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War letters bring daughter closer to dad

Lori Nicholson sifts through letters written by her father, Hughie Reid, to his mother during the Second World War. 
 (ANDREW RANKIN / The Chronicle Herald)
Lori Nicholson sifts through letters written by her father, Hughie Reid, to his mother during the Second World War. (ANDREW RANKIN / The Chronicle Herald)

The letter dated May 15, 1945, would not be another upbeat missive from her son, Hughie.

Violet Reid had already endured tragedy by then. Three years prior, she had learned another of her sons, James Reid, a navigator with the Royal Canadian Air Force, perished somewhere over the North Sea en route to a bombing mission in Bremen, Germany.

Regarding Hughie’s status, the Defence Department letter out of Calgary did not mince words.

“Dear Mrs. Reid:

This office has just received the official casualty list from Ottawa, and it is with very deep regret that we have learned that your son, Pte. Hughie George Reid, has been reported as severely wounded.”

Hughie would survive. Serving as a dispatch driver, he had been sent ahead of his regiment on his motorcycle to scout the scene and was shot through the neck by an enemy sniper somewhere around Lathen, Germany. It happened less than four months before the end of the Second World War.

Hughie’s children did not ask their father about the scar on his neck. Someone along the line had told them all they needed to know. Hughie never elaborated about the incident, nor about the four-plus years he spent away from his home in Dryden, Ont., while with the Lake Superior Regiment.

“It was just too hard of a subject for him to talk about,” said his daughter, Lori Nicholson, who now lives in Windsor Junction.

“I know he went back to England with a group from the legion but he had cut the trip short because the experience, the memories, were just too hard on him.”

After the war, her father managed to eke out a living and raise a family. He found work as a coal miner and at the Dryden pulp and paper mill. He and his three brothers who survived overseas service struggled with alcohol abuse. Hughie kept mostly to himself, relishing the outdoors. He died of cancer at the age of 62.

But the collection of war letters he left behind show another side of Nicholson’s father. Written while stationed in Debert, McNabs Island, Belgium, Holland, England and France, they offer a spirited account of the day-to-day life of a Second World War infantry man. Primarily addressed to his mother, they range from the breaking news of an engagement to a London woman, which eventually fell apart, to joyous accounts of spending leisurely days in London and Manchester, England.

“Well, I got back safely from leave and had a wonderful time,” read a letter addressed from “Blighty,” England, on Dec. 2, 1943. “I went back to London and Manchester . . . I had a few meals in London at the hotels. Cost me 5.5 pounds for the main course, extra for desserts but it was really worth it.”

There are many others, some on the lighter side, remarking about his penchant for French ladies and cigarettes.

“I sure wish I could speak French. Boy oh boy, is there ever some nice dolls over here. . . . Received your cigs yesterday, pretty well stocked again. I got 300 from the Dryden cigarette fund about a week ago, thanks a lot.”

But the longing for home was always there.

“Well it will soon be three years in the army and I am sure getting enough of it,” reads a missive dated Nov. 17, 1942. “Sure be glad when it’s all over.”

Nicholson would discover the letters only a few years ago. Reading them made her feel closer to her dad, the young man she never knew.

“He passed away in my early 20s. It gives me the chance to think of what he was like as a younger man. I could never see him as a letter writer. So the fact that there was that many was pretty impressive.”

But beyond this, the letters offered her a different story of the war, accounts away from the battlefields to the more mundane happenings of a soldier.

“I think it makes you realize how they were feeling when they were going through all of that. You hear a lot of war stories but they don’t depict the calm. They are still doing other things, waiting for battle, doing camp chores.”

Nicholson would discover that he had been stationed in Debert and McNabs Island for short periods before heading overseas. As the letters indicate, he wasn’t fussy about Halifax, describing the city as being rather dirty and the seafood not that good and too expensive.

“I couldn’t believe it, that my dad walked in Halifax. So it’s that lost connection that’s coming back.”

This Remembrance Day, Nicholson will feel a little closer to her father, to his private story.

“I am still moved by the parades, picturing my dad as one of the veterans. I’m thankful for the letters, his story. It’s another reminder of what a great service they did for us.”


-Andrew Rankin-The Chronicle Herald

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