A Childhood Journey – to a War Cemetery

Janet Gaetano is the daughter of Joseph Kiely English, Lancaster Pilot (625 Squadron),
Architect, Historian, and founding director of the Nanton Lancaster Society.

by Janet Gaetano

It seemed like just another day wandering around Europe with my parents earnestly wanting us to see another museum or famous church. We had recently departed the British Isles by ferry and we were now in the damp Belgian countryside under grey, overcast skies. Evidently, there was a purpose to our visit but it wasn’t immediately clear to me.

I was 11 years old and child number five, of seven. It didn’t occur to me to do anything but follow along and accept the planned itinerary. This was 1968 and my parents were pioneers because they thought a year travelling Europe by “Caravan” would be fun, educational, and the opportunity of a lifetime for the nine of us.

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The caravan was a right hand drive British Ford just a little bigger than a 60’s VW bus. We slept seven in that thing only because the four youngest of us were small enough to sleep in little hammock-like nylon beds that were pulled from the walls near the roof. My two oldest brothers, by choice, slept in a tent pitched each time we changed camps. My mother cooked meals for all of us on a two-burner “gaz” stove wherever we camped. Now that I am the main cook for my family of four in a large 2000 plus square foot home this concept is unfathomable to me, even though I was there and witnessed the miracle.

My father’s first trip to Europe had been as a young World War II pilot of the much-lauded Lancaster bomber. At 21, he had become the captain of a crew of six dedicated men who were to fly 32 missions and be fortunate enough to return home safely to those who loved them. The opportunity for visits to cathedrals and museums had not presented itself during the tours. He hoped that one day he might return to Europe to see what else it had to offer.

The time seemed right. The funds were there, the business was moth-balled and we began our adventure with a train ride from Calgary to Montreal to meet our ocean chauffeur, the Russian-liner, “Alexander Pushkin” which was to take us over the Atlantic, wave by wave, to our destiny with the remnants of World War II. Commencement was London in our newly purchased home-on-wheels. Our tour of the British Isles included old landmarks and newly found relatives.

Belgium, it turned out, was an important destination where my mother could visit a special graveyard. Her oldest brother, Joe, a Lancaster gunner, and his crew had been shot down in 1944 outside the small north-eastern town of Meuwwen in the Flemish region. The savvy war-time in inhabitants of the town had run to the doomed plane to see if anyone had survived in order to hide them from the enemy. They found, instead, seven warriors who had given their lives for the cause. They dragged the bodies back to the church and saved all the documents that they could find in order to preserve the memories of these dutiful lads. All seven were buried together in a quaint corner of the cemetery. My uncle Joe Mireault and one of his comrades who also had a French name, were set off a little to recognize their French nationality, in contrast to the soldiers with Anglo names. Eventually, the news and the name of the town reached my grandmother along with Joe’s logbook and final entry.

At 11, unconcerned with much more than my own immediate world, I was not aware of the impact that confronting the dead could have on someone. I expected my mother might be emotional about finally facing the last resting place of her oldest brother these many years later. What I had not anticipated, was the strongly emotional reaction from my father. Huge sobs erupted from him as he stood over the seven concrete sentinels that marked the graves. Suppressing the sobs was out of the question. Encountering these tombstones, which showed signs of respect and continued care by the locals after all these years, was simply too much for him. He lowered his head, covered his face, and wept like a baby for all of them -those who had not made it home and those who carried the burden of having done so.

I am quite sure I backed away from my father aghast. How could anything make this strong man so emotional? His anguish seemed so personal that I presumed he must have known Uncle Joe before the war. He had not. But that didn’t matter. He was crying and releasing a tension that he had undoubtedly suppressed for many years; the tears of a 21 year old boy who had been given the overwhelming burden of having to navigate deadly skies over dark seas in order to drop bombs on targeted centres, all the while pretending to be tough and untouched by it in order to stay strong for those in his command. His sobs communicated the thing that he had never talked about and perhaps had never admitted, even to himself. This was war.

It was many years later, on the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, that I got up the nerve to talk to him about that day and to tell him what an impact it had on me. I asked many of the questions I had wanted to that day. He spoke of youth, the boredom of waiting for your mission, the fear and tension, as well as the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers. For once, he was open to talk about these experiences. There are many stories. Some can only be resurrected by the few pals left from the old crew.

The emotion behind those tears finds a different type of expression today. My dad now meets and greets thousands of people each year at the Lancaster Bomber Museum that he helped found in Nanton, Alberta, just outside Calgary. There, a group of old soldiers and interested folk have restored an old “Lanc” and a number of other war-birds and have created a war museum for anyone who wishes to encounter the true war experience and its heroes. They remember and celebrate guys like Uncle Joe and his crew and all those who died for the rest of us. This was one museum that I wouldn’t have missed.

Thanks to Taralee at A.B. Daley School for keyboarding this story.