Piecing together the story of my grandfather’s military service
By Craig Allan, Staff Writer
Despite the fact that Canada was in the war from the beginning, our country has not memorialized the stories of the war with the same fervour as their allied counterparts.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II; it is considered one of the most notable moments in human history. The United States, Britain, France, and even Germany have made documentaries and autobiographies to tell the story of the men who came home—and the men who were lost forever. However, there is a blind spot in Canada. This country has fought in some of the most important battles in the war like the Battle of Ortona in the Italian Campaign; despite this, and the fact that Canada was in the war from the beginning, our country has not memorialized the stories of the war with the same fervour as their allied counterparts. Historian Tim Cook, author of The Fight for History: 75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering, and Remaking Canada’s Second World War, also notes this lack of memorialization.
One of the people whose story has not been told is my grandfather, James Watson Sr. Recently, my family discovered a storage bin that was filled with items from my grandfather’s military past. With these artifacts and the internet, I have pieced together what my grandfather’s service was and what his contribution may have been in Canada’s often forgotten conflict.
James Watson Sr. was born in Montreal in 1917, and as he grew up through the roaring ’20s and the great depression, he found his way into sports, having a passion for hockey and baseball—which gave him the chance to play for the Baltimore Orioles triple A baseball team in 1934. In 1939, when he was only 22 years old, the world found itself going back to war. From a Naval Training and Active Service form, I discovered that he began training for the Navy on September 17, 1940 and entered into active service by November of the same year. From this point, he served on the HMCS Hochelaga which was based in Montreal and supplied help to corvette ships. One of those ships was the HMCS Drumheller which is where Watson would find himself serving for the majority of the war.
The Drumheller’s role was to escort other ships safely along the Atlantic corridor between the Newfoundland town of Avalon and the Irish town of Londonderry. From this point, it’s hard to tell how long he was on the ship—as the Active Service sheet is a bit illegible—but he could have been on it until October 30, 1944. This time would have included a battle in September of 1943 where six merchant ships and three escort corvettes were lost. Another incident that occurred when he was likely serving was an assistance in the Battle of Normandy on June 6, 1944. From a long leave request form, I also found that he was stationed in Plymouth, England at some point. Unfortunately, the document is undated. It is possible that during this time he may have found his way to London as he left behind a card detailing the location of the American Eagle Club, near Piccadilly Circus in London.
From January 31 in 1943 to June 8, 1945, the Active Service sheet says the word “Niobe.” From researching, there is no town named Niobe listed, and that the word has something to do with a Greek God. It was the name of some ships, but none of these ships saw service after World War I. There are also brackets indicating that these could still be the Drumheller, but I cannot be sure. There are also the words “Peregrine” and another word that is hard to read out. It seems that my grandfather was part of the war a little over a year after it started, and ended his service just before the war ended, with the last stamp dated August 27, 1945.
Another clue into his service comes from the medals he received. The five medals he received are as followed. The 1939-1945 Star for “six months service on active operations for Army and Navy,” according to Veterans Affairs Canada. The Atlantic Star for “six months of service afloat an Atlantic Navy ship.” It also has a bar on the ribbon stating that it was in service during the France and Germany campaign. Next there is the Defense Medal. This one is a little harder to designate, but according the Veterans Affairs Canada it states: “Although the medal was usually awarded to Canadians for six months service in Britain between September 3 1939 and May 8 1945, the exact terms were: ‘Service in the forces in non-operational areas subjected to air attack or closely threatened, providing such service lasted for three or more years. Service overseas or outside the country of residence, providing that such service lasted for one year, except in territories threatened by the enemy or subject to bomb attacks, in which case it was six months prior to September 2 1945.’” It also includes service done in Newfoundland, which at the time was not a Canadian province. The next medal is the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal which was “granted to persons of any rank in the Naval, Military, or Air Forces of Canada who voluntarily served on Active Service and honourably completed eighteen months total voluntary service from September 3, 1939 to March 1, 1947.” The final medal is the War Medal 1939-1945, given to any Navy veteran who served 28 days at sea.
After the war, James Watson started a family with his wife Margaret—and she gave birth to their three sons and daughter. James Jr., Clifford, Ronald, and my mother, Margaret. From the looks of the documents, he was involved with the war for over five years. Who knows what kind of stories and adventures he experienced? Hopefully, this article has helped colour a little more of the story of one man’s fantastic journey through life.
This piece is dedicated to my uncle Cliff. Rest in peace. I love you.