Toronto man searching for fallen Manitoba soldier's family

Phill Di Cecco says a war helmet, with the initials J. E. Gagnon, was found in the basement when his grandparents moved into a new house in Toronto in the 1960s.

Phill Di Cecco is trying to return a WW II helmet belonging to soldier J. E. Gagnon

Phill Di Cecco says his grandparents found this helmet in the basement of the Toronto home they bought in the 1960s. (Submitted by Phill Di Cecco)

Phill Di Cecco keeps a Manitoba soldier's helmet on display in his Toronto bedroom.

The 22-year-old inherited the artifact from his grandparents, who found it in the home they bought in the 1960s.

"Someone has written Templeton on the inside of it," he said. "On the actual chinstrap, someone had written the initials J. E. Gagnon."

Di Cecco said he started researching a few years ago and found a Joseph Edward Gagnon in military records.

Phill Di Cecco turned to the internet in hopes of reuniting this WW II helmet, with the initials J. E. Gagnon, to the fallen soldier's family. (Submitted by Phill Di Cecco)
On Remembrance Day he posted a picture of the helmet and the records on social media hoping to learn more about the solider.

"I really just want to be able to give it back to someone in the family," he said. "As much as a cool artifact as it is, and as much as I appreciate it, it's just something I feel could have a pretty significant emotional weight to a family."

He said a friend posted a link to Gagnon's obituary, a notice that the 23-year-old had been killed in action in Italy.

"It has a picture of him, which was mind-blowing to see. Just knowing this guy actually wore the [helmet]," he said. "But it also mentioned he was from East Kildonan in Manitoba."

That lead Di Cecco to post in the Facebook group: Elmwood / East Kildonan - Preserving our Past, Planning our Future.

"Suddenly I get people messaging me saying they're checking, they've been checking all kinds of archives, historical sources," he said. "I've had people really piecing together not only this guys life but the lives of his actual family."

Joseph Edward Gagnon's obituary is posted on Veterans Affairs Canada's Virtual War Memorial. (Veterans Affairs Canada)
Di Cecco found Gagnon's service file, which contained his birth date, April 25, 1920, and his address, 535 Melbourne Avenue. It also said he was born in Lac Du Bonnet, Man.. He's now connecting with people from there, who are sending him leads to Pine Falls, Man. 

"I think that's kind of amazing just how something as simple as writing your name on the inside of a [helmet] allows people to be able to learn so much about your life history," he said "Especially when you've died for you country 70 years ago."

He said he feels a connection to Gagnon because he was only a year old than Di Cecco is now when he died.

"Seeing that obituary picture was really incredible," he said. "[It] felt like he was asking me to return it when I saw his face."

Di Cecco is hoping that anyone with a lead on finding Gagnon's living relatives will contact him on Facebook. 

He said if he can't locate anyone he has a back-up plan on how to honour the fallen soldier.

"I have spoken with someone who said they would be able to place it on his grave in Italy, which is also amazing."
Joseph Edward Gagnon enlisted in Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry on March 14, 1940 in Winnipeg. (

About the Author

Jillian Taylor

CBC Reporter

Jillian Taylor has been with CBC Manitoba since 2012 and has been reporting for a decade. She was born and raised in Manitoba and is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. In 2014, she was awarded the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's travel bursary, which took her to Australia to work with Indigenous journalists. Find her on Twitter: @JillianLTaylor