With just 2 dozen left, light quickly fading on N.L.'s Second World War veterans

The collective energy of the thousands of men and women from this province who took part in the Second World War is rapidly fading, as the end of an era approaches.

More than 22,000 people served, either directly or indirectly, in the war effort of 1939-1945

Charlie Starkes is a Royal Navy veteran of the Second World War. The Mount Pearl resident turned 98 in May. According to research by CBC News and the Royal Canadian Legion, there are now an estimated two dozen living Second World War veterans in the province. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The collective energy of the thousands of men and women from Newfoundland and Labrador who took part in the Second World War is rapidly fading, as the end of an era approaches.

Research by CBC News and the Provincial Command of the Royal Canadian Legion reveals that roughly two dozen veterans of the 1939-45 global conflict are still alive, with 10 of them being cared for at the Caribou Memorial Veterans Pavilion in St. John's.

"When the last of the Second World War veterans pass away, it will be an emotional and sad day for the Pavilion's history," Eastern Health, who operates the facility, said in a statement.

They're all that remain of the estimated 22,000 who voluntarily enlisted in the British and Canadian forces, served in the merchant marine or the overseas forestry unit, or took up posts to protect their homeland.

More than 1,000 made the ultimate sacrifice during the war, but the years since have taken a much bigger toll on their ranks.

"I've been to most of the funerals. It is hard to walk and cry, too, at the same time," said Royal Navy veteran and Mount Pearl resident Charlie Starkes, 98.

See Terry Roberts's feature report on N.L.'s surviving veterans of the Second World War: 

The last of their number

3 years ago
Duration 8:40
There are only about two dozen surviving veterans of the Second World War in Newfoundland and Labrador, reports Terry Roberts.

Starkes served aboard the British aircraft carrier HMS Tracker during the war, escorting convoys across the Atlantic and into Russia, and took part in the invasion of German-occupied France in June 1944.

He's among the last of a generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who voluntarily enlisted for service after Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1939.

Jarring recollections

Some of his recollections of the conflict — particularly of D-Day — are jarring.

"That was the sad part. There were bodies everywhere, floating around. It took weeks to clean all that up," he said.

The man known fondly as 'Uncle' Johnny Pauls is a fixture at Branch 9 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Spaniard's Bay. Pauls, 96, is a Second World War veteran who served in the merchant marine. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

As of March 2019, Veterans Affairs Canada estimated the number of living Second World War and Korean War veterans in the province at 400, with just under 40,000 countrywide.

But since most Second World War veterans are now at least in their mid-90s, well beyond the life expectancy of a man and woman in Canada, that number shrinks each day.

In May, for example, Bob Grant, a well-known veteran of the 166 (Newfoundland) Field Regiment in Corner Brook, died just before his 101st birthday.

In March, Lloyd Seaward, who spent most of his life in Bishop's Falls, died at the age of 102. Seaward served in the Royal Navy and was held captive by the Japanese after his ship, HMS Exeter, was sunk in 1942.

'It's unfortunate, but it's life'

The reality is that in the not-too-distant future, the ranks of the living veterans will disappear.

"It's accelerating now. And that's to be expected. It's unfortunate, but it's life," said Frank Gogos, a historical researcher and author from St. John's who has been interviewing those who served in the Royal artillery units in order to preserve their stories.

Many legions, for example, no longer have any connection to a living Second World War veteran.

Branch 9 in Spaniard's Bay is one of the few that does, and its relationship with the man fondly known as "Uncle" Johnny Pauls, who turned 96 in March, is a special one.

"The legion would not function without him," said branch president Paul Sheppard. "He's still on the executive as a member. And we still listen to him because of all the experiences that he went through."

Royal Navy veteran Lloyd Seaward died in March at 102. Seaward spent most of his life in Bishop’s Falls and was the last known survivor of the HMS Exeter, sunk by the Japanese in March 1942. Seaward spent much of the war in captivity. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Pauls grew up in Fortune Bay and joined the merchant navy during the war. He served aboard ships that ferried desperately needed supplies to Europe and elsewhere and remembers being anchored off the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour when word spread that the Japanese had surrendered and the conflict was over.

"There was a big celebration going on uptown, I'm telling you," said Pauls.

Pauls continued to sail into devastated European ports after the war, but downplays his role.

"I was only on an old boat. Didn't mean much to me. Just an adventure, I suppose," he said.

Pauls lives just steps away from the legion and was sad that public health measures imposed during the ongoing global pandemic prevented him from making his daily visit to a building he regards as sacred — its walls covered in photographs and memorabilia of those who served.

For many years, Pauls and a friend have lifted two beers each at the legion bar every afternoon, and he looks forward to the day he can resume that tradition.

'Gives you something to think about'

He never gave much thought to the fact that so few of his comrades are still living.

"It gives you something to think about. There was ever so many in this area," he said, reflecting on the days he would travel to Bay Roberts and spend time with fellow veterans.

James Steele of St. John's served with the 59th (Newfoundland) Heavy Regiment of the Royal Artillery during the late stages of the Second World War. Steele is 95 and resides at the Tiffany Village retirement home. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

At Tiffany Village retirement home in St. John's, where about a dozen veterans were being cared for not long ago, just a half dozen remain.

When the CBC visited recently, just three — James Steele, Rod Deon and Elmo Baird — were well enough to don their uniforms and medals, and to reflect on the 75 years since the end of the war.

Steele, 95, went ashore at Normandy and fought with the 59th (Newfoundland) Heavy Regiment across Europe, before commanding a police station just outside Hamburg after hostilities ended.

Deon, who grew up in Nova Scotia and lived most of his life in Toronto, served with the Canadian Navy and remembers sinking German U-boats in the English Channel. He will be 99 on July 2.

Baird grew up in Twillingate, served two years in Scotland with the forestry unit, and later joined the Royal Air Force as a mechanic, serving throughout many areas of the Middle East.

Bearing witness

All three witnessed first-hand the death and destruction of war.

"The last few weeks of the war I was really terrified by going to the front," Steele recalled, his voice trailing off and his eyes drifting to the floor in front of him.

"I think about a lot of the friends I lost and left behind. You try not to dwell on it," said Baird, who marked his 100th birthday in March, at the height of the pandemic. 

"It sometimes makes me sad to think about it, all those dead bodies. Anyway, I'm lucky to be here, that's for sure," said Deon.

Rod Deon, who turns 99 on July 2, served with the Canadian navy during the Second World War. He lives at Tiffany Village retirement home in St. John's. Among the decorations on his chest is the Legion of Honour Medal, the highest decoration in France. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

When Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, it also meant an end to peace in Newfoundland, then essentially a country run by a commission of government and struggling with widespread poverty because of the Great Depression.

Just as they had in the First World War a generation before, they signed up by the thousands.

"Everybody was enlisting. Everybody was going. That was the thing to do," said Charlie Starkes.

Building the legion

The survivors came home to a country changed by the war, with widespread poverty replaced by economic prosperity and hope.

They were young men when Newfoundland became Canada's 10th province in '49, and many of them, including Pauls, helped build a network of legion branches throughout the province.

"Everybody that was president (of the Legion) I was here all that time," said Pauls, pointing to a collection of photos in the members' lounge.

But while they're venerated by society, time has caught up with them.

"It's disheartening to see that time is coming," said legionnaire Paul Sheppard.

"Twenty-five years ago, when you walked into the building, you could talk to the veterans. Now when you walk into the building, it's almost like a business."

 Gogos said the veterans are the last living connection we have to the ideological divide that led to the outbreak of war, and the millions of lives, both military and civilian, that were lost during the conflict.

That's unfortunate, he said, because when the last of these veterans pass away, there'll be no one to reflect on the sad realities of war, and he fears that detachment, he said, because "we have a tendency to repeat ourselves."

Upheaval in twilight years

With a pandemic sweeping the globe, the few survivors are once again living through massive social upheaval in their twilight years.

Charlie Starkes, for example, missed out on a commemorative trip to Russia this spring.

"He was looking forward to going to Russia and meeting up with Putin and the b'ys," said Charlie Starkes's son, Raymond.

Elmo Baird grew up in Twillingate before going to Scotland with the overseas forestry unit following the outbreak of the Second World War. After two years, he joined the Royal Air Force and served the remainder of the war as a mechanic. Baird turned 100 in March. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

They don't dwell on it, but the veterans know they're the last of a generation who paid an awful price for a better world, and a better Newfoundland and Labrador.

The cemeteries are full of their buddies, and soon enough, they'll join them.

"They're all gone. And I should be gone long ago," Baird said, satisfied that he has lived a full and long life.

How do they want to be remembered when they're gone?

"A decent person. That's all," said Baird. "And that I did my duty. I've got nothing to regret."

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Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at: