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They really were the greatest generation

By Darrin McGrath   |   Cabin Country

As I sit to write this column it is just the end of October. The annual Poppy Campaign has begun and the bright red emblems are showing up on many collars and lapels. This time of year I often reflect on some of the veterans I have encountered in my life. Some were vets from WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and more recent conflicts and peace keeping missions. Given our island home and the importance of the ocean in our culture and history, I’ll focus on a story about the Royal Navy. The late Mr. William Abbott was like many young Newfoundlanders who responded to Churchill’s call for volunteers for the Royal Navy. Churchill’s famous call to arms included a direct reference to the oldest colony. “Give me more of the Newfoundlanders, the best small boat men in the world,” Churchill said in the House of Commons. It did not take long for young men to step forward for service
with the Royal Navy. I knew Mr. Abbott very well because he lived next door to my family in St. John’s. As a young teenager he would get me to paint his fence, or cut his grass. And he used to tell me stories about the war and I was fascinated by his tales. Most of the stories Mr. Abbott shared with me were about the fun times on shore leave, socializing in pubs and going to dances.
But I recall one time when Mr. Abbott told me that a few minutes in action wiped away all the fun times had on shore leave. I used to have to prompt him to talk about his time at sea aboard minesweepers. On two different occasions ships Abbott served on were sunk by enemy action and he found himself in the cold North Atlantic. He told me he saved the life of a drowning officer.
Like many Newfoundlanders who served in the Royal Navy William Abbott met and married an English girl named Phylis Riddle. She was a member of the WRENs, and she lost two of her older brothers in the war. One brother was lost when his ship was sunk by the Japanese in the Pacific, another brother died while fighting with the Army in Europe. At this time of year I reflect on the Abbotts, and others like them, who endured so much to help defeat the German-Italian-Japanese enemy. When Mr. Abbott passed away some years ago, I attended the funeral. There was an honour guard of Legionnaires and their white hair and wrinkled faces showed their age. But their chests were adorned with medals and ribbons that spoke volumes of what they did with their youth. American journalist Tom Brokaw rightly described the WWII vets as the “greatest generation.”

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