B.C. filmmaker races to interview Canada's Second World War veterans before they are all gone

Of the 507 Second World War veterans he’s interviewed to date, 315 have since died

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Jessie Swail opened the door recently to find one of her daughters, Barbara, with a beautiful bouquet and two giant silver 9s filled with helium bobbing behind her.

Other flower arrangements and birthday cards sat on a nearby table, along with a bouquet of another sort: a bottle of Wayne Gretzky Estates 99 Brut.

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It was late afternoon, following a birthday lunch at the Sylvia Hotel with family.

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Swail was entertaining visitors and well-wishers in her 18th-floor West Vancouver condo near Park Royal with its several Bill Reid paintings — “Bought when they cost peanuts, his mother and uncle were good friends” — and sweeping views that takes in everything from Mount Baker to Nanaimo.

It was Oct. 19 and Swail was celebrating her 99th birthday, but she was recalling a day when she was just 20, the day the Allies declared victory in Europe, VE-Day, on May 8, 1945.

Swail was stationed in Sydney, N.S., at HMCS Protector, also known as the Point Edward Naval Base on Cape Breton Island, as one of the 7,000 Wrens (Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service members) who served during the Second World War.

“There were hundreds of us in the mess hall and on a shelf like that over there,” Swail pointed to a living-room wall — “was a radio and suddenly the news came over that the war in Europe is over.

“This is how we reacted,” Swail said, and her face and hands froze. “We were awestruck. The room was completely and utterly silent.”

Jessie Swail, now 99, is a veteran of the Second World War. This is a photo of her in uniform when she served as a Wren.
Jessie Swail, now 99, is a veteran of the Second World War. This is a photo of her in uniform when she served as a Wren. Photo by Handout

Then one of Swail’s fellow female naval personnel stood and started singing.

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“Land of hope and glory, mother of the free,” Swail began, singing for visitors a classic Vera Lynn song in a strong and emotional voice. “Then the whole room erupted into Land of Hope and Glory and we sang it with such enthusiasm and then we all ran out of the mess hall,” she said.

Several seamen commandeered the base’s fire trucks and drove around making as much noise as they could, and Swail and other Wrens jumped on board.

“We rode around the base and through the officers’ quarters,” she said with a twinkle. “We were never allowed to step inside the officers’ quarters.

“So, we had a wild time on VE-Day at HMCS Protector, I must say.”

Preserving stories of vanishing veterans

Swail is one of hundreds of people interviewed by Eric Brunt, a Victoria filmmaker who has criss-crossed Canada four times, at first living out of an old post-office van, recording the stories of the nation’s vanishing Second World War veterans. The Canadian War Museum then began backing his project and Melki Films hopped on board as producer.

The end result will be enshrined at the War Museum in Ottawa as part of the archives, the raw video will be available to researchers, and Brunt is working on making a documentary.

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Filmmaker Eric Brunt at a park near his home in Montreal.
Filmmaker Eric Brunt at a park near his home in Montreal. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Brunt, 30, took on the project in 2018, inspired by his grandfather Clifford Brunt, who died at 95 never having talked much about his wartime experience.

Time is of the essence: Of the 507 Second World War veterans he’s interviewed to date — with 146 of them in B.C. — 315 have since died.

“It’s sad but there are very few Metro Vancouver Second World War veterans that I interviewed left,” Brunt said. “Some amazing men and women are now gone.

“Looking at (a Veteran Affairs table) these would be the Canadian veterans receiving benefits and it’s only 5,880 as of March 2022.

“Canadian Second World War veterans must be smaller still considering that Korean War veterans are lumped into these figures, so the World War II veterans are a percentage of that and I’m not sure what that percentage would be.”

Veterans Affairs lists the average age of those 5,880 Second World War and Korean War veterans as 96, meaning pretty much all surviving Second World War veterans are older yet, once the Korean veterans are considered. Brunt said even three years ago, one in three Legions had a member who’d served in the Second World War, but no longer.

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“There’s just not that many left and the ones who are, sometimes they’re not able to tell their story anymore,” Brunt said. “And that’s a sad fact, too.

“I’ve done interviews with veterans and have gone to follow up or talked to their children and learned that veteran is no longer able to share their story because of health issues or maybe dementia has increased.

“But the silver lining is that they’re still here, so many men and women came forward with their story who had never been documented before.

“Their stories will now live on.”

At the moment, Brunt is transferring all his footage to the Canadian War Museum, a process that should be finished in May if all goes well.

“We are still working on making this project a feature-length film,” Brunt said.

U-boat hunter

Second World War sub hunter Ran Clerihue at his home in West Vancouver.
Second World War sub hunter Ran Clerihue at his home in West Vancouver. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Like Jessie Swail, Randolph (Ran) Clerihue has a beautiful West Vancouver home, atop another building near Park Royal. Art by his friend John Little, mostly of Montreal streets and outdoor-hockey scenes, as well as small sculptures and antique furniture give the roomy, airy home he shares with his wife Lorraine the feel of a gallery.

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There are about 140 paintings and the walls are covered with them.

On the desk in his office sits a Canon MP11 DX, which is an adding machine with a roll of paper for printing out sums up to 12 digits long.

Clerihue, 100, forsook his usual Saturday golf game, one of three a week he plays at Capilano Golf and Country Club, to talk about his wartime experience as a sub-hunting pilot.

He was based in Sydney, N.S., to begin his wartime service and at the end of the war the U.K., where engine failure would mean ditching into the freezing-cold North Atlantic. In between, he was based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where the waters were infested with sharks if a plane went down.

Growing up in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood with a First World War pilot for a dad, Clerihue wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps — against the advice of said father.

He enrolled at UBC at 16 but was only waiting to turn 18 and join the war effort.

After training in Alberta, where he was top of his class, he joined the Battle of the Atlantic, where U-boats were venturing as far as the St. Lawrence to attack Allied military and merchant boats.

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He joined 117 Squadron in Sydney as a sub-hunting pilot. He was shot at and he got credit for a probable sinking of a German sub with a depth charge, before being sent to Ceylon in 1943 to join 413 Squadron hunting for Japanese subs and dropping life rafts to any Allied survivors his plane happened to fly over.

“Occasionally, if the conditions were fairly predictable, we could land and pick up people off the ocean,” he said.

Finally, he wound up in Devon, England, searching for subs at night with spotlights attached to the plane’s underbelly.

Over that stretch, Clerihue lost friends, more often than not from planes going down because of weather or mechanical failure, he said.

Asked what sticks out in his mind today about the war, Clerihue paused for several seconds.

“The flights were very long,” he said of the amphibious aircraft used for patrolling over the oceans. “The flying boat could stay in the air for 25 hours if it was properly fitted out with overflow tanks, but I would say the average flights was 16 to 18 hours. … That’s a long time.”

Randolph 'Ran' Clerihue, who turned 100 in June, was a sub-hunting pilot during the Second World War assigned to the War of the St. Lawrence, the Indian Ocean and North Atlantic.
Randolph ‘Ran’ Clerihue, who turned 100 in June, was a sub-hunting pilot during the Second World War assigned to the War of the St. Lawrence, the Indian Ocean and North Atlantic. Handout

Clerihue’s wartime girlfriend, Gloria Stickney, worked in a plane factory in Vancouver and when he asked for her inspection number, he found out she’d been the one to inspect his plane. She went on to become his first wife before dying from an inherited heart condition.   

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He turned 100 on June 1 and celebrated with family and friends aboard his buddy Jimmy Pattison’s yacht as a Royal Canadian Air Force CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft honoured him with a flyover (at 60 metres), piloted by members of 407 Demon Squadron from CFB Comox.

It meant a lot to Clerihue: “I’m the last member of 407 Squadron who fought in the Second World War.”

Setting sun

Filmmaker Brunt said that when he began this project in 2018, people told him he was too late.

“They were like, ‘You should have done this five years ago,’” Brunt said. He was 25 then. “Well, I’m doing this now.”

About every couple of weeks he gets an email informing him someone he’s interviewed has died.

“I think of it like when I’m driving across the country and you see those Prairie sunsets. It’s always in the back of my mind, it’s like I’m in my car trying to catch those last rays of light that are still shining and capturing those stories.

“We’re getting closer and closer to the sun going beneath the Prairie horizon. In a few years there will be none of these people left.”

‘They never came back’

Back at Jessie Swail’s home, there’s a digital baby grand in one corner of the suite, a wraparound deck for a 180-degree view, and a shrine to her late husband Norman Valentine Swail, a fellow veteran who died in 2015 at age 90.

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Swail recalled another event from her time at HMCS Protector, a night in November 1944. There was a dance for all the Wrens and all the “boys” whose ships were in dock, including the sailors from HMCS Shawinigan, a Flower-class corvette whose job was to protect Atlantic convoys.

Those boys were about to board ship for a secret anti-submarine patrol in the Cabot Strait and no one would hear from them again. Days later, debris from the ship was discovered and, eventually, six bodies. Much, much later it was learned the ship had been torpedoed by the German submarine U-1228.

All 91 hands were lost in the last sinking of a ship in the battle of the St. Lawrence.

“We danced with those boys,” Swail said. “Well, everywhere around were signs, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ They were not allowed to tell us but somehow gave us to understand they were shipping out at midnight to escort a ferry (SS Burgeo) over to Port aux Basques.

“They never came back. I knew somebody on board, from my hometown (Banff), and for a long time we didn’t know what had happened to them, it was a mystery and we weren’t allowed to speak about it.

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“Loose lips sink ships.”

To her mother’s dismay, Swail spurned the opportunity for discharge and signed up for the Pacific Theatre immediately after VE-Day, but victory over Japan, VJ-Day, came on Aug. 15, before she could ship out.

She went on to write for the Toronto Star, among other publications, comment on CBC Radio and raise a family. But joining the Wrens was one of the best decisions she ever made, Swail said.

Other than a slight limp from an old leg issue, she feels great.

“I’m perfectly healthy, completely and utterly,” she said with a broad smile and gleam in her eyes. “I’m pain-free, I’ve got all my marbles.

“I feel so lucky.”

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Originally posted 2023-11-08 14:00:14.