Debert resident remembers thriving community, tragedy during war years
TRURO – It seemed to happen almost overnight.
The small village of Debert, with a modest population of about 600 residents in 1939, was transformed into one of Canada’s most important military bases with the outbreak of the Second World War.
“The war sure had an impact on the little village of Debert,” said Don Davidson, former Debert resident now living in Truro.
Davidson, 88, was the second son and third born of six siblings in his family. His parents James and Elsie Davidson ran the general store located across from the Debert train station, offering a bird’s eye view of rail activity both in and out of the village.
Davidson’s life changed drastically in 1939, not just because of the war raging in Europe. His mother suddenly passed away that year and his father, who had lost a leg at the hip from an injury, needed the young man to run the family’s business.
“I was kept in and out of school and when I was 16 years old I went into the store permanent,” he said.
His older brother Frank joined the air force, was sent to Calgary for training and immediately after served overseas. About three years later, Davidson’s younger brother James joined the tank corps and was injured in England during training exercises.
It was only a few months after Davidson began operating the store that the village began to take on a new look as people were arriving in the traditional farming and lumbering community by the hundreds to fuel the war machine.
“Just overnight in 1939, they began to clear the land on the Debert Masstown road to build the airport and at the same time they started to build the army camp,” Davidson said. “The first troops landed there early in 1939 and there wasn’t anything there for them.”
“Gradually they built the camp out there, but until then they were in tents, in the mud.”
More than 6,000 civilians were employed during the construction of the camp and during its operation tens of thousands of soldiers spent time training there before being deployed.
When the military was on marches, soldiers would break in front of the Davidson’s store and many would drop in for a six-cent bottle of Coke.
He said the war years created great prosperity in the community with several new cafes, restaurants, hotels, two drug stores, meat markets, three taxi businesses and countless other businesses setting up in the village.
Dances were held at the air base drawing hundreds of men and women from surrounding communities to enjoy a little relaxation despite the realities of war an ocean away.
While the war brought prosperity to the Davidson’s store, it also brought tragedy.
Frank flew 21 missions with bomber command in an old English Sterling bomber. His plane was lost over the North Sea on a return flight from a mission.
Davidson said a family friend serving in Scotland saw his brother about two weeks before he disappeared.
“My brother knew he wouldn’t be back and his days were numbered,” Davidson said.
He said every year on Remembrance Day he attends the service in Debert and lays a wreath in memory of his brother to honour the sacrifices made by each while remembering the changing times of his hometown.
To hear more of Davidson’s wartime memories visit the Truro Daily News website www.trurodaily.com.