When war's horror struck home

Doug Letto writes on how war, and death, came to his home community in the Labrador Straits on a sunny September day in 1944.

The war and its all too frequent companion, death, came to the Labrador Straits community of L'anse au Clair on a sunny late September day in 1944. The news arrived by telegram, and was received through the telegraph office at Blanc Sablon, Que., just three miles across the border into Canada.

My uncle, Pte. Manuel David Letto, was the oldest in a family of seven children. He signed up with the Canadian army and joined the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. He was killed in the vicious fighting that took place in Calais, France. 

The Canadians liberated Calais that month, and chased a retreating German army into Belgium. Calais had been a city under siege since 1940, and the Germans held it until 1944 when the Allies bombed the city and the Canadian army swept through.

It was my uncle Hedley, the second eldest brother, and a teacher in Blanc Sablon, who had the sad and unenviable task of bringing the news of his brother's death to my grandmother and grandfather. There were no roads, just a footpath from Blanc Sablon to L’anse au Clair.

Manuel David Letto was killed during battle in Calais, France.

I have tried to imagine Uncle Hedley’s thoughts as he walked that path — trying to reconcile his thoughts about a brother who had perished with the heart-rending job of breaking the news to his parents.

My uncle Ellis was at home that day, helping grandfather whitewash the old house and fix some of the cedar roof shingles. He remembered it as a bright, sunny day, the kind of day where outdoor work had to get done. Soon, the cold winds of October, and probably snow, would sweep through the Straits.

Uncle Ellis told me the story one Remembrance Day several years ago when I attended the Nov. 11 ceremony in L'anse au Clair.

It was he who caught the sight of Uncle Hedley coming down the hill into the community. He just knew something wasn’t right. Uncle Hedley walked up and told grandfather he had news about Manuel. 

My grandfather read the telegram with the news that his son had been killed in France. He got up his resolve and went inside to break the news to my grandmother.

The story ends there. No one has ever told me about the tears and the hurt that came after. But I do have the memory of my grandfather wearing Manuel’s medals every Nov. 11.

So, what does Nov. 11 mean to me?

I have moments of quiet contemplation about the uncle I never met, my father's brother who never came home, the grandmother and grandfather who never got to hold their son again.

I also think of my uncle, Rodney Chubbs, who’s served on tours in the Balkans, to bring hope and peace to people there. I think of friends and strangers who put themselves in the way of danger every day, to protect people they don’t know.

I think of ways to pay my freedom forward. Maybe it’s holding a door for someone. Donating to a good cause. Buying a stranger a coffee.

I think of the privilege of living in a place where going on a diet is not compulsory. Where drinking eight glasses of water a day is possible.

More than anything, I’m thankful that I can write and speak freely, where my only censor is myself.