Friday, November 12, 2010

One warrior who won't be forgotten

A basket of poppies was available for students attending Remembrance Day services at Victoria High School this week.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 11, 2010


She remembers waving goodbye from the station platform, bidding adieu to a husband off to war.

Only later, after receiving the worst possible news, would that poignant moment at the train station become frozen in memory as the last time she ever saw her husband.

“He went overseas,” she said, “and he never came back again.”

Patricia Hedley is 97 now, a widow a second time, busy this week with packing up her condominium before moving into a care facility, acknowledging at last her own frailties.

It is Remembrance Day again and a man now dead more than six decades is still mourned by a woman who remembers their first meeting and their final parting.

It has fallen to her to keep alive the memory of Frank Constant Hall, a young lawyer who became a warrior to protect his homeland and the rule of law.

Most of her own remembrance is personal and privately conducted. Her great contribution to her first husband’s legacy came in the simple act of noticing his name had been mistakenly excluded on a war memorial at his alma mater.

She was born Patricia Porter to a farmer near the Saskatchewan village of Strongfield. The family moved to Victoria, where, as a young woman, she was introduced to the handsome son of a judge.

“How’d I meet him? Like most people — on a blind date. Apparently, he fell in love with me at first sight.”

They married in 1937. He practiced law in Vancouver.

“He was very popular. Had a host of friends.”

With the outbreak of war, he decided to enlist.

“He first tried to get into the navy, but he couldn’t because he was too shortsighted.”

Instead, he joined the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.

Soon after their farewell at the train station, she began receiving correspondence.

“He wrote a great many wonderful letters,” she said.

One in particular stands out.

“Darling: If my handwriting in this letter is worse than usual, it is because of the throbbing of the ship’s engines and not my nerves,” Mr. Hall wrote.

It was July 3, 1943. He was aboard ship days before the invasion of Sicily, a fact he did not include. He wrote of his love for her and about his fond memories of their time together. He quoted the poet Thomas Macaulay. He discussed the possibility of his dying.

“Please don’t wear the widow’s weeds too long, if I go West,” he wrote.

“Death doesn’t mean a thing beyond getting rid of the encumbering fogs and fumes of the body.”

A month later, a government telegram arrived at his mother’s home in Victoria.

“The message came to my poor mother-in-law. She was home alone at the time. In a few hours, she got up to see me in Parksville. It was a great shock. But everybody was very brave.”

On a ridge in Sicily, the gritty Seaforths attacked an enemy position. Lt. Hall fell, gravely wounded. When his men stopped to treat him, he ordered them to continue the attack. After the enemy fled, the soldiers returned to find their officer had bled to death.

His widow became a home sister with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, creating a homelike atmosphere in the nurses’ mess.

She remarried after the war, becoming a copywriter for radio station CJVI in Victoria. She became a homemaker with the birth of a son and daughter.

Some years ago, she attended a reunion at Victoria High School, which maintains memorials for each of the two world wars in the foyer of the main entrance. The First World War memorial is an ornate bas relief, the names of the dead appearing on a shield.

A simple brass plaque lists 115 names of students and teachers killed in active service during the Second World War. It includes the engraved legend: “That the world might be free.”

The names are listed in alphabetical order from Joseph H. Addison to Richard Wright. She scanned the names, failing to see that of her first husband. She checked again. She told the organizers of the school’s alumni association.

A small plaque was later placed on the same pillar. It includes the names of three fallen students missed in the original accounting, among them a judge’s son.

Mr. Hall’s story appears briefly in popular military histories, the account of his death coming from Mark Zuehlke’s Operation Husky, the poignant letter to his wife reproduced in No Price Too High by Terry Copp.

The passing years left it to a widow to note his absence on a school plaque. Even after she’s gone, she has ensured future classes at Vic High will read her late husband’s name and perhaps wonder who he had been and what he had done.

She would like them to know a Vic High grad buried in the parched soil of far-off Sicily has never been forgotten.

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