British Columbia

West Van woman solves mystery of father's WW II photo

Harry Macdonald didn't like talking about his experiences in the Second World War, but, after he died, the mystery of a wartime photo led to to an amazing discovery by his daughter.

Harry Macdonald didn't talk about the war but a grainy black-and-white photo had quite a tale to tell

This photo of West Vancouver's Harry Macdonald leading his troop in a parade somewhere in Holland at the end of WWII was a big mystery to daughter Marion Haythorne. (Marion Haythorne)

Harry Ward Macdonald didn't like talking about his Second World War experience, which meant daughter Marion Haythorne only knew the basics about her father's military career when he passed away in 2015.

She knew Harry had been a member of the Ontario Regiment and that he had been awarded the Military Cross for bravery.

Harry Macdonald passed away in 2015. He was awarded the military cross for bravery after the Second World War but he was never comfortable talking about his wartime experiences. (Macdonald family)

She knew that he had led a troop in the 1945 Battle of Arnhem, an important moment at the end of the Second World War that led to Canadian forces beating back the Nazi forces, allowing food and supplies to reach millions of desperate people in the Netherlands.

And she also knew of a grainy black-and-white war photo, although in keeping with Harry's humble ways, details about that were scarce, too.

"My family has a picture of my father in a parade, walking down a street that we assumed was in Holland," said Haythorne. "He's in front of his troop, he's saluting, and he is obviously looking at someone."

Eureka moment

The mystery of the image stuck in Haythorne's mind. Just who was her father saluting? And where exactly was it taken?

Then she had a eureka moment. 

"I was getting ready to go to Europe this summer and I remembered the photo and thought I'm going to find out where it was taken."

Haythorne had just seen the movie Lion, a true story about an adopted Indian boy who finds his birth family using Google Earth.

Enlisting the help of a nephew and a stack of Harry's war letters, they were able to determine that the photo was likely taken in the town of Harlingen.

Then, using Google Street View to compare current streetscapes to the old photo, they attempted to narrow down the location.

In August, Haythorne boarded a train from Amsterdam to Harlingen with photo in hand, hoping to find the exact street where her father had marched 72 years earlier.

Her only intention was to take a photo to show her four sisters. What she ended up getting was so much more. 

Marion Haythorne, on the street in Harlingen, Netherlands, where her father marched 72 years earlier. (Marion Haythorne)

"There was a little museum, and I waited for it to open. When a woman emerged to put out the sign, I went up to her and said I've got this picture ... and, as we're looking at it, other people stop and they're, 'oh, Canadians. We love Canadians!'"

The group directed Haythorne to a second location, but, when she got there, she still wasn't sure it was the right street. So, she approached a group of elderly people to ask for help.

'They saved our lives!'

"I walked up and showed them the picture and they were so excited," said Haythorne.

"They said we will take you to this street, but, first, you have to come in, because we're having a meeting of our historical society, and you have to meet the chairwoman. And when I met her, she said to me, 'oh my God, the Ontario regiment, they saved our lives!'"

Haythorne was stunned to receive a hero's welcome. As it turned out, many of the historical society members had lived through the Second World War.

"You have to remember, this age group, they were children starving in Holland when the war ended," she said.

With quick access to the town archives, solving the mystery of the photo took no time. 

A photo from the Harlingen Historical Society shows the then mayor on the near end of the riser during the August 1945 parade. He was the mystery man who Harry Macdonald was saluting in Haythorne's photo. (Harlingen Historical Society)

They confirmed the person being saluted by her father  — the man just beyond the frame — to be  E.A. Hannema, the then mayor of Harlingen. The occasion was a parade in August of 1945, a few months after the Highland Light Infantry, Ontario Regiment, had liberated the town. 

Back in her West Vancouver home, the power of the photo continues to resonate

Just recently, a couple from Harlingen tracked down Haythorne's address, so they could send her a personal note.

"They wanted to thank me for saving their lives," she laughed.

"Yes, I was curious because my father was so humble and quiet about his war experiences. Yes, I thought it would be fun to have a picture taken so many years later in the same place," she said.

"But — and I know it is a cliché — we just shouldn't forget." 


Karin Larsen


Karin Larsen is a former Olympian and award winning sports broadcaster who covers news and sports for CBC Vancouver.