancaster Mk I bomber.

Mark Goldwater, an old schoolmate from Montreal who had dropped out of Sir George Williams University to join the RCAF, joined the crew as mid-upper gunner. The Flight Engineer was 19-year-old Sergeant Douglas Cullum from Waddon, Surrey. Flying Officer Norman Waring, from Caernarvon, Wales, joined the crew as bombardier. Sitting in the position behind the cockpit was the wireless operator Sergeant Bernard White of New Southgate, Middlesex. Flying Officer Richard Barry, a school teacher from Fredericton, NB was the navigator. Of the seven crewmen, four were still teenagers. The skipper, Robert Tait Roth, a graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, ON,  was the “old man” at 24.

RAF Bomber Command suffered the highest casualty rate of any allied service in the Second World War. A bomber crewman had only a one in four chance of completing a 30-mission tour of duty without injury. He was almost twice as likely to be killed in action. Joe’s life expectancy when he joined his operational squadron in England was six weeks.

Bomber Command’s thousand-plane raids were organized partly in response to the bombers’ vulnerability to fighter attacks and the horrific casualties among bomber crews. There was strength in numbers, of course, but more importantly, with an expected 50% aircraft loss rate, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris reasoned that huge raids could still deliver massive destruction, regardless of the cost in aircrew lives.

Joe Friedman (bottom left) with his training unit crew, including Tait Roth (second from left, top) and Mark Goldwater (bottom right).

The tail-gunner’s turret was the most vulnerable position aboard a Lancaster. Although Joe was armed with four .303 machine guns, his odds of actually hitting a moving target from his unstable position were infinitesimally small. However, seated at the point from which the vast majority of German fighter attacks came, he was by far the most likely crew member to be killed or injured.

By November 1944, Joe had come out of three raids unscathed and was promoted to sergeant. The Luftwaffe was running out of fuel and had made the strategic decision to not deploy fighters to defend cities like Essen, Duisberg and Dusseldorf. They had already been repeatedly carpet-bombed into kindling and no longer had any value to the German war-effort.

The briefing for Joe’s fourth raid identified the target as Witten, a city of 50,000 in the Ruhr Valley which, to date, had not been bombed. However, there were very few cities of substantial size left unscathed by late-1944 and, in the interests of keeping up the war effort, Bomber Command chose to send almost 500 aircraft to obliterate the town’s small arms factory.

The raid began uneventfully as 500 Lancaster and Halifax bombers of more than thirty squadrons executed a flawless rendezvous en-route to the target. Each aircraft carried 14,000 lbs of high explosive and incendiary bombs and a crew of seven men. 3,500 Canadians and Britons were sent to drop 3,500 tons of explosives on 50,000 German civilians in the early hours of the morning of 12 December 1944.

The bombers encountered increasingly heavy anti-aircraft fire  as they approached the outskirts of Witten, flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet and a speed of 200 knots. As wave after wave broke from the main force and reduced speed to begin their bombing runs, they encountered unexpectedly stiff opposition from four Luftwaffe fighter squadrons.

Joe could see nearby bombers break formation, shudder, and sport plumes of black smoke as they were hit by enemy fire. Within minutes, his own ship banked into its bombing approach. The chatter on the intercom about incoming fighters was so thick and incomprehensible that the old man called for quiet. Joe scanned the brightening sky. He stopped breathing when he saw the fighter.

The Focke-Wulf 190 approached the Lancaster from behind and slightly to starboard. Joe squeezed off one burst of machine gun fire after another, but his target was too fast and too nimble. His turret suddenly dissolved in a cascade of broken glass and shards of steel as bursts of the fighter’s tracer fire and exploding 20mm cannon shells crashed into the bomber.

Joe felt the aircraft shudder. He could just make out the old man on the intercom over the howl of the wind order the crew to abandon ship.  The fighter’s attack had cut the hydraulic lines  so he had to laboriously crank the gun turret manually, climb into the fuselage and make his way to escape hatch. As Joe crawled along the gangway, he felt the Lancaster nose down and begin its death spiral.

The Lancaster’s tail-gunner was isolated half an aircraft away from the rest of the crew, and Joe had no idea if any of his comrades had bailed out successfully. What he did know was that the aircraft was ablaze and minutes from crashing to earth when he finally made it to the escape hatch. At that moment, he realized that he had forgotten to strap on his parachute in his panic.

Joe crawled back along the gangway. The aircraft was hit by another burst of cannon fire, which sent razor-sharp shrapnel into his head, arms and shoulders. Bleeding and in pain, his hands freezing, he clipped on his parachute, made his way back to the hatch and pushed. The steel door was bent and wouldn’t open. He pushed again and finally kicked it open with all of his strength and bailed.

The next day, Joe’s brother Melvin, stationed in Britain with the RCAF, received an Air Ministry telegram informing him that “F/SGT Friedman, J.A. has been reported missing in action.” The week that followed was extraordinarily difficult for the Friedman family. While they knew there was hope (about 10% of aircrew reported missing were later found in POW camps) the hope was faint and the waiting was agony.

Joe remained missing for several days and was officially presumed dead until a Red Cross inspection team located him in a German transit camp in late December, 1944. His mother received the welcomed news in a telegram that arrived on 19 December 1944. The last day of Chanukah.

Neither Rose and William Goldwater, nor the families of Joe’s other crewmates would learn until 1946 that their sons were buried outside of Dortmund. They would be re-interred later that year at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Reichswald Forest War Cemetery in Kleve, Nordrhein.

POW index card, 1944.

Joe had parachuted to the outskirts of Witten. Badly injured and bleeding, he made a rough landing near a road. He dimly noticed two groups of Germans rushing toward him – a crowd of survivors from the city he had just bombed wanted revenge. A platoon of Wehrmacht soldiers approached from the other direction. The soldiers arrived first. By a matter of seconds.

Following his capture, Joe was taken to a German field hospital near Duisberg to have his injuries – shrapnel in the head and shoulders, multiple lacerations and burns – treated. From there, he was transferred to a Dulag Luft transit camp for interrogation. It was probably during this time that he contracted tuberculosis and was spotted by Red Cross officials.

Joe was finally transferred to Stalag Luft I, a Luftwaffe prison camp outside of the town of Barth, Pomerania that housed 9,000 captured allied airmen. The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest in memory, and Barth was two miles from the Baltic coast. On a rare clear day, you could see Sweden across the straits from the beach north of the camp. Assuming, that is, that you were outside the wire.

The camp was divided into four compounds, each housing around 2,000 prisoners. Joe was assigned to the West compound, in a 16’x24′ barracks room with 23 other POWs. The barracks were uninsulated clapboard shacks, and each room was heated with a single wood-burning stove – when there was wood to burn. With the nightly temperatures dropping below zero Fahrenheit, Joe learned to sleep in his clothes, like the old timers.

Roll call at Stalag Luft I.

The prisoners at Stalag Luft I were constantly hungry. The German government claimed to the Red Cross that every POW was fed 1200 calories per day, but in the last months of the war, with endemic food shortages throughout the Reich, expending even that level of resources on enemy airmen seemed excessive to German officials. In reality the prisoners at Barth were fed no more than 1000 or even 900 calories per day.

Meals usually consisted of bread heavily adulterated with sawdust, thin turnip or cabbage broth and, very occasionally, boiled potatoes. Joe developed a lifelong aversion to turnips. Prisoners could supplement their prison rations with their Red Cross packages – but only when those packages arrived without having been first pillaged by the starving German guards… or when they arrived at all.

German discipline was harsh. Virtually every infraction, from failing turn up for the many daily roll calls, or showing inadequate respect to a guard would result, at minimum, in a week or month in the cooler, a block of unheated brick and stone cells. Other infractions, like crossing the first line of fences, or remaining in the compound when ordered into barracks, were usually grounds for summary execution.

The line of fences at Stalag Luft I.

In many ways, however, the worst part of life in Stalag Luft I was the boredom. Young men like Joe found themselves removed from a life of daily peril, with bursts of intense excitement, to a carefully controlled and disciplined sedentary existence. By the time Joe arrived at the camp, the prisoners were under orders from their own offices to not event attempt escape.

For the most part, Joe played cribbage on boards fashioned out of wood scraps pulled from the walls of the rickety barracks buildings. He read, mostly late-romantic and Victorian poetry in books provided by the YMCA. Under the title “my favourite poem,” he copied Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the pages of his journal. A fellow prisoner drew an illustration.

The camp was also home to the POW WOW, the largest-circulation underground newspaper in Germany. Distributed with the warning “TO BE READ SILENTLY, QUICKLY AND IN GROUPS OF THREE,” the newspaper contained news gleaned from German newspapers, camp PA announcements and especially from BBC news broadcasts heard on the secret radio, built from smuggled parts and hidden in the North compound chapel’s altar.

POW WOW correspondents would secretly listen to the radio, transcribe news onto sheets of toilet paper, and hand them to a “compositor” who typed up the daily issue on legal-sized tissue paper, duplicated with carbons on a stolen typewriter. When carbon paper became scarce, the editorial team improvised their own by holding sheets of paper over kerosene lamps to coat them in oily soot.

Joe was always thinking of food. West Compound organized an Easter feast, collecting part of every man’s rations and Red Cross packages to make a corned-beef and liver-paste soup and bread pudding with raisins. But that was rare. Mostly, Joe copied recipes in his journal for imagined luxuries like Welsh rarebit, and daydreamed of the delicacies back home in Montreal, like the Laurier BBQ’s coconut cream pie.

The 14 April 1945 issue of POW WOW, reporting on Patton’s push into Saxony.

The prisoners at Stalag Luft I were in unusually good spirits by the middle of April 1945. Part of that might have been due to delirium caused by the reduction of prisoner rations to 800 calories per day. But the main cause was news – published in POW WOW – that Patton’s 3rd Army had driven into Saxony and the Western allies held a 100-mile front along the Elbe. The war, it seemed, would soon be over.

Joe also noticed that the camp guards were becoming increasingly tense and restless. The prisoners could faintly hear artillery fire and explosions from the east of Barth as the Red Army advanced into Eastern Pomerania. Most Wehrmacht units in the area had already been withdrawn toward Berlin, leaving the camp’s garrison to face the inevitable Soviet attack virtually alone.

On 30 April 1945, Oberst Warnstadt, the camp commandant, called the Senior Allied Officer, Col. Hubert “Hub” Zemke (USAAF) and his senior officers to the camp headquarters. Warnstadt had been ordered to evacuate the camp several hundred miles to the West to escape the advancing Red Army. Realizing that he was in an untenable position, the Oberst requested the prisoners’ cooperation.

Zemke refused. He knew that, after months of half rations, and with allied bombers pummeling every road in the Reich with bombs and rockets, the evacuation would be a death march. After conferring with his officers, Zemke informed the commandant that the prisoners would not leave the camp willingly. If Warnstadt insisted on an evacuation, he would have to use force.

The prisoners expected force. Facing capture by the Red Army, the camp guards had become increasingly aggressive and brutal in their treatment of the POWs. Zemke had secretly organized a prisoner strike force and had been stockpiling homemade explosives and knives for several weeks in the knowledge that German officers had been ordered to execute allied prisoners if necessary.

Ultimately, Warnstadt secretly agreed to surrender the camp to the POWs. At 8:00 pm, 30 April 1945, all prisoners were confined to barracks. At 10 pm, every light in the camp was turned off. The garrison quietly mustered at the West gate, and marched out of camp, leaving the gate unlocked. When Joe awoke on the morning of 1 May he and the other 9,000 prisoners found that they were alone in an unguarded camp.

The senior allied officers ordered the prisoners to remain within the camp to await liberation by the Red Army and set up a Military Police unit to maintain order within the camp. Crews tore down the barbed wire fences and Col. Zemke sent scouting patrols to the East to make contact with the Soviets and inform them that the camp was now in allied hands.

Col. Zemke (centre) with Gen. Marozil (second from left) and staff on 8 May 1945.

In the next few days, advanced units of Marshall Rokassofsy’s First Ukrainian Army entered Stalag Luft I. None stayed but Col. Zemke used the opportunity to send his officers back with them to locate the Soviet commander. Short of food, the POWs were becoming impatient. About 700 left the camp on their own, about a dozen were killed in the crossfire of the dying days of World War II.

Red Army Gen. Marozil officially liberated the camp on 4 May 1945. The Russians provided the POWs with flour, potatoes, eggs and about 100 head of cattle expropriated from nearby German homes and farms. The POWs ate well. The Russians provided entertainment and vodka. Overwhelmed by the sudden intake of food and alcohol, Joe and his comrades were quietly, violently sick… but ecstatic nonetheless.

Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. The next day, B-17s of the 91st Bomber Group of the United States Army Air Forces began ferrying the liberated POWs to Britain as part of Operation Revival. Each aircraft carried a dozen passengers, and the evacuation took almost a week. Joe was one of the last Stalag Luft I POWs to be evacuated to Britain on 15 May 1945.

Malnourished and suffering from the lingering effects of tuberculosis, Joe was hospitalized in Britain before being debriefed by RAF Intelligence in June. Due to the scale of demobilization, he would not be able to return to Canada until September. Released from hospital in time for his 20th birthday, and retroactively promoted to Flying Officer, Joe relaxed in London, spending his back-pay.

He was repatriated to Canada in early September 1945. Joe spent a few weeks recuperating at a sanatorium in the Laurentians before returning to Montreal. He would be in uniform until the end of 1945. During that time, few Montreal restaurants would let him pay for his meals. Not even for the coconut cream pie at the Laurier BBQ.


As readers of this blog know, Joe Friedman died in the spring of 2012 in Montreal at the age of 86. He is buried in the National Field of Honour in Pointe Claire, Quebec, in the company of veterans of the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. There is a monument to peace a few metres from his final resting place.

Robert Tait Roth, Mark Goldwater, George Barry, Douglas Cullum, Norman Waring, and Bernard White are buried at the Reichswald Forest Cemetary in Kleve, Nordrhein, Germany.

To quote the lines from the “Ode of Remembrance:”

Sgt. Mark Goldwater, 1925-1944

F/O Robert Tait Roth, 1920-1944

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.



Originally posted 11 November 2012

The White Poppy

poppyNovember 11 is a day of great significance for me, one full of reflection, sorrow and gratitude. At the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month every year, I will stop whatever I am doing and mark two minutes of silence. If I am able, I will do this while I watch the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Cenotaph in Ottawa on the CBC.

I do this, in part, for deeply personal reasons. My late father served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with his sister and two brothers, during World War II. My maternal grandfather had been a groom – a soldier who cared for and managed the horses in a Guards regiment – in the Great War of 1914-1918. At that moment of silence every year, I feel connected to them, and to their friends and comrades – so many of whom never returned – across the years. I think of their pain, their loss and, yes, their courage.

Yet I also do this for profoundly social reasons. Remembrance Day, for me and for many Canadians, provides an opportunity to share a moment of communal memory. This was reinforced throughout my childhood and youth by the Remembrance Day assemblies every year. In primary and secondary school, my classmates and I would quietly file into the gymnasium for a somber service of remembrance. There principal would say a few words; there would be two minutes of fidgeting silence. Sometimes a bugler from the local cadets company would play the Last Post and the Rouse. Someone would read the Act of Remembrance:

They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them.

John McCrae, 1914

John McCrae, 1914

More often than not, a fellow student with a gift for public speaking would solemnly recite “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, a Canadian Army surgeon who died at Boulogne-sur-Mer in the last year of the Great War.

 In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

 Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

We all wore red poppies pinned to our coats in the November chill because of McCrae’s famous poem. In 1918, an American educator and Red Cross volunteer named Moina Michael published a poem responding to McCrae’s exhortation to keep the faith:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With all who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders Fields we fought

The American Legion adopted the red poppy as its official symbol of remembrance two years later. The Royal Canadian Legion followed in 1921, turning it into a badge to be worn on the left lapel, next to one’s heart. Within two years, the gesture had spread to Great Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth.

The red poppy took root, as it were, amid the horror and the grief of the years following 1918. As historian Jay Winter notes in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, the personal grief of those who lost comrades, friends, lovers, sons and parents in the war became externalized in a common experience of bereavement through public mourning that defined and reinforced the postwar community. And everyone had lost someone; France lost 1.4 million soldiers to the war, Britain almost 900,000. Canada, with a population of 7 million, left the bodies of 67,000 young men in the fields of France and Flanders.

The Cenotaph in Ottawa

The Cenotaph in Ottawa

Everyone mourned and, Winter writes, the “bonds shared by those in mourning, by widows, ex-servicemen, the disabled, the young and the old alike, were expressed openly in ceremonies of collective memory.” Canadians, Americans, French and Britons met every year at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at war memorials and cenotaphs – the “empty tombs” that mark the collective memory of war throughout the Commonwealth – to remember, and to honour the promise that we will not break faith with the fallen.

The red poppy is an important part of the ritual; for many people it is the act of remembrance. When I was young, the old soldiers of the Royal Canadian Legion, many of whom were patients at the Veterans’ Hospital in nearby Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, and some of whom had even served in the trenches of 1914-1918, distributed  them at a kiosk at the local grocery store in exchange for donations to support veterans and their families. I remember well the feeling of walking up to the table with my father and dropping a quarter in the can with a combination of gratitude and pride. Most of those veterans, including my father, are gone now but the poppies remain.

red poppyI have worn a red poppy every year that I can remember. That became difficult when I moved to the United States in 2005, where the remembrance poppy is much less common. So each year, I have asked friends back home to acquire one for me from an old soldier. Each year, I pinned the poppy to my lapel a week before Remembrance Day, conscious that the symbol is unintelligible to most of the people I pass on the New York subway or the PATH Train, but satisfied that, in a small way, I have been able to maintain a connection to Canada and the historical memory of the wars of the 20th century. I have not broken faith.

Yet, at the back if my mind, I have always felt a little uncomfortable about the red poppy’s symbolism. I can still hear “In Flanders Fields” recited in my grandfather’s booming voice. I can see the poppies in my imagination, blowing gently in the wind at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Soissons, and Vimy, between thousands of crosses marking thousands of shattered corpses. And then, in my grandfather’s voice, the dead enjoin me to “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” They pass the torch to my hands and warn “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.”

Even as a child, the vengeful tone of those lines gave me pause. I felt a frisson of doubt as my grandfather’s voice turned stern and demanding. What if I do not wish to take up the quarrel, to continue the war – this cycle of violence and death? Will I have really broken faith with the fallen? Does the red poppy on my lapel signify not only my remembrance of the fallen, but an embrace of their mission, the war that destroyed them?

According to the Royal Canadian Legion, the red poppy is a “symbol of unity for those who recognize the sacrifices that were made for their freedom.” I do recognize those sacrifices – the sacrifices of my grandfather, my father, their comrades and friends – but I feel uncomfortable marking that memory alone. What of the foe? What of the young German, Austrian, Italian and Japanese men? I condemn their leaders and generals – the starched shirts and ribbon merchants who sent millions of young men to their deaths in two world wars – but not the men themselves. Whether they were patriotic volunteers like my father who answered their countries’ call or, more likely, conscripts compelled to take up arms by their governments, they fell just the same.

And what of the civilians? Indeed, if the history of 20th century is war is about anything, it is about how it spilled over from the battlefield to every corner of human life. Throughout the last century, the “front line,” as the location of the fighting and dying was once called, ceased to exist. The swath of death began to fall everywhere, with little regard for whether or not its victims wore uniforms or carried arms.

Almost 60 percent of the 17 million dead of the First World War were soldiers, sailors and airmen. They were volunteers and conscripts, hardened professional soldiers and inexperienced, idealistic young men whose bodies littered the landscape of Europe from the Somme to Passchendale, to Tannenberg Forest and the mountain passes at Caporetto. Yet 10 million dead soldiers, and 20 million survivors whose bodies had been shattered by bullets, artillery shells and poison gas were only part of the horror. The war left 7 million noncombatants dead as long range guns launched high explosive shells 80 miles behind the lines, as aircraft dropped bombs on city streets… and as famine and disease stalked the “home front” in London, Paris, St. Petersburg and Berlin.

When the killing resumed in 1939, after an exhausted world spent two decades licking its wounds and produced a new generation of young men to die in sufficient numbers, new practices and technologies of killing had erased the line that separated the front from the home front. Conservative estimates put the butcher’s bill of the Second World War at 60 million dead, but it may have been much higher. And of those dead, the majority – 38 million – were civilians. They died starving on the streets of Leningrad, in the rubble of Dresden and the London Blitz. Ten million died in Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps 100,000 died in an instant in Hiroshima.

The trend has only accelerated since 1945. Wars are no longer fought between armies, but by armies against civilians. Even in our “clean” wars and “surgical strikes,” the “collateral damage” of civilian casualties always outnumber the combatant casualties. What was the “collateral damage” of the Vietnam War? Perhaps five million Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian civilians – a ratio of five noncombatants to every military death – after you tally up the corpses in the killing fields and bomb craters. How many civilians are dying today in an unending war as American robotic killing machines fire missiles at targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan?

The dead are no longer the young men – our young men, or their young men, it doesn’t really matter – who exhort us to take up their cause, but everyone. How do we mark their meimories. How do we keep faith?

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

One of the lessons I learned from my father is that violence is always a failure of humanity and that war is wrong. My father was proud of his service in the RCAF. He had every right to be. I am proud of my father, of his courage, his strength and his sacrifice. He was a brave man who did his duty when called… Yet he was troubled by the memory of what he had been called upon to do.

He first intimated this to me in 1992, as we discussed the controversy surrounding the airing of Brian McKenna’s documentary series The Valour and the Horror. McKenna had come under a firestorm of criticism from veterans’ groups – including the Royal Canadian Legion – for his depiction of the RAF/RCAF bombing campaign over Nazi Germany as a bloody combination of homicidal mania and incompetence. Yet, after my father had watched it, he grimly noted that the documentary had captured “what it really was like… for me.”

I always made a point of calling my father on Remembrance Day. On our last Remembrance Day we talked about what it was like to come home as the sole survivor from his Lancaster bomber crew. “That pains me,” he said, remembering his boyhood friend Mark Goldwater and skipper Robert Roth. “We were all so close. It didn’t really strike me until I got home after the war. There was so much death.” After a short pause, he continued, “I always have to remind myself that I was part of that, too. I was there to help drop bombs on people,” he said. “They told us that we were bombing a munitions factory, but we were bombing people. That’s something I always have to remember.”

I still wear a red poppy on my overcoat. It’s not a new one. In fact, it is the last red poppy that I will ever have. I wear it for my father, my grandfather and their comrades and friends because the symbol was important to them. But this year, I have begun to wear the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union on my jacket lapel as I teach and go about my day. I wear it closer to my heart. I bought a package of ten this year, and I will do this every year for the rest of my life.

There has been considerable controversy in Canada over the white poppy. The Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, Julian Fantino, has called them “offensive.” He opines that “Remembrance Day is about paying tribute to the valour and courage of those who set the very foundation of the freedoms that makes our country great.” Matt Gurney, writing in the National Post agrees. I can only assume that he has not read McCrae’s poem to the end. Either way, they both suggest that I am somehow dishonouring my father and grandfather. I take profound offense to that.

For me, the white poppy symbolizes remembrance of all wars, and all the death that those wars have produced. It does not bind me to a promise to take up any quarrel and continue the cycle of war. Indeed, it is in committing myself to peace that I do the greatest honour to the courage and sacrifice of my father, my grandfather and their comrades.

By wearing the white poppy, I remember. I remember the death and destruction visited on our young men on the battlefield, on their young men on the battlefield, and on the men, women and children on the battlefields of what was once called the “home front.” It is how I have chosen to enact a remembrance of the cost of all wars and honour the memory and hope of my father, my grandfather and their comrades that their wars would be the last war. The white poppy represents the hope for a time when we will beat our “swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”