Given his spritely step and gleam in his eye, you could be forgiven for mistaking Maple Ridge’s Bill Mitchell for a much younger man.
This Sunday, Mitchell will be marching in full uniform with his fellow former soldiers along the stretch of 224th Street now known as Veteran’s Way, from the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 88 to the cenotaph at Memorial Peace Park.
For Mitchell, its important to remember and honour the sacrifices made defending Canada and its allies, even if it means walking on a ankle bruised from a recent fall.
“I think it’ll hold up all right,” Mitchell says with a grin.
At 92 years old, he is one of an ever shrinking number of veterans.
Those from the First World War, Second World War, and Korean War have fallen from more than 300,000 nationally in 2003 to 95,000 today.
With every soldier who passes, so too does a living piece of history, says Maple Ridge Museum director Val Patenaude.
“It’s really important we find new ways to keep this in our memories as we lose our living reminders,” she added. “That generation is an important link to the past.”
Unlike the Vietnam War, and more recent conflicts in Bosnia and Afghanistan, the conflicts of the early- and mid-20th Century, weren’t televised.
“I don’t know how much of an understanding we really have [of the Second World War],” says Patenaude. “That generation, they simply didn’t talk about the war once they came home. My father fought in World War Two, and he never spoke about it to us.”
The museum’s archives have records of close to 700 Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows residents who served in the Second World War, including 36 women.
Nearly 300 local men fought in the First World War, many for their country of origin, rather than Canada.
“That’s an incredible number considering how small the community was then,” says Patenaude. “Pretty much every young man left to fight in the war.”
Mitchell’s story begins in 1920, when he was born on 232nd Street, back when it was still called Lillooet Road. He spent much of his teen years working on local farms, running a team of horses to help.
“Most of the people I worked for were Japanese,” he says. “They were farmers, they grew strawberries and what have you, but they had no experience working with animals or livestock.”
Mitchell and his sweetheart Victoria were married, and the two moved to Whitehorse, where Mitchell was helping to construct the city’s airport.
He was there when war began, and was told he could avoid conscription if he stayed in the Yukon.
Mitchell instead returned to the Lower Mainland and reported for duty. Thanks to his skills with a welding torch and heavy machinery, he was picked to be a “fitter” – a general repairman – and sent to trade school, first in Victoria, then to Hamilton.
Mitchell arrived in Liverpool, England on April 1, 1943, when he joined the Fourth Anti-Tank, part of the Fifth Canadian Division. After a stop in Northern Africa, Mitchell ended up in Italy, where he operated a mobile repair truck, and would spend his days fixing generators, repairing trucks, and building replacement parts from scratch.
“It was up to us to keep every thing moving,” he says.
Even if that means swapping out the radiator of 30-ton tank in the middle of a battle.
“We were never on the front lines, we were the next ones back,” he says.
But just in case enemy tanks did break through the line, there was a 17-pound artillery gun to defend their position.
Mitchell says his division travelled up and down Italy for the better part of two years, until the war ended in 1945.
After traveling by ship to Marseille, France, Mitchell and many thousands of other Canadian soldiers made a bee-line across a war-ravaged Europe to Northern Holland, before being shipped home.
“We passed hundreds of German tanks along the way, taken out by our aircraft,” he says. “They were just pushed to the side of the road, one after another, so we could get through.”
Mitchell was discharged and returned to Maple Ridge in 1946. The Japanese farmers were gone, victims of the internment, so he did odd jobs to make ends meet. Mitchell took an apprenticeship at Mussallem Motors and used the skills he learned in the army to become an auto repairman.
Before long, he opened up a Standard Oil service station on Dewdney Trunk Road, where Haney Plaza now stands. The service station became a Chevron before Mitchell sold it in 1984. A General Paint store now stands where his service station once was.
“I used what I learned in the army every day,” he says of his career as a repairman. “It all helped.”
The Royal Canadian Legion Branch 88 in Maple Ridge is organizing Remembrance Day events in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows this Sunday.
The local legion has fewer than 90 Second World War and Korean War veterans left, but those that are able, such as Mitchell, will be taking part.
“They’re tough old birds,” says Legion president Jim MacDonald.
While the number of veterans continues to fall, MacDonald is pleased to see the interest from the community increasing.
“Every year we see more and more people coming to the Remembrance Day ceremonies,” he says. “Our history is so important, and these men, we owe our way of life to them. I think there’s more of an awareness and appreciation for the things they did now.”
For Mitchell, he hopes the younger generations remember not only sacrifices made in times of war, but the value of peace.
“I just hope they don’t have to go through that again,” he says. “The way things are going in the world today, I worry it may happen again. I don’t want to see my great grandkids go through anything like that.”
Lest We Forget
Sunday is the day to honour our fallen heroes and those still with us, as ceremonies for the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month get underway in Maple Ridge.
Starting just before 10 a.m., veterans, and legion members, police, firefighters, corrections officers and boy scouts will gather outside Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 88 on Brown Avenue.
Then they’ll march south along 224th Street, renamed Veteran’s Way, and arrive at Memorial Peace Park just after 10 a.m.
The actual ceremony takes place in front of the cenotaph in the middle of the park, at 11 a.m., to mark those who’ve served the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, Afghanistan and in peacekeeping operations around the world. The ceremony concludes between 11:30 a.m. and noon, after prayers, speeches, a flypast and placement of wreaths.
A feature unique to the Maple Ridge ceremony will be a procession of vintage automobiles as part of the Parade of Heroes.
If you can’t make it down for the ceremony, go to the District of Maple Ridge’s Facebook page and you’ll see photos of the memorials that will be displayed in the park.
Pitt Meadows ceremony
Every Nov. 11, residents of Pitt Meadows gather at the cenotaph in Spirit Square to commemorate the sacrifices of members of the armed forces and of civilians in times of war.
The ceremony begins at 10:30 a.m. and includes a procession, speeches, and a two-minute observance of silence at 11 a.m. in memory of those who have lost their lives.
Spirit Square is located at 12007 Harris Road, adjacent to city hall.