Kitchener-Waterloo

Kitchener couple finds WW II medals in walls, tracks down Quebec-born soldier's granddaughter

When Krista and Kerry O'Brien began renovations on their home in Kitchener, Ont., they never expected to find war memorabilia tucked in the basement's walls. The discovery earlier this fall led to their journey to locate surviving family of the medals' owner: a soldier born Nov. 11, 1912, in Bury, Que.

O'Briens discover teal-coloured cardboard jewelry box with Second World War medals during home reno

Three people stand smiling in the kitchen of a home holding medals from World War 2.
Krista and Kerry O'Brien, left, with Michelle Webster in the O'Briens' home in Kitchener, Ont. The medals Webster is holding belonged to her grandfather, who died in action in the Second World War. They were found during a renovation at the O'Briens' home. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

Kerry and Krista O'Brien have lived in their Kitchener, Ont., home since 2015, but never noticed a small cardboard box tucked in the walls of the semi-finished basement until they began renovations this fall.

"When our contractors were down there doing the demolition, they were hammering on some studs and something knocked loose, and so they pulled out a box that was nestled between the joists," Krista told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. 

The teal-coloured box had been camouflaged by the walls, which were a similar colour, she said. 

"The [construction] foreman came upstairs and popped his head through the door and said, 'Hey we found something in the walls.'"

Inside the teal-coloured box

Inside the box were five Second World War-era medals and a note written by the federal government at the time. It said:

The Minister of National Defence in forwarding the enclosed medals issued in respect of the service of A104166 private H.A Webster during the war 1939 to 1945, begs to express, on behalf of the Government of Canada, sincere appreciation of services rendered.

The medals are a common combination given to people who served in that war, said Matt Baker, a research associate at the Laurier Centre for the Study of Canada. 

A type written note is displayed in the photo. It says: The Minister of National Defence in forwarding the enclosed medals issued in respect of the service of A104166 private H.A Webster during the war 1939 to 1945. Begs to express, on behalf of the Government of Canada, sincere appreciation of services rendered.
In the box of medals was a note written by the government of the day, thanking Webster for his service. (Submitted by Kerry O'Brien)

"They indicate the recipient volunteered for service during the war and served overseas, including during the period of combat in northwest Europe from D-Day to VE Day," Baker told CBC.

"If you served in the Pacific or in the Mediterranean, you would receive a slightly different group." 

Who was H.A. Webster?

The O'Briens made it their goal to find Webster's family and figure out how his service medals ended up in their basement. 

"This is an important heirloom and so that's why I think it's so important to me to get it back to them," said Kerry.

Archives show Howard Arlington Webster was born on Nov. 11, 1912, in Bury, Que., to Samuel and Enid Webster. He was one of seven children.

Webster was living in Ariss, Ont., north of Guelph when he enlisted for the Second World War. An ancestry site shows he had been married to Ada Mary and they had a child. Webster worked in Guelph at Sterling Rubber Company where he was a dipper. 

According to his attestation papers, Pte. Webster signed up to serve with the Canadian Forces and headed overseas on May 14, 1943. He served with the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, Royal Canadian Infantry Corps and fought in what Matt Baker calls "part of the crescendo of the Battle of Normandy," on Aug. 14 and 15, 1944. 

Medals from the second world war are on a cardboard jewellry box.
The medals, from left, are the 1939-45 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal (with bar) and War Medal 1939-45. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

"Webster was killed during something called Operation Tractable, which was part of a massive Allied push to encircle the remains of the German army in Normandy," said Baker.

Baker said the objective of Webster's unit was a chateau in the Villiage of d'Assy, southeast of Caen. 

"They assaulted the chateau and took it under cover of smoke and artillery, fought off some fierce German counterattacks, so Webster was killed either that day or during mopping up operations, the day after," said Baker. 

Webster was buried at Bretteville–Sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery in Calvados, France.

Reunion closer than expected

With that information in hand, Kerry began the search to find any of the soldier's surviving family.

A search of Ancestry.com, combined with information from the Kitchener Public Library's city directory, showed him that someone with the last name Webster had lived in his home in the 1960s. The names Wayne, Lorna were listed — with a Michelle Webster having lived there as recently as the 1990s. 

Two women view world war 2 medals owned by their grandfather and great-grandfather Howard Webster.
Michelle Webster and her daughter Rowyn hold Pte. Webster's Second World War medals for the very first time. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

Kerry found a woman by the same name, just 20 minutes away in New Hamburg — Michelle Webster had purchased the house from her parents and sold it about seven years before the O'Briens purchased it. 

H.A. Webster was her grandfather.

Her father, Wayne Webster, was just a baby when Pte. Webster was killed in action in France. 

"My dad has since passed away. So when [Kerry] said, 'Do you know Wayne Webster?' And I'm like, 'Yep, that's my dad," said Michelle.

"I would think that my mom and dad knew they were here, and probably the box just fit in that little space. [The basement] was unfinished, especially in that area. So lots of two-by-fours, lots of little shelving that you could set things on."

Not knowing they were there herself, the little box of medals didn't make the move with her to her new home in New Hamburg, but she said she will reunite the set of five medals with a sixth she has at home.

She said she plans to put them all together with some old photos of her grandfather in a memorial display as a way of paying tribute to his time in the war and his sacrifice. 

When Krista and Kerry O'Brien began renovations on their home in Kitchener, Ont., they never expected to find war memorabilia tucked in the basement's walls. The discovery earlier this fall led to their journey to locate surviving family of the medals' owner: a soldier born Nov. 11, 1912, in Bury, Que.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Pavia

Reporter/Editor

Joe Pavia is a Reporter/Editor with CBC K-W 89.1 FM. He's normally heard weekdays on The Morning Edition but also covers a wide range of news and feature stories for both radio and web. If you have a story idea, email Joe at Joseph.Pavia@cbc.ca Follow him on twitter @PaviaJoe1964

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